On ViewThe Journal Gallery
May 11 – June 23, 2013
Among the small and passionate subculture of mycophiles, it is well known that there is much joy to be found in methodically combing a damp forest in order to unearth rare fungi. In much the same way, art, like mushrooms, rarely lays bare its secrets. What it has to tell a viewer is usually found only by attuning one’s senses to it. This notion, of having to forage in order to discover, was the conceptual conceit in the recent lively group exhibition Mushroom Hunter at the Journal Gallery in Williamsburg. With varying degrees of success three artists, Chris Martin, Joanne Greenbaum, and Katharina Grosse, showed work that explored the very idea of exploring art.
Of the three, Martin is the one who seemed to have taken the theme most literally, while also having the most obvious fun with it. On a stretcher that nearly spanned the entire width of the gallery, his “Untitled” (2013), served as both a beginning and end bracket for the show. The 16-foot print on vinyl depicted a young woman in a red-striped shirt and long black skirt—one imagines she might be a turn-of-the-century fräulein, hunting chanterelles in the Black Forest—rooting through thickets as giant toadstools tower over her. Elsewhere, the artist—who has long made unconventional installation a part of his practice, in order to challenge viewers’ expectations of art—hung a small canvas up in the rafters near the lofted gallery’s ceiling. In order for this to work, the canvas itself must be bold enough to withstand its ends of the challenge. But the diminutive “King of Pop” (2004 – 2009), which featured the front page from the New York Daily News the day after Michael Jackson’s death, affixed to the canvas in a halo of thick, mottled paint, was hung so far from the viewer that it was nearly impossible to make out its surface. With no way to get any closer, it just seemed adrift, its installation a prank that fell on its face. Martin also hung another canvas, “Dead Mother Returns #17” (2013), on the building’s façade and this irregular placement was more effective. Though outside on the street might be a more obvious location, the painting nearly blended into the gallery’s graffiti-laden exterior. Realizing it was part of the show only upon exit provided a deft postscript.
Joanne Greenbaum also contributed one vibrant canvas to the mix, but it was her glazed, terracotta sculptures that provided a more introspective counterpoint to Martin’s breezier work. The seven small pieces, all untitled and all made between 2011 and 2013, were grouped together in the center of the gallery. This made for a resonant conversation between the works, though they felt disassociated from the rest of the exhibition as a result. Their isolation did, however, allow a viewer both space and time in which to dedicate to them careful attention. In the best of these, the organic forms rewarded the consideration, for the innocuous first impressions soon betrayed some perturbing underbellies. In a black and aquamarine piece from 2011, Greenbaum shaped the terracotta into a coral-like semblance that from other vantage points might appear to be a flower, an ear, or the haunted face of Edvard Munch’s “Scream.” In another, noodly tendrils of terracotta looping in and around themselves, and glazed in shades of red, orange, and yellow, resembled at first a sunburst before morphing into a disquieting tangle of intestines.
The quiet standouts of the exhibition, however, were the three large canvases by Katharina Grosse. Among the many energetic works making up the show, the group—all untitled and dating from the past two years—at first seemed deceptively understated. While leaving large swathes white, Grosse marked out specific areas to which she applied her paint by using paper pinned to her canvas, resulting in crisp edged, abstracted shapes once the paper was removed. It seemed as if the canvas had been slashed open in order to reveal a world of rich color hidden behind it. Grosse has both an eclectic palette and a masterful command of color. The electric blues, the briny greens, and earthen reds she brings to the canvas heightened all senses. Some seemed almost palpable; others invoked a strange desire to taste. From a distance Grosse’s paintings had an ethereal quality, but up close to the works, a hidden violence revealed itself. Around the edges of the islands of color, paint pooled thickly, like blood clotting around a wound. Pinpricked holes dotted each canvas, the actual wounds Grosse inflicted upon the surfaces in order to achieve their bewitching effects. Like much of the work featured in Mushroom Hunter, initial perception was not necessarily what it seemed, and that was precisely the point. If we insist on ignoring what’s below the surface, the truffles can never be uncovered.