3 Art Gallery Shows to See Right Now

David Goldblatt

Through March 27. Pace, 540 West 25th Street, Manhattan. 212 421-3292; pacegallery.com.

David Goldblatt, the important South African photographer who died in 2018, began documenting his society just as apartheid was hardening in the late 1950s. But rather than photographing protest and repression, he made images of South Africans simply living amid the absurd matrix of social control — built on pseudoscience, a distorted Calvinism and bureaucracy — with which the regime sought to enforce racial separation.

With access but empathy, Goldblatt photographed Afrikaner matrons, Indian shopkeepers, Black miners in the shafts, ripping from the earth the resources that fueled their oppression. He photographed the terrain — living rooms, concrete churches and precarious shacks, communities facing imminent death by forced removal, and the barren aftermath. Because his work was honest, it did not need to be “political” to have a politics.

“David Goldblatt: Strange Instrument,” at Pace Gallery, presents 45 images from the early 1960s to the late 1980s, in the black-and-white Goldblatt favored at that time. They touch on his major themes, forming an elegant introduction for new viewers. The show’s added value resides in the choices of Zanele Muholi, the photographer, self-described visual activist and Goldblatt mentee, who selected the works and grouped them into mostly pairs. The headings — “On Rest,” “On Position and Expression,” “On Women, Being Seen” — suggest undercurrents that Goldblatt himself, in looking at his own archive, might not have necessarily detected.

Muholi, born in 1972, Black, queer, became close to Goldblatt while studying at the Market Photo Workshop, which Goldblatt founded in Johannesburg. Even with apartheid gone, their positions in a country haunted by residual trauma and racked by inequality made their friendship an experiment, the learning flowing both ways. Muholi’s selections draw attention to Goldblatt’s privileges, but gently; to the contrast between Goldblatt’s detailed captions, so valuable for the historical record, and how many Black subjects remain unnamed; even, speculatively, to touches of gender fluidity. It is a pointed and loving exercise.

SIDDHARTHA MITTER

Ebecho Muslimova

Through May 23. The Drawing Center, 35 Wooster Street, Manhattan. 212-219-2166; drawingcenter.org.

For almost 10 years, the young Brooklyn artist Ebecho Muslimova has been putting a naked, obese alter-ego called Fatebe — “fat Ebe” — through every feat of exhibitionist excess she can think of. In “Scenes in the Sublevel,” a series of 10 specially commissioned portraits on door-size panels of Dibond aluminum, she’s bigger than ever and more exuberant, appearing in elaborate fantasy vistas set in the Drawing Center’s own basement.

In a pair of adjoining panels, Fatebe appears on two red sofas, swallowing one and having sex with the other. Another scene has her dragging puddles of urine down endless corridors and a third superimposes her on the rear end of a beautifully painted horse. Her eyes, as always, are egg shaped and innocent, and her own pony tail echoes the horse’s.

On her surface, Fatebe seems to suggest that women’s bodies, female sexuality and appetite in general are, at best, ridiculous. The fact that her escapades are set in the very room where the works are hung — look for drawings of the basement’s track lighting atop most of the panels — reminds you that the artist’s role these days is to bring some color to the staid white walls of New York’s art institutions, whether or not, like Muslimova, the artist in question happens to be an immigrant from the Russian republic of Dagestan. The drawings might even make you think that there’s something unhinged and sinful about the simple pleasures of bright color and sinuous line.

But because it’s all delivered with a pretty broad wink, you’re free to take it or leave it. You can think seriously about portrayals of women in American visual culture, the treatment of female artists and your own implication, as a visitor, in the structural problems of the art world. Or you can just look at the pictures and have fun.

WILL HEINRICH

John Feodorov

Through March 31. CUE Art Foundation, 137 West 25th Street, Manhattan. 212-206-3583; cueartfoundation.org.

John Feodorov’s exhibition, “Assimilations,” at CUE Art Foundation recounts what Native Americans lost, culturally, under European colonization: language, religion and history. His crude, faux-naïve and elegantly composed paintings are the best works in the show. Enlarged family photographs and an installation with a Bible translated into Navajo, juxtaposed with a recording of the artist’s mother and grandfather singing Navajo songs, add to the overall, devastating effect.

Painted canvases feature pitched-roof houses, blacktop roads and people forcibly disconnected from their ancestors, as well as collaged photographs and prints of tourist shops, Christian hymnals in Navajo and products like Spam — even a bird’s wing attached to one painting. The words “I Cannot Speak My Mother’s Language” (2018) are painted across the bottom of one canvas. “Living Beneath a White Rainbow” (2020) has an upside-down American flag.

The “Collectibles” series use the simple device of vintage family photographs — taken between the 1940s and 1980s — with text appropriated from advertisements that describe Native American culture in an objectified way. “You’ll marvel at the Indian style symbolism” reads “Collectibles #1” (2007), while “Collectibles #10” (2008) says “A superb work of art that will allow you to share a moment of great beauty and the Indian style spirit.”

This last one, of course, chronicles both the position of the Native American artist participating in the institutionalized art world and everyone else — but particularly the white European-American — gazing upon Indigenous objects and rituals. Feodorov, who grew up half Navajo (Diné) and half white in the suburbs of Los Angeles, occupies both positions, and his work effectively illuminates the difficulty of simultaneously trying to preserve tradition, and assimilate.

MARTHA SCHWENDENER

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