What to See in N.Y.C. Galleries in February


This week in Newly Reviewed, Travis Diehl covers John Knight’s institutional critiques in Chelsea, Peggy Chiang’s installation in the Lower East Side and Robert Roest’s divine visions in Chinatown.

Chelsea

Through March 2. Greene Naftali, 508 West 26th Street, Ground Floor, Manhattan; 212-463-7770, greenenaftaligallery.com.

The conceptual artist John Knight delights in a revelatory style of institutional critique. His pointed interventions in exhibition spaces aim to undermine the mystery of neutral art-viewing conditions or bring buried histories to the surface. Past work includes asking a gallery to remove its doors and painting a project space like the original parking garage it was built to be.

At Greene Naftali, he has had the track lighting in one room moved from the ceiling to the floor. You’re asked to ponder a piece of the gallery experience that you’re typically meant to ignore.

Knight’s work echoes that of Michael Asher, a conceptual artist famous for running daylong critiques with students at California Institute of the Arts and for elegant analytical moves, like having the Whitney Museum of American Art stay open for 72 hours straight. Where Asher was brainy and playful, Knight is puckish and punk.

In the Greene Naftali show, the spotlights shine in your face; the rails block your path. The lamps have been brought down to earth for your consideration, but your eyes find the ceiling, up the single stout cable connecting the lights to their power supply, to the tufts of exposed wiring marking the track’s old path. Maybe, too, you’ll be primed to notice how, in the front room, the track remains in place, weaving under the air ducts and pushing through a wall. A gesture like Knight’s is easier said than done, and you wonder how many electricians and art handlers it took to unscrew and re-screw all those lightbulbs.

Lower East Side

Through Feb. 24. Laurel Gitlen, 465 Grand Street, Suite 4C, Manhattan; 212-837-2854, laurelgitlen.com.

Peggy Chiang’s show “Wasted” consists of a single installation titled “Toss in the Asphalt,” devoted to a doting sculpture of the back of a New York City trash truck. Chiang fashioned the rearmost two feet of the vehicle from welded steel, paint, auto lights and reflective tape, based on photos, not specs.

The result, which rests on the ground, without wheels, is not a replica so much as a homage. The evident care put into this model — its aura of rust and scrapes, the arcs seemingly worn in the paint by the compactor’s action — invites reverence.

Clumps of brown leaves gather around the gallery’s heaters and corners, a bit meekly; there are no pigeon parts, no putrid fluids, the leaves don’t even rustle. The only motion is the twist of smoke rising from what looks like a lit cigarette, standing on its butt on a chunk of pavement, but it is actually a cigarette paper packed with incense.

Yes, it’s peaceful here. Mellow, meditative. An unlooked-for chance to appreciate the cycle of waste and consumption, death and life, the harmonious churn of the megalopolis. The low, distended drone rumbling from speakers tucked inside the sculpture is made from a recording of the classical music that Taiwanese garbage trucks play on their routes. The vaporous tones mix with the HVAC unit whining on a nearby roof. The general tussle of the city outside presses in on this shrine, where it is honored.

Chinatown

Through Feb. 25. Europa, 125 Division Street, Manhattan; 347-232-4897, europa.nyc.

Proof is a hazy concept in Robert Roest’s exhibition, duly titled “Eight Paintings Proving Angels Are Really Watching Over Us.” Each of the large canvases depicts a stunning cloudscape, dynamically backlit by the sun, where a central cottony cumulous happens to resemble an angel, spreading enrobed arms, bent in prayer, delivering a message or counting sins.

“Lelahel” directs a fluffy blessing leftward, while “Galgaliel” ascends irrevocably. (The paintings bear names of angels.) Religious imagery, whether gothic or kitsch, is a minor trend in downtown New York galleries. Here, the assertion that a cherubic clump of mist verifies the presence of demigods can only be taken as sarcasm. Like Jesus on toast or Mary on a drainpipe, what these pictures really prove is that people tend to see what they want to see.

The fact that these pictures are painted also complicates the artist’s claim. Supposedly, the paintings are based on photographs documenting these phenomena, but maybe they aren’t, and anyway, a painting is inadmissible as proof of anything.

Some of the details seem to be embellishments, like the blazing eyeholes in “Barael.” The artist’s strangest flourish is encasing the amber sunsets and cerulean skies, compressing thin strips of desert, fields and cities: trompe l’oeil renderings of the same window frame, repeated on each canvas, flaking and rusting in the same spots, as if maybe these divine visions all passed improbably before the same vista. This surreal constant transcends the angel gimmick. The show’s real joy is in the doubt it sows.

TriBeCa and Union Square

Through Feb. 17. Ortuzar Projects, 9 White Street, Manhattan; 212-257-0033, ortuzarprojects.com.

Gordon Robichaux, 41 Union Square West, Manhattan; 646-678-5532, gordonrobichaux.com.

Brian Buczak moved to New York from Detroit in 1976. He had already been corresponding with Ray Johnson, the celebrated mail artist, and once in the city he found his way to a number of other artists, most notably Geoffrey Hendricks, of Fluxus, who became his partner for the rest of his life. (Alice Neel painted them together.) Before dying of AIDS in 1987, just shy of his 33rd birthday, Buczak also made a tremendous number of paintings. This two-site exhibition, “Man Looks at the World,” is his first solo show in more than 30 years.

Buczak worked in several longstanding, sometimes obsessive series. At Ortuzar Projects, for example, is one small painting of lush, melting American flags that he repeated dozens of times. To judge from the whole double exhibition, though, he was at his best constructing eerie diptychs and triptychs of found imagery. Two boiled eggs in water glasses sit above a boy stretching a rubber band across his lips; a hammer smashing a glass bottle looms over another boy breaking the surface of a swimming pool.

The links may be conceptual, as in the buoyancy of eggs and rubber band, or visual, as when glass shards echo the short blue and white brushstrokes of the pool. Sometimes, particularly when the source material is pornographic, the connections are more occult. But what makes them all so interesting is the saturated, laborious, against-the-grain way Buczak painted — as well as his choice to paint in the first place, rather than assemble his heavily image-driven work with Xerox copies or photographs. You can feel him searching for something — meaning, clarity, peace, liberation — that never quite arrives. WILL HEINRICH

Upper East Side

Through Feb. 17. Craig Starr Gallery, 5 East 73rd Street, Manhattan, 212-570-1739, craigstarr.com

Edward Hopper as Puritan” is a compact exhibition devoted to a world-famous American painter that nonetheless looks remarkably fresh. For one thing, its display of nine works mostly from the 1920s — etchings, watercolors, charcoal drawings and a single painting — in a tiny gallery encourages a thrilling intimacy with the changes in Hopper’s mark-making and surfaces across mediums.

The show concentrates on the more austere side of his sensibility, which is most evident in his nonurban scenes. Houses, sailboats and the ocean are the main characters; humans, if present, are dwarfed.

The etchings give early signs of Hopper’s powers of observation and touch: Their varied textures verge on flamboyant. In “The Henry Ford,” a schooner’s towering sails evoke an immense white bird settling into its nest. In contrast, the watercolors of saltboxes or a Victorian house abstain from the dazzling effects this medium encourages. The charcoals — another Victorian and a boat on a wharf — are so strikingly solid and finished they might be graphite.

“Two Puritans” (1945), the oil, depicts a pair of white houses whose awkward volumes flatten primly toward the picture plane and exemplify Hopper’s careful rhyming of colors. Everything is pristinely flat except on four trees, which scramble several hues into a bark-like roughness.

In the catalog’s exceptional essay, Louis Shadwick, a British art historian, explores the social and racial implications of terms like Puritan and Anglo-Saxon, which early writers applied admiringly to Hopper’s art. Combining a meticulous presentation of evidence with something like psychoanalysis, he reveals far more layers of political meaning than are usually achieved these days. ROBERTA SMITH

Chelsea

Through Feb. 24. Anna Zorina Gallery, 532 West 24 Street, Manhattan; 212-243-2100, annazorinagallery.com.

Perhaps it is the colors — tones of a reddish brown almost the shade of mud, the palette of decorations on ancient Roman and Greek terra-cotta jars — that make the paintings instantly familiar, ancient, classical even. So it is a surprise to learn that the artist, Hunter Amos, is just 22. He is also new to New York and “Rough Hold,” his first solo show in the city, is a kind of introduction.

In 13 paintings, Amos situates his (usually male) figures in tight frames, with swirls of wavy paint crashing against rough stony surfaces. The shape of some of his oil paintings on concrete are cut with rough edges around and emulate the poses of the figures, creating an immense sense of confinement. It is as though the skins of his characters have been peeled off, revealing their inner workings, their veins and muscles stretched taut. Although the energy in these works is undeniable, it sometimes looks like the figures are trying to escape from their frames, or that their postures were forced upon them by the boundaries of the canvases.

Much of Amos’s work depict his own struggles. The practical struggle of breaking out of Byron Bay in his native Australia two years ago to make it in New York; the limits of the picture plane itself, and the philosophical battle between liberation and containment. Amos’s “Rough Hold” demonstrates a wisdom not often associated with beginners. This is an artist who has a lot to say and knows how he wants to say it. YINKA ELUJOBA

Chelsea

Through March 2. Silverlens, 505 West 24th Street, Manhattan; 646-449-9400, silverlensgalleries.com.

Even with its vibrant mishmash of visual cues edging toward a sensory overload, Wawi Navarroza’s “The Other Shore” is a surprisingly easy world to enter. These are self-portraits of an artist lush with cross-cultural objects signifying cities where she has lived such as Madrid, Istanbul and Manila, where she was born. Fruits, plants, flowers, and even cakes in works like “La Bruja (All the Places She’s Gone, Self-Portrait)” move the photographs from the eyes to the tongue, as if one could taste the pictures.

Yet amid the multicolored drapery and brightly patterned wallpapers that create layers of grandeur, there is a subtle tension in her somber manner. This sentiment is probably most potent in “The Heart is a Lonely Hunter/The Self-Portraitist (After Alcuáz, Self-Portrait).” It is a tender photograph, and the white drapes fall around her, like broken wings.

This is Navarroza’s first solo show in the United States, and features work made over the past five years. The exhibition marks a radical departure from her usually austere photographs, sometimes in monochrome, to an exploration of excess and color. It is also an emergence of sorts after a series of setbacks over the years, including a fire that burned her studio in Manila in 2016. But these images depict an artist still able to go at life and, more important, art, with a focused intensity and an intact sense of self while producing work that helps us reconsider what a celebration of polychrome and multiple cultures might look like. YINKA ELUJOBA

East Village

Through March 2. Karma, 188 East Second Street, Manhattan; (212) 390-8290; karmakarma.org.

Nathaniel Oliver’s first solo exhibition at Karma Gallery, “My Journey Was Long So Yours Could Be Shorter,” is a fantastical world where symbols operate like pins on a map, helping you find your way. It is quite an expansive map: water bodies recalling the wharf of his childhood home in Washington D.C. and the Middle Passage across the Atlantic; West African clothing and masks; and flora native to the Caribbean. There is also a crescent and a star, present in the flags of many Muslim countries.

These sometimes disparate motifs are made stronger by the layers and textures present in the works. In “Would You Believe Me If I Told You,” a flat green plant gives way to a shiny orange door frame, where a man is dressed in an intricately decorated blue shirt. He achieves the same effect with blue hues in “At What Cost, Do I Stay or Go,” where a stormy sea looms behind a curtain with white strips falling across it, like rain.

These representations, however, blend well with the artist’s predominant practice of working with darker tones of colors, and even when he chooses bright ones they seem to be dim, as if the lights were turned down. A palpable result of this is a haze in the paintings, making the figures almost dreamy, as if they were evoked from a myth. But, as the title of the show suggests, a people’s connection to their forebears is not merely the stuff of legends. For Black Americans it is a matter they contend with in everyday life, and the current rights they enjoy in this country were hard-earned by previous generations. In this way, Oliver’s homage, even when laced with fantasy, is entirely plausible. YINKA ELUJOBA

Midtown

Through Feb. 24. Marian Goodman Gallery, 24 West 57th Street, Manhattan; 212-977-7160, mariangoodman.com.

In 2022, the 78-year-old artist Dara Birnbaum had her first retrospective in the United States at the Hessel Museum of Art at Bard College. Visitors could see how groundbreaking her video art has been, particularly her appropriation and editing of footage from TV, film, and the internet to raise questions about gender and politics; her most famous work, from the 1970s, isolates and repeats clips of the actress Lynda Carter as Wonder Woman to create a wry critique.

If you missed that exhibition, Birnbaum’s current show, “Four Works: Accountability,” can serve as a mini-primer. It includes one of her most effective pieces, “Transmission Tower: Sentinel” (1992), a slanted television tower stacked with eight monitors. They mix footage from the 1988 National Student Convention and George H.W. Bush’s speech accepting the Republican presidential nomination the same year. Bush’s face cascades down, counteracted by rising images of students and punctuated by Allen Ginsberg chanting his quasi-absurdist antiwar poem “Hum Bom!” There’s no resolution, just art, activism and politics locked in an endless tangle — a situation with clarion resonances today.

Two other works, the video “Canon: Taking to the Streets” (1990) and the print series “Antenna/Fist” (1992/2018), examine the visuals of protest. But “Quiet Disaster” (1999) has lingered foremost in my mind. The installation comprises three circular images of cropped and blown-up anime characters in moments of fear. The woman in the center looks back over her shoulder, eyes wide and face scratched; as I stared at her, I got the eerie sense that the disaster she was fleeing was us. JILLIAN STEINHAUER

East Village

Through Feb. 24. March, 62–64 Avenue A, Manhattan; 917-355-1398, marchgallery.org.

Artists exist everywhere, including in places that critics like me rarely cover. It’s a gift, then, when someone brings a glimpse of another art scene to town. That’s the case with an intergenerational exhibition featuring 12 artists based in Atlanta, curated by Daniel Fuller. The title, “The sea swept the sandcastles away. (To wake up in Atlanta!),” alludes to the constant change and development of the city that these artists are working through and against.

The most imposing piece, Antonio Darden’s “S Tenebris” (2023), barely fits in the gallery. A wooden reproduction of a truck in Darden’s studio, it suggests both a spaciousness beyond New York and the confines of stereotypically macho Southern culture. The sculpture is covered in black cloth, which in a garage might look unassuming; here it evokes a shroud.

A current of spirituality runs through the exhibition, from the ghostly profiles in Lonnie Holley’s paintings on quilts to the stained glasslike quality of Hasani Sahlehe’s acrylic abstractions. It animates two of the show’s rightful centerpieces, bronze sculptures by the Atlanta elder statesman Curtis Patterson. Their curvaceous forms interlock like rhythmic puzzle pieces.

Patterson’s titles, “Hymn to Freedom” (2019) and “Ancestral Dance” (2020), complement María Korol’s wickedly surreal paintings of animals playing music and dancing. Dianna Settles brings a welcome anarchic edge to the revelry, with a painting that freezes a performance staged by her friends on the lawn of the High Museum. The players were in costume, the musicians live, the audience seated — all that was missing was the institution’s permission. JILLIAN STEINHAUER

NoHo

Through March 16. Eric Firestone, 40 Great Jones Street and 4 Great Jones Street, 646-998-3727, ericfirestonegallery.com.

Odes to tea, kung fu and fortune cookies, as well as sly responses to racism, sexism and negative stereotypes swirl through the works in “Godzilla: Echoes From the 1990s Asian American Arts Network,” a two-venue show featuring 39 artists. The title refers to the collective Godzilla: Asian American Arts Network, which was founded in New York in 1990 to support Asian American artists of different backgrounds.

The works here are from that era to the present. Martin Wong, perhaps the best-known member of the group, is shown with his “Bruce Lee Shrine” (1993), a crush of toy figures and religious curios, displayed in a small gilded shrine. Skowmon Hastanan’s “Victory of the Goddess” (2001) is a photo collage featuring a famous Thai model who appeared in Playboy magazine, while Emily Cheng’s more recent canvases use stupas — Buddhist ceremonial mounds — as models for her abstract canvases.

Many more good works are here, including paintings by Barbara Takenaga, Charles Yuen, Kim Anno, Byron Kim, Betty Kano and Uday Dhar that borrow Asian patterns and techniques; Stefani Mar’s wicked “Black Leather Tea Set” (1993); and China Blue’s eerie 2019 sound installation, made with NASA, that captures the sound of Saturn’s rings. While the earlier works tend to be more biting and ironic — like the group’s name — recent works show the enduring relevance of identity-based collectives, particularly at a time when, as Dhar says on his website, everything is called into question, like “who gets to call themselves American.” MARTHA SCHWENDENER

Queens

Through March 1. Museum of the Moving Image, 36-01 35th Avenue, Astoria, Queens; 718-777-6800, movingimage.org.

Every time the gap between homo sapiens and technology narrows — like now, with A.I. — humans panic. David Levine’s curious technological sculpture, “Dissolution” (2022), reminds us that we are not alone, historically, in feeling this way. Inspired by 1980s television shows and movies like “Tron” (1982), in which a hacker is sucked into the digital universe, and Max Headroom, a computer-generated TV personality who first appeared in 1985, Levine’s delirious, surrealistic work explores the overlap of humans with technology and ghosts in the machine.

To experience “Dissolution,” you enter a darkened space and stand in front of a waist-high pedestal displaying a 20-minute-long film in the form of a 3-D volumetric image generated by the Voxon VX1 apparatus. A jagged narrative unfolds, resembling modernist techniques of splicing together bits of writing, but also glitchy science fiction. Is it a dream? A video game? A woman’s voice recites “Full fathom five thy father lies” from “The Tempest”; there are references to museums and books as mazes and repositories for myth and knowledge and cryptocurrency as our new dematerialized form of value.

Simultaneously fun and chilling, the work is also old-fashioned in one basic way: It relies on that oldest of human technologies, narrative. Levine’s script twists and turns, returning to Shakespeare and nodding to Greek myths. What better way to describe our complicated relationship to emergent technologies and how they transform us? MARTHA SCHWENDENER

Upper East Side

Through March 2. White Cube, 1002 Madison Avenue, Manhattan, 212-750-4231, whitecube.com.

The best part of Theaster Gates’s first exhibition at the new White Cube space on the Upper East Side is not actually in the show; it’s not even an artwork. It’s a short video on the artist’s Instagram account depicting a man cramming hot, steaming materials into a piano and moaning “Hold Me, Hold Me, Hold Me,” which serves as the title for this show.

The resulting artwork — presumably, since it’s part of the same Instagram post — is “Sweet Sanctuary, Your Embrace” (2023), an upright piano doused in enamel and bitumen. It’s one of the better works in this collection of rather inert objects — bronze sculptures mimicking totems or giant vessels; stacks of Jet magazines; paintings made with bitumen — that borrow heavily from the vernaculars of installation, geometric abstraction and assemblage art.

Gates, who gained fame for his social practice initiatives involving urban planning, his ceramics (which were on view in his recent, excellent New Museum survey) and his lectures, which often turn into ad hoc performances, is displayed here in a bland corporate-atrium way. The crackling, critical energy and complicated histories of race, music and America that underpin the show are largely neutralized. But anything, as Gates has taught us before, can be reimagined: I’ve watched the video several times and I can imagine an exhibition with this video alone, projected in a white cube space. That would be enough. MARTHA SCHWENDENER

Upper East Side

Through March 9. Sprüth Magers, 22 East 80th Street, Manhattan, 917-722-2370 spruethmagers.com.

This, unbelievably, is the first New York gallery solo show of Astrid Klein, a conceptual artist whose work was a European complement to a group of American artists working in photography, film, video and performance that would become known as the Pictures Generation. Klein’s show at Sprüth Magers — which also represents feminist Pictures artists like Barbara Kruger, Louise Lawler and Jenny Holzer — serves as a brief but potent introduction.

The front gallery includes photomontages — Klein calls them “photoworks” — of female film stars and snippets of poetic text and Dada-style phrases. Typical of the post-Pop Art ’70s, the work highlights the juxtaposition of words and image — that is, captions and the information they convey (or hide) — as well as appropriating mass-media images. In the rear gallery are white paintings with silver rectangles that also include bits of abstract text. The paintings feel very much like coy responses to austere ’60s minimalism, which, of course, was as male-dominated as the world’s film studios.

It’s a curious experience to see Klein’s decades-old work now. On the one hand, the once-radical tactic of female artists highlighting women in the mass media doesn’t shock anymore: It’s been absorbed into the culture, thanks to artists like Klein. At the same time, in a complicated era of so-called Barbie feminism (one photowork shows Brigitte Bardot raised on her tiptoes, Barbie-style!), and reversals in reproductive rights legislation, these works feel right on time. MARTHA SCHWENDENER

\Queens

Through March 9. Mrs. gallery, 60-40 56th Drive, Queens; 347-841-6149, mrsgallery.com.

Many people spent the Covid-19 lockdown learning to cultivate sourdough starters. Nickola Pottinger was one of them, but in her case, the process produced more than just bread. Inspired by being in the kitchen, she started turning shredded pieces of paper into pulp. With her mother’s hand mixer, she transformed family documents into the material for her art.

Nine of Pottinger’s painted pulp sculptures are on view in the exhibition “like yuh neva lef’ yaad.” They look like they’re made from clay, but if you get close enough, you might see bits of paper showing through. It’s an apt metaphor for the way we carry the pieces of our lives — both lists and more profound things — with us.

The Jamaican-born, Brooklyn-raised Pottinger calls her creations “duppies,” a patois word for ghosts. (The title of the show is patois for, “Like I never left home.”) The works do have a spectral presence, partly because they’re too abstract and surreal to define: “Mumma” (2023) isn’t quite a complete figure of a woman; “ol’hige” (2023) might be a sphinx; “Alvernia prep school” (2023) is part sculpture, part furniture. Extra body parts abound: a second face or set of hands, casts of mouths and rows of teeth.

But the otherworldliness Pottinger is summoning isn’t about ghost stories or haunting so much as spirituality. Her works feel inhabited, whether by ancestors or mythical creatures. Arrayed carefully around the gallery, the duppies are guardians, keeping safe whomever they’re meant to protect. JILLIAN STEINHAUER

East Harlem

Through March 10. El Museo del Barrio, 1230 Fifth Avenue, Manhattan; 212-831-7272, elmuseo.org.

Piece for piece, El Museo del Barrio’s collection is like no other in this country. And as such, it’s a national treasure. My first taste of it was in 1994 in a triptych of exhibitions conceived by Susana Torruella Leval, then the museum’s visionary director. The shows were exquisite, though the financially strapped institution’s holdings were small at that time. In the three decades since, the collection has expanded and diversified, which is the upfront message delivered by “Something Beautiful: Reframing La Colección.”

Most of the artists, and some of the art — Nitza Tufiño’s 1972 painting “Taino Couple”; an ashen 1962 sculpture, “Children of Treblinka,” by Raphael Montañez Ortiz, the museum’s founder — are here. But much of what’s in the current two-part survey has arrived since.

How to organize such omnibus displays is always a question. Here, broad categories once favored — “spiritual art,” “popular art” — have been complicated in ways that reflect changes in social and political thinking, in redefinitions of Latino and Latin American as cultural identities, and in the museum’s developing view of itself, as an institution grounded in its East Harlem origins but reaching far beyond.

A wall of images celebrating political heroes includes a 1969 portrait of the Puerto Rican Independence leader Pedro Albizu Campos by the master printmaker Antonio Martorell, but also a 2012 video by Coco Fusco that casts a cold eye on the revolutionaries of a different island, Cuba. “Craft” here equally describes the artist Melba Carillo’s beaded tribute to the Yemaya, Afro-Cuban goddess of the sea, and the Chicana artist Consuelo Jimenez Underwood’s “Undocumented Tortilla Basket” woven from barbed wire. “Contemporary” equally applies to a 2019 Afro-Brazilian ritual sculpture by José Adário dos Santos and videos from the 1970s by the Conceptualist Jaime Davidovich (1936-2016), an Argentine transplant to New York City; a cache of his work came to the museum last year.

Davidovich was a pioneer of video work in the 1970s with a public access cable show, and his goal was to disrupt conventional art hierarchies and bring art to new audiences. He once described himself as one of a group of avant-garde artists “trying to get around the gatekeepers of culture by putting our work out there for public consumption for free.” The same description would fit many of the artists and much of the art in El Museo’s collection, and the still-maverick museum itself. HOLLAND COTTER

TriBeCa

Through Feb. 10. Institute for Studies on Latin American Art (ISLAA), 142 Franklin Street, Manhattan; islaa.org.

An exhibition and research space, the Institute for Studies on Latin American Art (ISLAA) recently moved from tight townhouse quarters on the Upper East Side to wide-open duplex digs in TriBeCa. And it is inaugurating its new home with two thematically linked but visually contrasting shows.

The larger, “Revisiting the Potosí Principle Archive: Histories of Art and Extraction,” on the ground floor, is a think-piece, experimental in format, as much about reading as looking. The installation resembles a cavernous seminar room, with a large central table set out with printed texts and surrounded by reproductions of historical paintings and several contemporary works. All of this illustrates a provocative thesis: that Western capitalism had roots in the land-destroying, life-destroying early Spanish colonial silver mining industry based in the Bolivian city of Potosí.

There’s much fibrous matter to chew on here, though the average gallerygoer will find quicker gratification in a smaller show downstairs. Titled “The Precious Life of a Liquid Heart,” and organized by ISLAA’s chief curator, Bernardo Mosqueira, it’s also about terrestrial endangerment — to water, in this case — but makes its points by suggesting the spiritual values that element carries in Latin America’s Indigenous and Afro-Atlantic cultures.

Hopefully, the artists in this quiet, tender show — Chonon Bensho, Nádia Taquary, Seba Calfuqueo, UÝRA and the collective Soi Noma — will be bringing those values our way again soon. And the work of one them, Carolina Caycedo, is with us now: Her ethereal fabric sculptures in the form of fishing nets are currently floating on high in MoMA’s atrium. HOLLAND COTTER

Chelsea

Through Feb. 10. Paula Cooper, 521 West 21st Street, Manhattan; 212-255-1105, paulacoopergallery.com.

A group show with as literal a premise as this one is always a gamble because it’s all too easy for the literal to slip into the superficial. What saves this one, even gives it a strange, fascinating energy, is the knotty tension of a subject, “books,” that doesn’t exactly translate into visual art.

Some artists make their materials fit by shoving them aside or cutting them up: Seung-taek Lee uses dismembered typewriter keys to print a hazy, black, ink-on-canvas cloud around an emptied book; Jane Benson carefully slices the letters “e” and “a” out of polyester pages; and Terry Adkins, building a memorial to John Brown, sticks an oversize Bible as a prop under a Crusader’s sword jammed into a cage full of wool.

The strongest pieces take the visual or conceptual qualities of books just as they are, like Sarah Charlesworth’s photo of an open blank book; Steve Wolfe’s meticulously painted replicas of “On the Road” and “120 Days of Sodom”; Theaster Gates’s “Nump,” a free-associative poem rendered as a series of gold-embossed book titles; and especially a 1994 Carl Andre piece, “The Birth of Knowledge,” which is a weathered Hebrew prayer book screwed into an old-fashioned wooden tennis racket frame. It’s a cunning way of highlighting the fact that books and conceptual artworks are, in fact, very similar: They’re both devices designed to bind together sheaves of disparate ideas. WILL HEINRICH





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