The “Ecology of Visibility,” curated by K.O. Nnamdie, was on view at anonymous Gallery from February 2 – March 1. The exhibition featured eight works by six contemporary American artists, including Puppies Puppies (aka Jade Olivo), Frank Benson, and Mary Manning. The single room of anonymous Gallery, concrete-floored and wood-ceilinged, feels like the white cube crossed with hushed zen—Nnamdie considered feng shui and heart and root chakras in his installations, and said he wanted the exhibition to be a “slow-burn psychic internal event.” At first pass, the eight works of “Ecology,” which span photo, text, and video, seemed sparse and dissimilar. But dwelling with them brought out linking themes: the evolving human-nature relation and the unnaturalness of socially prescribed identity, or, as Nnamdie put it in Interview, “the ecstatic act of refusing predetermined identities.” The works formed a strange, semi-comic circuit that warmly invites the viewer to reconsider what it might mean to act naturally and asks whether humans are bound to do otherwise.
Frank Benson’s “Human Statue Series” (2005-18) is a print of an installation of statues at the New Museum’s Sky Room. Benson created the uncanny sculptures, like cyborgian waxworks, using 3D models translated from photographs of his subjects. One bronze and acrylic statue from the series, “Castaway” (2018) — a life-sized, piratic figure with greyly cream skin and an inscrutable expression — crouched in the gallery. The figure’s nautical-picaresque outfit (a horseshoe-crab helmet over Poseidon-esque locks, leather pants and boots, suspenders, and a fishnet tank top) suggests him as a cipher for humanity gazing onto the rising waters of climate catastrophe. Stranded on a faraway shore, deranged, he seems a messenger from the frontlines of natural disaster, although he remains calm because it’s already too late. He grimly guards a barnacled bottle of laundry detergent, a token of nature reclaiming synthetic material from the commodity form.
Puppies Puppies (aka Jade Kuriki Olivo) occupied one wall of the gallery with “Woman With A Penis” (2021), the artist’s first work of the year and a coming-out that self-defines in the transgression of (socially defined) nature. The industrial block letters Puppies uses to spell out the titular provocation is an ironic nod to the text installations of Lawrence Weiner, an American conceptual artist most prominent in the 60s, whose namesake she teasingly puns. Weiner’s works were public spectacles, but “Woman” can only safely exist in the gallery space. And while Weiner’s works may give a whiff of dick-measuring exhibitionism, “Woman” poses a textual and symbolic (the “T” of “With” doubles as a phallus) challenge to the category of woman, daring it to claim “A Penis.”
According to the above-mentioned Interview story, Puppies Puppies was originally meant to exhibit “Pee Tea”—a sculpture containing urine, representing the pee-containers some trans women are forced to use due to the inaccessibility of public bathrooms. “Woman With A Penis” replaced “Pee Tea” and responded to its oppressive situation. Where “Pee Tea” commemorates coping on the margins, “Woman With A Penis” signifies oppositional affirmation, using language to make explicit what the ubiquitous sign of femaleness (the skirted stick figure on bathroom doors) implicitly excludes. Public bathrooms, as some of the last legally gendered spaces, reproduce cis-genders by sorting bodies by genitals, and “Woman With A Penis” interrupts that system by engraving a body beyond its binary.
Mary Manning’s “Nativity” and “Prospect Park” (2020) are twin collages of postcard-sized photographs set on dark green and brown mat board. Nnamdie said the two works are “brother and sister” and act as palo santo sticks in the space — anxiolytic mood pieces. In “Nativity,” blurs of daisies mingle with shots of a zoom hangout and the pocket of a floral-print shirt. In “Prospect Park,” flowing green plant-life triangulates with the red background of a steel column and a yellow sweater, making a primary-color garden that cross-fertilizes scraps of nature with slots of urban life.
Lutz Bacher’s “Untitled” (2010) is an hour-long, faceless video, the audio recording a tense interaction between the artist and her gallerist while the camera stares at the latter’s crotch. The work awkwardly exposes the gallerist-artist relation that otherwise remains invisible in the gallery space and allows the late Bacher, typically obscure and anonymous in her work, to disassociate from her identification as an artist by ironically framing her gallerist. I didn’t watch much of the video, and the work didn’t demand attention, content to emit a quiver of discomfort from its corner, like the obviously failing conversation at the fringes of a party. It slyly de-naturalizes the gallerist-artist dyad, making the professional relationships underlying its own exhibition feel creepy and forced, impersonal yet erotic, and suggesting that the behind-the-scenes transactions in the art world are no less under-the-waist than those in finance or politics.
“Ecology of Visibility” was a quietly enchanting and subversive intervention into notions of nature and identity and a generous effort by Nnamdie, who let the exhibition feel seriously reflective without turning academic. Nnamdie said the works are all self-portraits, but there is little sense of narcissism or ego among them. Rather, the works find the artists scoffing at the self and dissolving into the strangeness of their shifting natures and relations to others, rooting a child’s naive and perverse contact with the imagined world.