In important ways the New York contemporary art world was a much bigger place three decades ago than it is today, not in size but in its thinking. For a few multiculturalist years our smaller, adventurous art spaces experimented with bringing spirituality into their premises, not just as an object of study but as an active practice, a way to think about what art is, or can be.
The first institutional solo show of the artist Edgar Calel, titled “B’alab’äj (Jaguar Stone),” is a reminder of this. Born in 1987 in Guatemala, where he lives and works, Calel is of Mayan Kaqchikel ancestry and that heritage shapes the character of his monumental SculptureCenter installation of raw earth, rough stone and fire in the form of burning candles. In appearance, the piece suggests an altar, a memorial, and mazelike garden. Its content interweaves cultural, political and personal histories.
Obliquely, poetically, Calel refers to Mayan views of the earth as a dynamic, responsive, sacred being. He offers a lament for an Indigenous people historically persecuted in their own land. And he presents a tribute to continuity in the form of family, his own. (Sections of molded soil spell out the syllable “tik,” the sound he remembers his grandmother making to call wild birds for feeding.) The resulting SculptureCenter piece, beautiful to see, isn’t a “religious” work in any narrow sense. It’s a spiritual charging-station, multipurpose, real. HOLLAND COTTER
Through July 22. Canada, 60 Lispenard Street, Manhattan, 212-925-4631. canadanewyork.com. Summer hours: Wednesday to Friday, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.
There’s found abstraction: Weathered posters hung in galleries by the Italian artist Mimmo Rotella; animal bones that were at the root of Henry Moore’s sculptures.
And there’s made abstraction: Almost all other abstract art, by the likes of Agnes Martin or Donald Judd.
But the works by the painter Denzil Hurley now on view at Canada seem to inhabit a new category we might call “made-found abstraction.”
Hurley’s objects are clearly made, from scratch.
“Orange Glyph,” for instance, presents a bright orange canvas that would live happily among the postwar monochromes of Yves Klein.
The piece titled “J2#1” involves an all-black oblong, about head-high, whose subtle mottling make it a dark counterpart to the all-white paintings of Robert Ryman.
But Hurley pushes beyond the customary “made-ness” of his abstractions by adding elements that produce a found, functional vibe. The canvas in “Orange Glyph” comes perched on top of a wooden stick that makes the whole ensemble look vaguely useful, like a protest sign soon to be lettered. “J2#1” is anchored in a crude block of lumber, as though waiting to have a marksman’s target stuck to it.
Hurley was a longtime art professor who died, age 72, in 2021; he knew his abstract antecedents by heart. He was also Black. I wonder if the “foundness” in his works captures a sense, widespread among Black artists, that mainstream culture never made those antecedents as fully available to him, or to any Black artist, as they might have been to white artists, who could access European art’s grand tradition without any question that they had a right to it. By making found abstractions, Hurley links his works to functional traditions that bypass fine art altogether. BLAKE GOPNIK
Through July 28. ACA Galleries, 529 West 20th Street, fifth floor, Manhattan; 212-206-8080, acagalleries.com. Summer hours: Tuesday-Friday, 11 a.m.-6 p.m.
As a progenitor of the style writing movement, the artist Phase 2 developed a visual language, that collided typographical deconstruction with the volatility of street life, advancing subway art’s urgent scrawl into a dense cosmology of form. This five-decade survey of his work includes 25 examples across paper, canvas, and aluminum engravings and still only glances at the magnitude of his contributions to hip-hop culture. (He was an accomplished dancer, improving upon the breaking and uprock styles and assembling the B-boy crew New York City Breakers, as well as a graphic designer, developing the geometric cut-and-paste aesthetic he called “Funky Nous Deco” for party fliers that popularized the foundational music of the period).
But his voice was clearest in paint. Credited with inventing the bubble letter technique — known as “softies” for their inflated, pillowy look, and later, accelerating the “wildstyle” evolution, a kinetic, labyrinthine expressionism that traded legibility for propulsiveness, Phase 2 embraced a totalizing vision of aerosol art. He rejected the “G word” (meaning graffiti), its insufficiency he likened to “calling a meteor a pebble.”
The show charts his progression into increasingly florid work — near-cryptic symbology woven into baroque, calligraphic abstraction, which he made nearly until his death in 2019. That restlessness is evident in the insistence of his line, as in “Hieroglyphs” (1987): fluid, continuous, without a discernible end point. As he explained of his nom de plume, in typically oracular fashion: “One is a beginning and two is the next step. Two is forever.” MAX LAKIN
Cosima von Bonin
Through July 21. Petzel Gallery, 520 West 25th Street, Manhattan; 212-680-9467, petzel.com. Summer hours: Monday-Friday, 10 a.m.-6 p.m.
Presiding over Cosima von Bonin’s “Church of Daffy,” an eclectic congregation of sculptures and wall works, a dark gray statue of the titular duck raises his arms to his god — a gesture of supplication, or resignation. Or maybe thanks: nearby, a soft trash can overflows with stuffed Bugs Bunny dolls, a mess of furry feet and gloved hands. Von Bonin’s deadpan displays of cartoon characters evoke their bundles of exaggerated traits. In this cosmology, Daffy’s venal impulses and commendable persistence force him into a pointless, unwinnable rivalry with a happy-go-lucky hare. The duck is rigid and alone, while the bunny is pliable, containing multitudes.
The Daffy statue stands in the corner of a low, rectangular pedestal, a webbed toe overhanging the edge. A lobster-shaped mirror on the wall, claws up, mimics Daffy’s stance. Moving around the room, you can fit Daffy’s reflection into the silver shellfish. “The Lobster” takes the show into the realm of high-polish pop. It’s not praying — that’s just how lobsters are made — it has no choice. This tableau plays out in the first, smaller room. A larger gallery is given over to embroidered plaid-and-felt fabric wall works stitched with cartoon characters, Daffy and Eeyore and Bambi, and phrases like “le snobisme de l’argent.” They play at being paintings, with the secondhand cool of a fashion show. A plush velvet fence makes a slouching corral in the middle of the room. Von Bonin’s cartoon materials are soft and floppy, but their slapstick morality can still be confining. TRAVIS DIEHL