Through Sept. 25. Bridget Donahue, 99 Bowery, Manhattan; (646) 896-1368, bridgetdonahue.nyc
In a text accompanying Martine Syms’s exhibition “Loot Sweets,” the writer Alissa Bennett recounts Syms texting her photos from a Beverly Hills auction of “iconic treasures” that originally belonged to the singer Janet Jackson. “The body of Janet seemed evident everywhere in these pictures,” Bennett writes, “the full arc of her life indicated by an accumulation of personal property that had no value whatsoever outside of the violence of our desire.”
This is a perfect description of Syms’s show, which features videos and sculptures that are often cobbled together with packing boxes and tape. Syms’s own body is present here in a bronze cast of her hair weave, which retains the ghostly outline of her head and sits at the center of “Merch Table” (2021), an installation that simulates merchandise tables at concerts and book fairs. Her body is also present, in animated form, in the 15-minute video “DED” (2021), in which she “dies” multiple times in gruesome fashion, and comes back to life — while singing a song she composed and recorded.
Consumerism, possessions and what possesses us are at the center of these works, which echo the aesthetic of ’60s Funk sculpture and the assemblage artists Isa Genzken and Rachel Harrison. But the real subject, for me, is the Black body. Keywords in Bennett’s text stick out: property, value, desire and accumulation. Syms’s work pinpoints these in relation to the Black body in the American psyche, and its contradictory nature, from the revered status of Janet Jackson to the victims of police violence.
Oscar yi Hou
Through Sept. 26. James Fuentes, 55 Delancey Street, Manhattan, (212) 577-1201 jamesfuentes.com.
What sings out on encountering the paintings in Oscar yi Hou’s show “A sky-licker relation” is the artist’s clarity of vision amid the splash of oil paints, intricate motifs and spindly strokes that characterize each work.
See how harshly the colors are clashing. Or how the artist’s strokes mimic what might be the end results of painting with dry-erase marker pens on a hard surface. But these portraits are oil on canvas, and yi Hou is celebrating with great tenderness what it means to share space, memories, and to be seen in a contemporary, fast-paced, queer world.
Yet elements of several worlds collide in yi Hou’s work here, including graffiti-style signs from the streets of New York, where he moved to from England in 2017 to study at Columbia, and iconography following the tradition of Chinese calligraphy. Birds are also ubiquitous in his paintings; his given name in Chinese refers to a bird cry. And the show’s title is borrowed from the Martinican writer Aimé Césaire’s poem “Cahier d’un retour au pays natal” (“Return to My Native Land”).
Despite the myriad layers of symbols and meanings, yi Hou sustains a clear visual language while manipulating some realistic scenarios, making reality and fantasy present at the same time. Perhaps the best example is in “Self-portrait (21); or to steal oneself with a certain blue music, 2019,” in which the artist is seated with his hand on his chin. Reality: the blue shirt, the gold chain on his neck, the teapot and glass cups next to copies of the books “Cruising Utopia” and “Woman, Native, Other,” the plants, the fashionable belt drooping between his thighs. Fantasy: numbers placed at different spots in the picture, the birds with glowing red eyes, the halo around his head, flowers and seeds that, alongside beads, punctuate the room. All of these in a 62-by-44 frame. This is a painter who has many things to say, and is able to say them all at once.