What to See in N.Y.C. Galleries Right Now

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Want to see new art this weekend? Start with Reynaldo Rivera’s moody photographs of drag bars from the ’70s. Then view Genieve Figgis’s delightfully mordant paintings of gentry. Below are plenty more suggestions from our critics.

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downtown

Reynaldo Rivera

Through Nov. 21. Reena Spaulings Fine Art, 165 East Broadway, Manhattan. 212- 477-5006; reenaspaulings.com.

Born in Mexicali, Mexico, Reynaldo Rivera was in California as a teenager in the mid-1970s. There, working on fruit farms and in canneries, he found a camera and taught himself how to use it. He settled in Los Angeles and began photographing the local rock music scene, but found his most absorbing subject in the city’s drag bars, particularly those that drew a Latino audience.

“Kiss Me Deadly,” his New York solo debut at Reena Spaulings, is made up largely of black-and-white pictures of those bars and their performers: Miss Alex at the Silverlake Lounge; Melissa and Gaby at La Plaza, and Yoshi, the proprietor/star of Club Mugy’s. What distinguishes Rivera’s view of the performers is that he takes them seriously, lets them look as glamorous — as funny, gorgeous, too-much — as they wanted to be, and were. He’s not an outsider looking in, but an insider capturing a world he knows and loves.

It’s good that he did capture it, because the club life of that time — the 1980s and ’90s — is mostly gone. Gentrification, drugs and AIDS took it out. If you want to get a deep sense of it, I highly recommend a book of the artist’s work, simply titled “Reynaldo Rivera” and published in 2020. Edited by Hedi El Kholti and Lauren Mackler, it has many more pictures than in the show. It also includes valuable essays by Luis Bauz and Chris Kraus, and a lengthy email exchange between Rivera and the artist-performer Vaginal Davis, a vital veteran of the history that this photographer has preserved. HOLLAND COTTER

Uptown

Genieve Figgis

Through Dec. 11. Almine Rech, 39 East 78th Street, Manhattan. 212-804-8496; alminerech.com.

Forget the recent flurry of tell-all television shows and movies about the British royal family. All I need in the way of aristocrats are the paintings of the Irish artist Genieve Figgis. Royals are not the only subjects of Figgis’s decadently macabre paintings in “Immortal Reflection” — the title actually refers to the 18th-century French genre of libertine novels. Aristocrats and other fancy folk are well represented in this show, too.

The figures in Figgis’s paintings — and particularly their facial features — are drawn with Art Brut crudeness, highlighting their absurdity and ridiculousness. This is amplified by Figgis’s wet-on-wet technique with acrylic paint, which makes sections in her canvases look like Florentine paper, with swirling motifs, or caked and pocked plaster. The gals in “Queens” (2021) are bewigged and dressed in billowing gowns, while “Victorian People” (2021) portrays a tragicomical rogues’ gallery that is also reminiscent of a wonderful grid of drawn caricatures by the New York artist Robin Winters titled “Metropolitan Acquaintances,” from 1974.

Figgis’s paintings conjure artists like Francisco Goya, Karen Kilimnik, and Sofia Coppola, who also focused on unfortunate European royals, or the blistering social critiques of the Belgian Symbolist painter James Ensor, the contemporary British artist David Shrigley, and the television series “South Park.” Why bother showcasing aristocrats? Because they are extreme personages, endowed with extraordinary privilege but, particularly in recent decades, under intense scrutiny. With their wide range of pathos and relatability, they are perfect specimens for figurative painting and, in Figgis’s hands, commenting on the human condition in general. MARTHA SCHWENDENER

Downtown

Betsy Damon

Through Nov. 21. La MaMa Galleria, 47 Great Jones Street, Manhattan. 212-505-2476; lamama.org.

For the artist Betsy Damon, the 1970s were a time for rediscovery: During that decade, she found the feminist movement, left her husband and came out as a lesbian. She also began performing by covering herself in small bags filled with flour and painting her body and hair white, with blackened lips. She called herself the “7,000 Year Old Woman” (1977-78) and walked slowly in a spiral while cutting open the bags with scissors, symbolically freeing herself from the burdens of patriarchy.

Damon has been an eco-artist and activist since the 1990s. Her show “Betsy Damon — Passages: Rites and Rituals,” curated by Monika Fabijanska, spotlights her early feminist performances. Represented mostly by photographs and written recollections, they are radical relics of a time when many artists from oppressed groups were finding their voices through experimentation. Damon’s work seems almost like creative consciousness-raising. In “A Shrine for Everywoman” (1980-88), women were invited to write down their stories and place them in small bags, which were strung up like flags to demarcate a space of communion.

It can be hard to grasp the power of Damon’s pieces secondhand, but what comes through is her embrace of vulnerability and commitment to community. She opened herself up and challenged others to as well — and the photos suggest that she succeeded. One picture shows a group of people watching her performance “Blind Beggarwoman” (1979-80) on Wall Street. They seem to regard the art with skepticism but are also transfixed, a reluctant audience unwilling to look away. JILLIAN STEINHAUER

Downtown

Ron Gorchov

Through Dec. 18. Cheim & Read, 547 West 25th Street, Manhattan. 212-242-7727; cheimread.com.

“The Last Paintings, 2017-2020,” an exhibition of works by Ron Gorchov, who died last year in Brooklyn at the age of 90, allows us to consider not only his final years, but the life cycle of paint itself.

It flakes off his saddle-shaped pictures, like wall coatings peeling off after years in the rain and snow. Paint flows to the edges of each work after running along the length of a canvas — the artist’s markings of a natural, final rendering.

Abstract shapes (usually two and usually on opposite sides) interact within a colored field, as though they’re in an eternal journey toward each other. The colors are simple, agreeable, never more than three in each of the 11 paintings. The washed-out surfaces seem to signify a finishing that is less about perfection but more about endurance.

There are other signs of intentional imperfections: In “Close Call,” paint from the background drips into the boundaries of the foregrounded shapes, disrupting what would have been the expected layering. In some of the other paintings one does not need to look too closely to notice irregularities — outlines of former shapes are still visible on the canvas.

Although each painting is minimal in appearance, everything is present, and everything remains — it is as if each work has accumulated its own decay after aging, and recycled it to become once again part of the image. This is how, by collecting and embracing what seems broken and flaky, Gorchov is able to resist fading away. YINKA ELUJOBA

Downtown

Roy Ferdinand

Through Dec. 4. Andrew Edlin Gallery, 212 Bowery, Manhattan. 212-206-9723; edlingallery.com.

The artist Roy Ferdinand was a big deal in his hometown, New Orleans, where he showed with Barristers Gallery until his death, from cancer, at the age of 45 in 2004. He was also a favorite of the New York dealer Martina Batan. But the 28 shocking watercolor and marker drawings on display at Andrew Edlin constitute his first New York solo. Documenting an impoverished neighborhood at the height of the crack epidemic, Ferdinand filled the scenes he drew with malt liquor and automatic weapons. Young men pose with assault rifles while their elders panhandle or disconsolately wait for the bus; young women are generally depicted naked, and often pornographically, but sometimes they, too, pose with machine guns.

What’s really astonishing, though, is Ferdinand’s mastery of detail. He was self-taught, which you can see in the tilt many of his drawings exhibit and in a slightly obsessive fondness for shutters, clapboard and other such excuses for parallel lines. But one unforgettable drawing, just over 2 feet by 3 feet, contains a dozen vividly realized human characters, four of them lying dead of gunshot wounds and two, in prison uniforms, sneaking across a roof. There’s a sameness about the faces — most of them have an expression of resigned detachment, if not traumatized numbness, whether they’re shooting someone or being shot themselves. But there’s also an extraordinary variation in their details, a distinct individuality to his subjects that makes their shared fatalism all the more unnerving. WILL HEINRICH

Last Chance

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Gauri Gill

Through Nov. 13. James Cohan, 52 Walker Street, Manhattan. 212-714-9500; jamescohan.com.

The Delhi-based photographer Gauri Gill’s solo show in James Cohan’s new TriBeCa space is one of the most original and imaginative I’ve seen so far this season. It’s both contemplative and outgoing. Gill’s photography is often a collaborative enterprise, as is the case with two recent and continuing series excerpted in “A Time to Play: New Scenes from Acts of Appearance.

For the earlier one, “Field of Sight,” begun in 2013, she made large-scale, black-and-white photographs of barren-looking, low-horizon farmlands in the western Indian state of Maharashtra, not far from Mumbai. Rural life is also the setting for the series of large-format color photographs called “Acts of Appearance.” Gill’s collaborators here are a group of Maharashtra villagers who, traditionally, create masks that depict Hindu or tribal deities for a festival. But Gill asked the villagers to expand their repertory to include fabulous animals, birds and insects as well as mechanical forms: clocks, cellphones, computers. They then shot the villagers wearing their creations while participating in the drama they know best: daily life.

Photography, when introduced to India by Europeans in the 19th century, was a tool of control, with the colonial eye behind the lens, the passive Indian body in front of it. Here the transaction is changed, leveled. Photographer and subject meet on shared cultural ground; both are artists, and creativity flows both ways. HOLLAND COTTER

downtown

Lex Brown

Through Nov. 13. Deli Gallery, 36 White Street, Manhattan. 646-634-1997; deligallery.com.

You might not realize that Lex Brown’s new video is the centerpiece of her show “Defense Mechanisms,” given that it’s playing on an old TV set near the back of the space. But “Communication” (2021), which features the artist playing nine characters, forms an emotional and conceptual core from which the exhibition flows. By turns funny, absurd, and meditative, the video concerns a fictional tech company’s attempt to gentrify a city and displace residents by using “plot holes” — bombarding people with information so they’re no longer in control of their minds or actions. Sound familiar? “Communication” ends with a character rediscovering her inner voice — a process that, in Brown’s case, I imagine gave her the freedom to make the disparate work on view. JILLIAN STEINHAUER

downtown

Robin F. Williams

Through Nov. 13. PPOW, 392 Broadway, Manhattan. 212-647-1044; ppowgallery.com.

Robin F. Williams is a distractingly good painter. For several years, she’s been exploring the interplay of different textures and techniques, but the works in her exhibition “Out Lookers” take that inquiry to a new level. Each figure has its own surface quality, whether the reflective ethereality of the “Ghost in Labor” (2020), the marbleizing of the “Out Witch” (2020), or the stain-painted “Bechdel Yetis” (2020). The form is so captivating, it almost overwhelms the content: a series of supernatural female figures. Many have a playful, impish quality, and they seem to stand out at the same time that they blend in. Williams has made a practice of painting women who flout societal rules, but here the rules have changed. These creature-women inhabit a world that’s all their own. JILLIAN STEINHAUER

More to See

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Elizabeth Jaeger

Through Nov. 20. Jack Hanley Gallery, 177 Duane Street, Manhattan. 917-965-2337; jackhanley.com.

This ambitious young sculptor and ceramist presents here more than a dozen black ceramic ovoids — some as large as a cat bed, but most about the size of a Balthazar boule — that each have an aperture on top and small figures in their interior. Crane your neck over each, and you will find strange, often tender scenes of children sitting on benches, office workers hunched over their desks, or a horse asleep on its side. They’re like Pompeian dioramas, or maybe gladiatorial arenas, and each stands on a rickety artist-made plinth made of black-powdered wire, compounding their fragility. Yet one of the great delights of Jaeger’s art is that, as you gaze down at these fragile little creatures, your mastery and superiority start to give way to deep concern, as if you couldn’t bear to see them hurt. JASON FARAGO

downtown

Adrianne Rubenstein

Through Nov. 20. Broadway Gallery, 373 Broadway, Manhattan. 212-226-4001; broadwaygallery.nyc.

The paintings in Adrianne Rubenstein’s “Global Warmth and Global Cooling” are full of flowers, stars and food — from otherworldly broccoli to a flat red apple that could have been lifted from Eric Carle’s “The Very Hungry Caterpillar.” There’s also a ruby-red goldfish borrowed from Matisse and several references to Mollie Katzen, the cookbook author and artist. But loose brushwork and a gorgeous palette of sugary pastels that ease the way into deeper blacks and indigos mean that the pieces almost work as abstractions, too — pure expressions of art-historically inflected painterly innocence. WILL HEINRICH

downtown

Mitchell Charbonneau

Through Dec. 7. Off Paradise, 120 Walker Street, Manhattan. 212-388-9010; offparadise.com.

Distressing metal folding chairs with a sledgehammer is a young man’s game, and Mitchell Charbonneau, whose first show with this gallery includes more than a dozen such examples of abused furniture, is only 27. But the chairs, which are surprisingly expressive when grouped in pairs, like lovers, or uncanny towers, are actually cast, exactingly, in resin before being painted in muted office-work tones of beige, black or green. A few trompe-l’oeil Little Trees air fresheners, cast in bronze but painted to look as if they were just stolen from a taxi cab, add an entertaining accent to a promising debut. On your way downstairs, stop on the third floor, where Brittni Ann Harvey is showing beguiling collages and intriguing sculpture at the brand-new gallery Someday. WILL HEINRICH

downtown

Milford Graves

Through Jan. 8. Artists Space, 11 Cortlandt Alley, Manhattan. 212-226-3970; artistsspace.org.

Milford Graves was a percussionist who treated drumming as something more expansive than merely establishing a rhythm or tempo. Graves, who died this year, was also a botanist and herbalist, a professor at Bennington College, a cardiac technician, a visual artist. Percussion connected with the human heartbeat and the energy flowing through plants, and made its way into art objects, as you can see in “Fundamental Frequency” at Artists Space, easily one of the best shows in town right now.

Graves’s sculptures, assemblages and diagrammatic drawings are the most visually captivating. His “Yara Training Bag,” from around 1990, incorporates painted boxing gloves, punching bags, a samurai sword and an acupuncture model — elements from Yara, Graves’s invented martial art form. Other sculptures include gongs, tribal sculptures, medical and astronomical diagrams, videos and printouts of electrocardiogram readings.

This show follows a survey at the ICA Philadelphia (and an excellent documentary, “Milford Graves Full Mantis,” from 2018). The gallery handout includes Graves’s “Herbal Chart,” detailing the effects of various herbs on the human body. All these elements combined offer an excellent introduction to Graves’s remarkable practice and worldview, in which art, medicine, plants, human perception, the nervous system and the cosmos are all connected. MARTHA SCHWENDENER