By Tim Francis Barry
Pakistani-born artist Huma Bhabha is still very much at the edge of edgy; Georgia O’Keeffe much less so.
Huma Bhabha: They Live at the ICA-BOSTON, through May 27.
The Beyond: Georgia O’Keeffe and Contemporary Art organized by Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art at the New Britain Museum of American Art, New Britain, CT, through June 2.
Four score and seven years from now, the paintings, drawings, and sculpture of Huma Bhabha may occupy the same place in the American culturescape as the works of Georgia O’Keefe: iconic, placid, meditative, familiar, safe. Images for posters in your bathroom. Happy colors, animal and flower forms on greeting cards and tote bags. An artistic corpus that rubs elbows with Grant Wood, Thomas Eakins, Cindy Sherman, and Andy Warhol: instantly recognizable, so much so that if it was ever subversive, jarring, threatening, or in questionable taste — well, that ship sailed a long time ago.
There’s not much danger, for now, of Bhabha looking harmless. This is a body of work that vents anger, employs caustic imagery, wears its political heart on its sleeve (sometimes to its detriment, more shortly), and jolts the viewer’s eye while also challenging staid sensibilities. The Pakistani-born artist is still very much at the edge of edgy.
In her current exhibition at the ICA-Boston, the artist’s sculptures, prints, drawings, and paintings raise Big Questions about art: What is Beauty and What is Truth. No answers, of course, but Bhabha offers plenty of fodder for thought and discussion.
A piece like Unnatural Histories (2012) employs a laundry list of materials both found (styrofoam, tire-tread) and traditional (clay, acrylic paint), to the point that it comes off as a summation of artistic practices over the past 75 years. The piece depicts a horrific tableaux — it looks like an outtake from a low-budget horror film rendered in 3-D. In many of her sculptures, or combines, there is an anthropomorphic bent, a sense of the humanoid, the monsterish. Could this be what is left of humans who are left to inhabit the earth after a bio-catastrophe?
One piece is built out of an armature, layers of wire mesh, and building blocks of rubble. Neatly interwoven in this construction are skeletal forms, rib cages, and drawings. Around the back of this multi-idea mash-up there’s a representational human form — an image of Man dealing with a nightmare.
Some of the artistic practices she brings into her creative mix resembles what’s found in contemporary art galleries: we see decomposing corpse-like forms that recall the installations of Ed Kienholz from the 1960s; the spectre of Joseph Beuys’ use of primitive, ragged materials is never far away. Wacky, disparate mixtures of forms and materials have found their way into well-known sculptures from Nancy Graves, Robert Rauschenberg, and Rachel Harrison (cited and shown in the excellent accompanying exhibition catalogue). Lesser-known works, such as Teresa Margolles’s plaster casts of autopsy corpses, are fellow travelers.
Still, at a time where originality is often shrugged off as a non-issue, Bhabha has come up with some radically fresh stuff. As the curator of the exhibition, Eva Respini, notes in an exhibition catalogue essay, “a sense of crudeness or incompleteness has become a defining feature of her oeuvre.” This strategy of leaving well-enough alone often serves Bhabha very well. Interestingly, in her studio process she has sometimes allowed happenstance to dictate her creations: Centaur (2000) is a styrofoam mannequin head on a chair, with a jacket draped over it. She notes that she put the jacket on the piece in the studio, liked how it looked …. and just left it there. Complete.
Her figures are “often intersex, multiethnic, and sometimes embody both animal and human forms,” notes the catalogue. And here is where it gets really fun. And horrifying. And unanswered. There’s a series of works on paper — as well as in some cases painted and collaged onto photographs — featuring totemic wolf-like faces that exude something of the satanic. There’s a beauty to these — in an exhibition that’s squarely Not About Beauty.
She “denies identity, race and religion in her work,” we learn, but Bhabha cannot ignore political commentary. And, to this viewer, when she climbs onto her soapbox the impact of her art is considerably lessened. Such is the case with the Untitled piece from 2005, which became famous when it was chosen for placement on the rooftop of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York a couple of years ago. It has its own gallery in the ICA show, doubtless because it is seen as a crowd-pleaser and worthy of singular consideration. Undeniably it is a show-stopper. It also falls into the category of what friend and fellow sculptor Sterling Ruby mentions in a catalogue conversation: “overdetermined and philosophical.” It depicts a praying or supplicating figure under a black vinyl body-bag-looking cover, with a trail of excrement protruding from the rear.
The explanation is that here Bhabha is “dealing with issues that are very large — good and evil, death, the effects of war and violence, and the landscape where all this transpires….” All well and good but, to this observer, the power that accrues from her more purely abstract works — suggestion rather depiction — is all the more stunning because it fails to announce itself.
It might be interesting to mount an exhibition of Huma Bhabha’s howling and shrieking multi-media works with Georgia O’Keeffe’s serene creations, which were considered radical and different in their day, a century or so ago. Maybe someday.
Right now, at the New Britain Museum of American Art, there’s an ambitious show of dozens of O’Keeffe’s paintings (mostly second and third-tier). These are juxtaposed with works by mostly little-known contemporary painters, which are said to riff on, be influenced by, or share formal characteristics with, O’Keeffe’s vision. These comparisons and contrasts are not supposed to show obvious affinities with O’Keeffe’s work. Neither are they supposed to “be like” the master’s work, but have some … unstated qualities or aspects that relate in some vague sense.
Therein lies the show’s problem: just what these other artists’ paintings exactly have to do with O’Keeffe is not made clear. In some cases, a case can be made: Wardell Milan (b. 1977) does flowers. Okay, check, flowers. And Sharona Eliassaf (b. 1980) does New York City skylines. Again, points scored.
But other works, such as something from the good new painter Tschabalala Self (b.1990), are here as well. Her 2017 painting Sugarfoot depicts the black female body as a sort of flying Venus, the creature’s genitalia as large as her head. Wonderful to see this challenging new work. But why?
It was also good to discover the work of Monica Kim Garza (b. 1988); her Painter’s Club (2016-2017) uses humor to great effect; two Asian nude women are seen painting. It comes off as a sort of a turn-the-tables on the primitives of Paul Gauguin.
On the one hand, any time dozens of O’Keeffe paintings can be examined up close, it’s a good day in the museum. But when it comes to putting over a concept, this exhibition falls short.
Tim Francis Barry studied English literature at Framingham State College and art history at the University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth. He has written for Take-It Magazine, The New Musical Express, The Noise, and The Boston Globe. He owns Tim’s Used Books, located in Provincetown and Northampton.