New York Art Galleries: What to See Right Now

Alina Szapocznikow

Through Dec. 21. Hauser & Wirth, 32 East 69th Street, Manhattan; 212-794-4970,

The piece that opens the exhibition “To Exalt the Ephemeral: Alina Szapocznikow, 1962-1972,” Hauser & Wirth’s thorough and enthralling first show of the artist’s work since beginning to represent her estate last year, is an untitled plaster cast of her mouth. Rough edges frame the philtrum, chin and bits of cheek around her lips, and the piece rests on a spindly plaster stem that descends a couple of inches to a broader foot.

Born in Poland in 1926, Szapocznikow survived a concentration camp and made it to Paris after the war, only to die of breast cancer in 1973, just shy of her 47th birthday. She produced work in an arresting variety of mediums and registers: silly, surreal lamps; a famous series of photographs of chewed gum; cast-resin “tumors,” made after she was diagnosed; and heartbreakingly vulnerable self-portrait busts. Most of it centered on the paradox of the human body, that strange material form that stamps itself so heavily into the human spirit, and so the untitled plaster lips, which date to 1965, offer a perfect introduction.

Closed and slightly pursed, they suggest silence in the face of the unspeakable. You might think of the sexual parceling out of women’s bodies, or of the abattoirs of the Holocaust. (A 1962 plaster cast called “Noga,” or “leg,” also in the show, amplifies this sense: Even while capturing Szapocznikow’s petite build, it evokes a chicken thigh on a plate.) Separating the lips from their face serves to emphasize their function, reminding us that it’s not finally a body’s form, but what it does — speaking, crying, kissing — that counts.

Those chewing-gum photographs, 20 moody, black and white close-ups shot in 1971, get to the intimate connection between Szapocznikow’s humor and her pathos. Honeycombed with tooth marks and placed, just so, on a little ledge, the wads look like slugs, snails, newts, cocoons or even a toppled image of the Virgin Mary. It’s funny to think that a worthless piece of chewing gum could be more visually complex, and arguably more interesting to look at, than many an abstract sculpture, and heady to consider how many thousands of such detailed relics we’re casting off all the time. At the same time, it’s sobering to remember just how precarious a line divides the relics we treasure from those we treat like garbage.

You could also see Szapocznikow’s many changes of medium as a search for forms ambiguous enough to capture the sensation of passing time. The gum does that — even frozen in photographs, its shapes look transitional and impermanent. And a series of photographs embedded in resin, known as “Pamiątki,” or “Souvenirs,” does it, too. In one of a pair from 1967, the face of Szapocznikow’s friend, the fellow artist Christian Boltanski, is rolled up, just one more object to be stowed somewhere. In the other, an image of Twiggy, the actress and model, stands up as if on its own — but as it does, it buckles, and appears to melt. WILL HEINRICH

Nathalie Djurberg and Hans Berg

Through Dec. 20 at Tanya Bonakdar, 521 West 21st Street, Manhattan; 212-414-4144,

It’s rare that an art review serves as a trigger warning, but this one does. Similarly, a sign inside Nathalie Djurberg and Hans Berg’s exhibition “One Last Trip to The Underworld” at Tanya Bonakdar warns that the show contains graphic images: indications of rape, dismemberment and psychological distress rendered in Claymation, a form that is usually used in children’s movies and television shows.

The video “How to Slay a Dragon” (from 2019, as are all works in the show) is the most explicit, with women’s bodies dressed in silk, brocade or gold lamé being stripped by a series of beasts and monsters sporting claws, horns, tails, baring teeth and bulging eyes. A hot pink octopus devours a woman in a silver body suit in the video “One Last Trip to The Underworld,” while another woman reassembles herself (literally) in “Damaged Goods.” Sculptures throughout the gallery feature cartoonish birds attacking flowers in a pollinating process that is simultaneously natural and violent.

The works here are not pitch-perfect. The texts and electronic music accompanying the videos could be more sophisticated or finely tuned. The behavior and trauma represented, however, correct millenniums of art in which rape was made to look “sexy,” or otherwise diminished its impact on survivors. In this sense, Ms. Djurberg and Mr. Berg have succeeded in producing art that is devastating and necessary. MARTHA SCHWENDENER

Sonya Kelliher-Combs

Through Dec. 21 at Minus Space, 16 Main Street, Suite A, Brooklyn; 718-801-8095,

The panels in Sonya Kelliher-Combs’s “Credible” (2019) look as if they’ve been wounded. Circular marks made of human hair and red stitches bring a specter of violence to the surface. Each piece features a map fragment covered with a painted, muddied layer of acrylic polymer. The panels indicate the locations of the 35 Alaskan cities and villages where members of the Roman Catholic Church have been accused of abuse.

An artist of Iñupiaq and Athabascan descent, Ms. Kelliher-Combs was raised in a small town in Alaska. She draws on the traditions of these Native communities, whether through the form of a cuff in “Polar Bear Curl” (2017) — another piece in her exhibition “Mark” at Minus Space — or the incorporation of animal parts, such as a moose jaw, into her series “Remnants,” also represented here. Her artworks are delicate and visibly handmade, often suggesting care as well as loss. They become louder and more insistently expressive through repetition: “Polar Bear Curl” contains 34 variations on the same shape.

In “Credible,” the accumulation isn’t just formal; it’s informational, as Ms. Kelliher-Combs lists the towns and names of the accused alongside her panels. The decision is unusually explicit, but it doesn’t dilute the poetry of her images — it only makes them feel more urgent. JILLIAN STEINHAUER

Amy Brener

Through Dec. 20 at Jack Barrett Gallery, 173 Henry Street, Manhattan; 347-377-2764,

Amy Brener made “Omni-Kit (Eostra),” the 7-foot-tall winged column that presides over her striking New York solo debut, with urethane foam and resin, platinum silicone and Hydrocal. She dyed this modern ooze a vivid purple and violet, studded it with flower buds, blossoms and a variety of junk-store toiletries, and shaped it with Jell-O molds and decorative cake pans. Adding a heavy breastplate and a mysterious scalloped disc for a head, and sticking grayish lavender candles into the miniature Bundt-pan protrusions covering the column’s leg, she arrived at what looks like a cross between a Minoan idol and a central African power figure. Secreted among the candles are a few sleeping male faces — miniature replicas of a cast that Ms. Brener’s father, also a sculptor, took of himself before he died.

You could take all this as an elegy to the numberless lives and moments subsumed in the modern world’s tide of meaningless garbage. But if you’re willing to suppose that a Q-tip can be as pretty as a larkspur, you could take it instead as triumphant assertion that our garbage contains nothing but strands of individual meaning, in endless, renewable depth. WILL HEINRICH

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