What to See in New York Art Galleries

Written by | Arts

In a sumptuous airy exhibition titled “Run Prayer, Run Café, Run Library,”Susan Cianciolo’s already generous art has become more so, opening out and rising up to an inviting new vibrancy of the architectural kind. The artist’s signature accumulations of small found objects, collages and improvised artworks, previously presented in boxes meant to be sifted through, are now part of more outgoing displays placed in houselike frameworks dedicated to the activities of the show’s title.

At “Run Café,” tapping a hotel-desk bell will bring you tea and something sweet to be consumed at a tiny table arrayed with a colorful cluster of small ceramic knickknacks. Tapestries hand-sewn from scraps of fabric cover the floors of these structures, where they sometimes join drawings by the artist’s daughter; other tapestries hang from the gallery’s walls, in one case incorporating sketches of garments for RUN, Ms. Cianciolo’s idiosyncratic fashion line. In a piece titled “Pray Circle,” another tapestry covers the floor while a chairs, arranged in a ring, function primarily as pedestals for drawings and collages.

Ms. Cianciolo’s work owes much to Robert Rauschenberg’s already loosely-structured Combines of the 1950s, built from found objects and images. But Ms. Cianciolo daringly forgoes most traditional building. Hers is primarily an art of arrangement, exquisitely precise for all its seeming casualness, and rarely less than challenging to conventional taste. She proposes an art as social and shared as it is experiential and aesthetic, immersing us in the fleeting beauty of this bountiful intersection.

In previous centuries, sailing ships carried conquistadors, colonists, migrants and slaves around Europe and the Americas. Traveling with them was soil filled with billions of seeds, used to balance the ships and dumped at ports to make room for more freight. Since 2002, the Brazilian artist Maria Thereza Alves has explored this phenomenon through a project that has appeared in several European port cities. Now “Seeds of Change: New York — A Botany of Colonization” is making its debut in the Americas, at the Vera List Center for Art and Politics at the New School.

At the center of the exhibition is an arrangement of live “ballast plants” bought from local gardening centers. On the walls are maps and texts describing how both ballast and slaves were dropped off in semisecret locations around New York to avoid tariffs, thus furthering the connection between human trafficking and uprooted nature. Although beautifully executed, the gallery exhibition is a bit boilerplate conceptualism: We read, we look, we feel bad about human behavior. (In other iterations, “Seeds of Change” has included more spectacular gestures, such as a garden on a barge in Bristol, England.)

Like much research-based art, however, Ms. Alves’s project involves elements that can’t be seen at a glance. For the New York version of “Seeds of Change,” she collaborated with horticulturalists and organizations such as Pioneer Works, the High Line and Weeksville Heritage Center, and organized a series of lectures and talks that extend the conversation and help us think about today’s migrant crisis or the microbes that travel with us on airplanes. In these formats, the art comes alive, connecting history vitally with the present.

Jessica Vaughn’s New York solo debut slices through Martos Gallery like a razor. A recent iteration of “After Willis,” her wall-mounted reclaiming of de-accessioned seats from the Chicago Transit Authority, which also appeared in a gallery group show earlier this year, serves as a kind of gentle introduction: Mass produced but individually worn, locked together by circumstance, with subtle but unmistakable civil rights resonance, they’re a social metaphor as well as a handsome variation on the ready-made.

But her six new pieces up this ante spectacularly. Rectangularly framed upholstery remnants, mounted on plexiglass, with irregular seat-shaped cutouts, they lie in a neat row dominating the room from the floor. “Untitled (Dark Blue), #2” is the fullest box and the most neatly cut out; “Boomer Blue No. 340 #2,” a lighter shade with a hideous pattern of orange swooshes, is frayed and full of gaps, like broken teeth; and “Pacific Grey No. 48306” is barely there.

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