“Elsewhere,” the four-person show currently on exhibit at Ulterior Gallery, a space on the Lower East Side run by Takako Tanabe, concerns the experience of dislocation. In this case, three of the four artists come from outside America: Keren Benbenisty was born in Israel; George Bolster was born in Ireland; and Gaku Tsutaja was born in Japan (Susannah Mira was born in San Francisco). All of the artists work in New York except for Mira, who lives and works in Texas. Their experiences outside New York, as well as their lives in contact with the city, have made them particularly sensitive to issues of displacement. Moreover, the artistic life of New York has become so international as to do away with our sense of the metropolis belonging to the United States. Indeed, the city’s internationalism has come close to becoming a cliché–hundreds of languages are spoken in Queens. New York is a permanent elsewhere.
While all this diversity is not without excitement, at the same time, strangely and unexpectedly, it presents a cultural dead end or at least a diminishment of experience. There is little solid ground, attached to a single culture, we can stand on. There was a time, roughly a generation ago, when artists actively pointed out the preponderance of signs indicating a world outlook; globalism in art had not yet been repeated to the point of meaninglessness. Now, unfortunately, we take it for granted, although the feeling of dislocation remains with many people–even those who have chosen to live here for years. Indeed, we have made something of a cult of difference, to the point where earlier, native cultural standards and mores remain more powerful than the circumstances of our current lives. The artists in this show do not address the problem directly; they are too subtle for that. But they do convey a sense of distance and unease that is not merely chosen, but rather a result of the curious, impartial indifference of New York, whose ambience can easily feel cold.
Benbenisty’s large collage, This Is the Color of My Dreams (2015), encompasses a printed backdrop of Prussian blue, along with pieces of mandarin oranges, arranged in small groups across the width of the composition. The names of the 113 tones of synthetic blues used in the work are highly lyric–”Sailor’s Eyes” and “Paradiso” among them. Listed beneath the image, they connect with the idea of countries existing on an imaginary map. The mandarin orange pieces are linked to a line by the French surrealist poet Paul Eluard, translated into English as “The earth is as blue as an orange.” By displaying the oranges, Benbenisty is addressing a powerful French poem and tying it to the notion of a state or country. One doesn’t know which country exactly the artist is referring to, but the idea of connecting to a homeland–Israel, in the artist’s case–dies hard despite her time in New York. At the same time, the title of the collage refers to a painting by Miró, thus establishing it within the Western modernist continuum of painting.
George Bolster’s two graphite-on-paper works come from a two-year residency at SETI (Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence Institute). The drawings have extended titles: Proposition 1: Moon Museum of Architecture featuring The Glass House by Phillip Johnson (2017) and Proposition 2: Museum of 20th Century Art: Interior with Rabbit (1986) by Jeff Koons (2018). They reflect the artist’s idea, evident in films he made on the subject, that space exploration might be used to extend the preservation of an artistic legacy. Both images establish the artworks mentioned in the titles within a geodesic dome, designed by Buckminster Fuller. The dome frames two other very famous works of art–Johnson’s glass home from the previous century and Koons’s rabbit, seen as a major work from our own time. These meticulously created drawings serve as memory documents of art that will likely be with us for a good while; Bolster proposes the moon as the perfect place to preserve these works of art. It is a strange idea, but perhaps a feasible one, made more possible by the artist’s remarkable skill as a draftsman depicting the works by Johnson and Koons in space.
Mira’s Land Grab (2017), a small collage on paper images the title exactly: a hand grabs land in a demonstration of what must be an appropriation of property, inevitably resulting in an “elsewhere” for her audience. Because the artist is not specifying the action, or naming the land being grabbed, it becomes clear that the art is meant to establish an allegorical presence, in which morality is illustrated without being concretely defined. Hand in Hyperion (2017), another collage on paper, shows another image in which a hand and clothed forearm, suspended in darkened space, hangover what looks like a blue mountain top rising through the clouds. Given the title, this is an elsewhere that may well origin in Greek mythology, which has a tale about Hyperion as one of the twelve Titans–children of Uranus who overthrew him. But here the image seems more abstract: the triumph of human power over nature. Whatever the specificity of the circumstances Mira is referring to, we can see that both pictures reflect the intransigence of power–and its ability to create another place at a distance from our own surroundings. The lesson is worth keeping in mind.
The last artist to be mentioned, Tsutaja, has done a series of ink and gouache drawings that detail a narrative, I Heart Frogs Croaking Last Night: Chapter 1 and Chapter 2 (2016). The drawings detail a story in which a person finds himself in a strange and alienating world. A boy lies next to a vertical shaft established with rounded stones; hands grasp one another in a strange manner; eccentric landscapes, rendered in black-and-white, build an atmosphere of psychic denial and apocalyptic disturbance. Tsutaja’s technical skill is evidently accomplished here; and she makes use of the Japanese manga tradition to communicate a mostly black-and-white vision in which nothing seems to happen but whose atmosphere induces remarkable fear. In fact, the story is obscure; no wall texts explain the narrative. But the unease in these seemingly simple drawings is compelling, and although it cannot be said that the narrative exists in a city, at the same time it is clear that the psychic trouble we experience belongs to contemporary life–which these days increasingly exists within large urban centers. One of the most important, and bemusing, aspects of these works is their ability to pose visual puzzles made more intriguing by the specificity of the imagery. Tsutaja knows quite well that her lack of an explanation that would join one image to another–the images are set in horizontal rows–is a stratagem meant to endow her story with mystery–and also unease.
Looking at the works of the four artists, we can see how coming from or living elsewhere carries with it a degree of confusion. Everyone in America is an immigrant or a refugee, but the comfort of our conditions here is no longer as well-established as it used to be. These artists may–or may not–be living on the edge; their imageries do, however, convey deep concern about conditions they may no longer be involved with. It is true art can only go so far to rectify the fragility of our response to circumstances we are not familiar with. Sometimes, in the show, the circumstances themselves have been made unreal by the imaginations of the artists creating them. This unreality lies at the base of the show, which brilliantly experiments with the unseen but real distortions occurring in our current life and art. We are lucky that the work is so well made, and the insights are so intelligently brought to bear on an intractable contemporary problem.