Formal or strategic constraint can open unexpected networks of affinity. The delight of encountering unexpected commonalities between artworks is amplified by the tension of being bound into a framework. In this sense, P.P.O.W.’s jam-packed exhibition, Visual Notes for an Upside-Down World, curated by Jack McGrath, is wonderfully timed to dig into the rich seam of topsy-turvy madness at the heart of our present cultural and political moment.
Describing the show, McGrath cites Guy Debord’s observation that, “In a world that really has been turned on its head, truth is a moment of falsehood.” One suspects — painfully — that even the theorizer of the society of spectacle and the radical decay of consumer capitalism might be shocked at just how garish and gruesome that spectacle has become today: a superpower unable to look away as it tears itself apart from within, while a reality-show buffoon and thieving real-estate fraud steers the whole ship over the brink.
By engaging with “contraposition, rotation, or radical reversal,” McGrath argues, the wide swath of work on view deploys art history to offer “both warning and hope.” The span is certainly broad enough to suggest any range of possibilities — it brings together Hans Bellmer and Lousie Bourgeois, Jenny Holzer, Man Ray, Helmar Lerski, David Wojnarowicz, Jacolby Satterwhite, and Mona Hatoum, among many others. Such a range of artists and mediums can in fact feel like an onslaught; though all the work is solid, the excessively broad interpretation of “upside-down” becomes ultimately so oblique and subtle — so full of possible interpretations — that the central idea is diluted.
This can be both a strength and a weakness. Holzer’s “New Tilt” (2011) not only embodies her signature semantic destabilization, it forces the viewer’s body to engage with reading in an unnatural way. The glowing LED text scrolls up from the bottom of a stainless-steel housing, so the eye must find the exact speed at which to move in order to read each individual letter and process it in relation to those before and after, in order to form words and syntactic relations without everything becoming an illegible blur. This is both somatically challenging and disorienting (and even painful, if the viewer happens, hypothetically, to be slightly myopic and astigmatic and also refuses to wear glasses), made all the more so by the slight backward tilt of the piece. By contrast, Hans Haacke’s characteristically incisive “Star Gazing” (2004), in which a red-T-shirted figure is hooded in the stripes of the U.S. flag, is an obvious point of reference and evocative of the current mood (the Abu Ghraib prisoner torture scandal, etched in the public imagination by the image of a hooded man atop a box in a “stress position,” broke the same year), but the work’s connection to upside-downness is less clear, which dilutes its impact in the context of the show.
The surprising connections that emerge between visual inversion and a sense of the world turned on its head can yield different registers of affective response. If Haacke’s piece is vigorous and direct, and Jacolby Satterwhite’s video “Reifying Desire 3: The Immaculate Conception of Doubting Thomas” (2012) is immersive and seductive, Paul Mpagi Sepuya’s two “Mirror Study” works (2017) suggest a more modestly scaled, intimate melancholy: It shows a slender pair of arms reflected, from above and below, in a fragmented mirror. The pose suggests languor as well as fatalism, longing along with resignation.
Walking through this show, one is accompanied by a low but constant soundtrack of what sounds like a man moaning at irregular intervals (whether from pain or pleasure is impossible to tell). Eventually, one passes beneath Louise Bourgeoise’s 2005 sculpture “Femme,” an unsettling bronze-and-silver figure suspended from a corner of the gallery, and into a viewing room, where Carlos Motta’s “Inverted World” (2016) is playing. The nine-minute film is a staggeringly beautiful, frightening engagement with inversion that distills the exhibition’s concept and takes constraint to a dizzying visual extreme. Motta, with the bondage artists Stefano Laforge and Andrea Ropes (both bearded, tall, and tattooed, clad in classic BDSM black leather) meticulously performs an inversion in a 16th-century chapel. The camera lingers languorously on fingers tying careful, complicated knots; on the dust flecking the air as the ropes twist tighter; on Motta’s abdominal muscles as his diaphragms draws in and up towards his sometimes blindfolded face. The work was conceived as an homage to Caravaggio’s “Crucifixion of Saint Peter” (c. 1600), and it is a rigorous and beautiful one, not only in the chiaroscuro and the inky tones and vanishingly deep textures, but in the carnal, luscious, dangerous sensuality of the interacting bodies going about their work. St. Peter was crucified upside-down, out of humility to Christ, and this bodily subjugation merges beautifully with a BDSM aesthetic that suggests the total relinquishing of control of erotic asphyxiation. By drawing us in to this painstaking, transporting process, anchored in art historical iconography, Motta’s film immerses us fully in the fear and potential of an upside-down world, leaving us wishing there were a safe word for Trump’s America.
Visual Notes for an Upside-Down World continues at P.P.O.W. Gallery (535 W 22nd St., Chelsea) through August 18.