New York Galleries: What to See Right Now

‘Memory Palaces’

Through Jan. 26. American Folk Art Museum, 2 Lincoln Square, Manhattan; 212-595-9533,

A catchall term for the work of self-taught artists isolated from the mainstream by poverty, mental disability or eccentricity, “outsider art” is more of a sociological phenomenon than a genre. But in “Memory Palaces: Inside the Collection of Audrey B. Heckler,” organized by Valérie Rousseau at the American Folk Art Museum, you do find a certain consistency.

Ms. Heckler, a trustee of the museum, began collecting around the time of New York’s first Outsider Art Fair, in 1993, and she’s assembled a comprehensive introduction to all the category’s varieties, from the inordinately expressive to the staggeringly obsessive; from the stark, primordial silhouettes of Bill Traylor to the exacting architectural drawings of Achilles G. Rizzoli; from Henry Darger’s uniquely majestic epic of little girls battling evil to George Widener’s endless numerology; from the Italian Carlo Zinelli’s neat parades of brightly colored little figures and houses to the Moravian Anna Zemankova’s pencil and embroidery undersea gardens.

In quantity, it can all start to feel a little flat. There’s an emotional inaccessibility that makes you feel like an outsider, too. And with about 160 works, from all over the world, the show can be hard to take in anyway, unless you quickly locate and fix your attention on a few favorites. My own would be a handful of sublime paintings and drawings by Thornton Dial Sr. and by Martín Ramírez, the Mexican rancher who spent half his life confined to midcentury American psychiatric institutions.

Dial, who grew up among sharecroppers in 1930s Alabama but experienced much of the acclaim his work deserved between middle age and his 2016 death, is famous for paintings and assemblage that seem to infuse the whole material world with the raw creative power of his own imagination. With ropy legs and ears that look like horns, the gouache and watercolor cat at the center of “Ladies Will Stand by Their Tigers,” from around 1990, could be a spider or an octopus. Two topless, wraithlike women are tucked under the legs of the tiger, his broad black mouth looking just like one of his stripes. It’s an entrancing vision of the boundary-dissolving power of sexual charisma.

A steel-blue train with dark windows snakes through a bloody trough in a large, untitled piece by Ramírez, from 1954, pasted together from four separate sheets of found paper using a mixture of cafeteria food and saliva. Tall, feather-shaped curves on either side of the train, colored with yellow and blue, create an eerie sense of floating motion. You feel as if you’re falling into a bottomless obsession, a state for which you have no name.


Heidi Jahnke

Through Nov. 10. Grifter, 75 East Broadway, Manhattan;

Built underneath the Manhattan Bridge, on the Chinatown side, is a little shopping mall that specializes in clothes and shoes on the ground floor and has three galleries, including Grifter, the tiny glass box showing Heidi Jahnke, upstairs. Her 12 small figurative paintings, tight close-ups on banal but subtly ambiguous scenes, are just fewer than half the canvases found in this Canadian artist’s studio when she died at age 36, by suicide, in 2015. One shows a grin crammed with almonds you might mistake for dirty gold teeth; in another, a woman who seems to be eating a tiny purple couch cushion is actually examining a jellyfish. The color is deliberately blotchy, and the drawing, with its tubular arms and fingers, has the unmistakable whiff of a Nickelodeon cartoon.

An insistence on the unassimilable weirdness of human life appears in all of them, and they all have the same diffident sense of humor, one that feels very much like a defense mechanism. But one painting, called “Eye Sweater,” which shows a preening male figure from neck to hips, also captures the magic and pathos of this kind of art making. Wearing a garment covered in big blue eyes, he becomes supernatural, wiser and more perceptive than his creator and permanently unblinking. But in the end, he isn’t real.


‘Beyond Geographies’

Through Nov. 17. BRIC, 647 Fulton Street, Brooklyn;

The eight artists in “Beyond Geographies: Contemporary Art and Muslim Experience” at BRIC all live in New York, but their work often refers to histories and traditions forged elsewhere. Created in partnership with “Muslims in Brooklyn,” an art and history project started in 2017 by the Brooklyn Historical Society — which is also showing Kameelah Janan Rasheed’s ambitious sound installation — “Beyond Geographies” aims to celebrate the large Muslim population in Brooklyn and also combat Islamophobia.

Laylah Amatullah Barrayn’s beautiful, moody color photographs documents how Sufi Muslims in Senegal are often treated as “Others,” and yet thousands of pilgrims flow through mosques and sites like one devoted to Cheikh Amadou Bamba, founder of the Mouride Sufi sect and the holy city of Touba. Asif Mian’s sewn-together carpets illustrate the hybrid or “double consciousness” (as the exhibition brochure describes it) of young, urban or marginalized Muslims, while Umber Majeed uses morphing computer animations to examine Pakistan’s patriarchal past.

One pitfall is a tendency by artists to lean heavily on earlier tactics and motifs, like Nsenga Knight’s geometric painting that quotes Sol LeWitt’s wall drawings or Mona Saeed Kamal’s sculpture with 1,001 paper boats. (Installations with large accretions of objects have lost their awesome and sublime power, for this critic, because of the overuse and abuse of this format.) What’s more effective is offering not just an alternative viewpoint, but a new structure — like Morehshin Allahyari’s video and 3D-printed resin sculpture of a pre-Islamic Middle Eastern “Jinn” (female genie), a figure that is so unfamiliar in New York that Ms. Allahyari may well have invented it.


Jessica Eaton

Through Nov. 30. Higher Pictures, 980 Madison Avenue, Manhattan; 212-249-6100,

Jessica Eaton’s abstract photographs are mesmerizing — a mash-up of Op Art and homage to artists like Josef Albers and Frank Stella. In “Iterations (III),” her exhibition at Higher Pictures, concentric squares of varying thicknesses and colors pulse and pop against monochrome backgrounds. They have a trippy visual rhythm.

Such compositions may look like relatively simple digital creations, but Ms. Eaton’s process is painstakingly analog and experimental. The squares in the works are wooden cubes that have been painted gray. To make each picture, Ms. Eaton photographs them repeatedly on a single sheet of film, shifting their position and adding and removing red, blue and green filters as she goes, guided by mathematical equations she developed. In this way, she creates the hues we see in the final prints within the camera.

Those colors can end up electrically bright, as in “cfaal 2306” (2019), or strangely muted, as in “cfaal 2269” (2019); in either case, the palette feels retro, in contrast to imagery that conjures visions of sci-fi portals. The cubes also become flattened in places, so that one picture plane can seem alternately two- and three-dimensional. Ms. Eaton exploits photography’s slippery relationship to reality by seeming to collapse time and space, reminding us that what we see is not always what it seems.


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