Challenging Aesthetics

The Hustle Never Stops in Lagos (Mumbai, Mexico City, Dhaka, Manila, Sao Paolo et. al.). At the Contemporary Arts Forum's Norton Gallery. Shows through April 15.

From File

“It’s really important for an artist to look out, look in, look out, look in,” said Xaviera Simmons, a New York-based artist whose work is currently on display at the Contemporary Arts Forum. Part art photography exhibition, part installation, and part study space, the show exemplifies Simmons’s interest in shifting perspectives-personal and universal, theoretical and experiential, popular and rarefied.

Simmons has devoted two walls of the small rectangular gallery space to her photographs, while a single narrow bookshelf spans a third. Tomes on Vermeer, Picasso, and the Hudson River painters are mixed in among standards of postmodernism, critical theory, and social and cultural commentary. In a corner, a television plays bootleg video footage of an X-rated dance party. Stacks of National Geographic magazines line the floor of the fourth wall.

A deejay from Queens who went to boarding school in Connecticut, retraced the slave trade route on foot with Buddhist monks, and studied photography at Bard College, Simmons is influenced by the concept of relational aesthetics, which she interprets simply as art that combines a concern with beauty with “getting people to come together.” To that end, she is inviting the public to hold meetings in the gallery space. Those who take her up on the offer will find themselves surrounded by a concise yet dense collage of materials, some of which affront as much as they appeal.

Tacked to one wall is a series of photographs taken in Queens, where Simmons set up a studio and offered free portraits to passersby. Like children in school pictures, the subjects are at once self-consciously posed and candidly naive.

In contrast are the glossy, color-saturated, framed photographs on the adjacent wall, some of which feature the artist as performer. Children splashing in a backyard kiddie pool, men grappling in an overgrown field, and a woman soaking up sun in an apple orchard appear like actors on a stage. The aforementioned video verges on the pornographic and casts into question the exhibition as a whole. What is art? Where do we place ourselves in relation to this dazzlingly divergent array of information?

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