Vija Celmins, Blackboard Tableau #10, 2007–15. One found object and one made object: acrylic, alkyd oil, and pastel on wood, 10 x 12.5 x 11.5 in. Photo: © Vija Celmins, Courtesy Matthew Marks Gallery

“In Search of the Miraculous”

New York

The FLAG Art Foundation

“In Search of the Miraculous,” which describes the mindset of almost everyone on this planet over the past many, many months of seesawing anxiety, is the title of a thoroughly enjoyable, eclectic exhibition curated by Jonathan Rider, FLAG’s artistic director. While Rider offers an antidote of sorts to our collective trauma—we could all use a little magic—the title acquires an extra dash of poignancy in its homage to the conceptual artist Bas Jan Ader and his final project of the same name: the solo crossing of the Atlantic in a tiny pocket vessel, from which he never returned.

Rider has a wide-ranging imagination and store of (esoteric) knowledge, all of which is evident in this show exploring belief and the suspension of disbelief, and it is just as obvious that he is in love with objects and fascinated by their stories. Furthermore, he is keen to share that interest with viewers, offering, as one surprise, an extensive collection of ancient Egyptian scarab amulets belonging to Natacha Rambova, whose primary claim to fame was her brief marriage to silent screen heartthrob Rudolph Valentino. 

The exhibition (on view through January 15, 2022) features 20 artists of different generations, from the well known to those who are not or not yet, working across mediums and materials. Classic works include an image of Yves Klein swanning out a window, seemingly in defiance of gravity; an immaculate Wolfgang Laib milkstone in which the purity of white milk and marble mingle; and a pair of Vija Celmins’s slate boards, one actual, the other a meticulously made, identical twin. Betye Saar’s Dr. Damballa’s Ju Ju (1989) takes on new resonance as the rituals of the African diaspora are more widely acknowledged, understood, and appreciated. It’s wonderful to see prints from Paul Pfeiffer’s breakthrough series “24 Landscapes” (2000) in which he digitally erased Marilyn Monroe from photos taken just before her death, leaving only the image of an empty beach and sea. The neutrality of the technique seems to eradicate sentimentality, although a sense of loss remains as we note the footprints in the sand. There is also an unexpectedly emotional edge to THERE’S PLENTY MORE WHERE THESE CAME FROM (2008) by the brilliant and controversial Jimmie Durham, who died in November 2021, which puts the title claim in question. A miscellaneous assortment of objects from his studio—a kind of taxonomy of the throwaway and the disregarded—is mounted on panel with what seems a characteristic, skeptical, complex shrug.

While no pandemic puppies are present, small creatures are not ignored. Ceal Floyer, wry, interrogative, astringent, offers a whimsical mouse hole on a sheet of white paper. Set on the floor and propped against the wall, it provides, perhaps, an escape into a far, far better world for a furry refugee—or does fiction fail? And there is the pure pathos of a fallen owlet, by Jason Dodge, lying abandoned on a low white platform.

Hugh Hayden’s Zelig 3 (2014), a replica of a log whose surface is a trompe l’oeil triumph, is provocatively composed of peacock feathers simulating bark and mold. Chris Oh’s juxtaposition of modes of the precious is equally exquisite. Inserting the small, diademed head of the archangel Gabriel from Jan van Eyck’s Annunciation (c. 1434–36) into an amethyst geode, Oh demonstrates how the painted gems of the Flemish artist, who remains unrivaled in his depiction of brilliant jewels and the countless textures of the world, hold their own against reality. 

There should be something here to engage everyone. Other artists include Dario Robleto, Susan Collis, Jeppe Hein, and Jeffrey Vallance. Rider is a master juggler, tossing up a trove of treasures for our delectation—a deceptive lightness of being, at times weighted with intimations of mortality. I only wish that he had included the c. 1870 portrait of Mary Todd Lincoln taken by William K. Mumler, a spirit photographer, who claimed to have captured the ghost of Abraham Lincoln hovering about her, his hands on her shoulder. That would be a miracle.