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Fistfights, Chatty Cadaver Heads Show PS1 in Top Form

"Us Dead Talk Love" (2013) by Ed Atkins. The talking cadaver is part of Atkins's first U.S. solo show. Source: Cabinet Gallery, London/Isabella Bortolozzi Galerie, Berlin/MoMA PS1 via Bloomberg

     Jan. 24 (Bloomberg) -- After a two-year renovation, all of MoMA PS1’s major galleries are open to the public. And something suddenly is right with the place.

Half of its current shows could be mistaken for prom decorations, yet my recent visit marks the first time PS1 felt like a museum rather than a makeshift school carnival.

A maximalist with the sensibility of a miniaturist, Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt combines cellophane, aluminum foil, cheap holiday decorations, altars, angels, chalices and bleeding hearts with images of drag queens, fellatio, saints, Jesus and the Madonna and Child.

Rather than seeming blasphemous, however, in “Tender Love Among the Junk,” his dazzling mixed-media constructions, installations and collages come off as intimate, genuine confessions.

I’ve never cared much for Lanigan-Schmidt in small doses, where his Byzantine and gay references can clash. Seen here en masse, his gilded personal history -- a lavish assault spanning the years 1968 to 2005 -- rises above labels such as irony, irreverence and mere kitsch.

Decorative Art

Also falling on the decorative side are the exhibitions “Metahaven: Islands in the Cloud,” “Ed Atkins” and “Jeff Elrod: Nobody Sees Like Us,” an installation of bland, blurry, computer-based abstract paintings that made me dizzy.

“Metahaven” is devoted to the eccentric Amsterdam-based design team Vinca Kruk and Daniel van der Velden -- famous for their work with WikiLeaks. Uninspired, it veers toward illegibility.

Also off-key here is “Ed Atkins,” the British artist’s first U.S. solo show. Featuring eyeballs, curtains of human hair and the disembodied talking heads of male cadavers, Atkins’s monotonous video installations are too derivative of Tony Oursler’s oddball surrealism to hold their own.

Still, these shows convey the range of decorative, party-favor aesthetic.

Countering frivolity is “Now Dig This! Art and Black Los Angeles 1960-1980.” Originating at the Hammer Museum and now beautifully installed in Queens, the show is a rare chance to see the handmade dolls of John Outterbridge, the erotic, spider web-like “pantyhose pieces” of Senga Nengudi and Melvin Edwards’s welded-steel abstract sculptures.

Torture Machines

Cutting to the bone, Edwards’s industrial amalgamations suggest entrails, trophy heads, flayed bodies and machines of torture -- violent and dark transformations with a classical weight worthy at times of David Smith.

Complementing “Now Dig This!” is “Unnatural Histories,” a strong exhibition of the neo-primitive figurative sculpture of Pakistani-American artist Huma Bhabha.

Using such materials as clay, worn tires, twisted gutters, rusted grating, plastic, Styrofoam and animal bones, she creates altars, totems and deities that waver between modern garbage and ancient ruins.

The smell of burnt cork permeates the galleries, adding to the apocalyptic air, and two of her arresting bronze sculptures, a ghost and a god, greet you in PS1’s courtyard like ancient Egyptian figures.

Also compelling is “Cyprien Gaillard: The Crystal World.” The French artist’s celebrated documentary films depict soldiers, artifacts and ruins in Iraq and black-market footage of hundreds of men squaring off in a massive, organized fistfight.

Gaillard convinces with his camera footage, but less so with paintings, Polaroid snapshots and an installation of odd construction equipment fragments. Still, his show proves gradually unsettling.

“Now Dig This!” runs through Mar. 11; “Cyprien Gaillard runs through Mar. 18; “Ed Atkins,” “Jeff Elrod,” “Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt,” “Huma Bhabha” and “Metahaven” all continue through Apr. 1 at MoMA PS1, 22-25 Jackson Ave., Long Island City, Queens. Information: +1-718-784-2084; http://www.momaps1.org.

(Lance Esplund is U.S. art critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

Muse highlights include Jason Harper on cars and Rich Jaroslovsky on tech.

To contact the writer on the story: Lance Esplund, in New York, at lesplund@gmail.com.

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Manuela Hoelterhoff at mhoelterhoff@bloomberg.net.

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