Feature

Exhibit of the week: Pawel Althamer: The Neighbors

America is just waking up to the “visually and intellectually stimulating” work of the Polish artist Pawel Althamer.

New Museum of Contemporary Art, New York CityThrough April 13

America is just waking up to the “visually and intellectually stimulating” work of the Polish artist Pawel Althamer, said Lee Rosenbaum in ArtsJournal.com. Born in Warsaw in 1967, Althamer made a splash at last year’s Venice Biennale when he filled a gallery with dozens of nearly life-size figures whose faces were cast from those of strangers he’d met on the city’s streets. The sculptures’ bodies were skeletal assemblages of cast plastic and extruded plastic ribbons, though, and strolling among these gray wraiths linked viewers to the city in a new way. Althamer “uses art not only to depict communities but also to create them,” said Diane Solway in W magazine. The full range of his work can’t be displayed in one place, even in the artist’s first U.S. museum survey, which fills three floors of the New Museum in New York: He’s been known to outfit his Warsaw neighbors in gold space suits to create fleeting performance art. Clearly, though, “collaboration is at the core of the undertaking.”

Draftsmen’s Congress, on the museum’s fourth floor, even tests the limits of visitors’ civility, said Jessica Dawson in TheDailyBeast.com. Viewers are invited to paint or draw whatever they want on the gallery’s walls and floor and a 10-foot-tall cotton tent. When Althamer attempted a similar project in Berlin two years ago, the setup “made for heated moments,” especially when one participant painted a swastika and another quickly inked it over. But Draftsmen’s Congress might be this show’s least interesting work, said Mostafa Heddaya in Hyperallergic.com. In the galleries below it, the piped-in music is being provided by street musicians hired by Althamer to perform in the museum’s lobby. But the sculptures are distinctly the artist’s own: a 1993 nude self-portrait made from vegetable fiber soaked in wax and a nearby rendering of his young daughter wielding a stick. That figure’s head and face incorporate an actual human skull.

His intended destination each time seems to be “beyond self, beyond country, beyond the conventional limits of art,” said Holland Cotter in The New York Times. One of his most striking works is a series of videos that show him babbling as he imbibes LSD, undergoes hypnosis, and otherwise tries to “push past fixed edges of ego.” Still, “the element of his art I like best” is his “almost religious” devotion to ephemerality. “He seems to keep saying, one way or the other, that what counts about art is that people keep doing it, preferably in positive forms, preferably working together.” If a work like Draftsmen’s Congress doesn’t last, so be it. The work will eventually vanish, just like its creators, but it will also be replaced.

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