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An Afternoon in Chelsea: A Critical Tour of the Galleries

Before you bundle up for a pre–Armory Show outing, consult this guide for what to see, what to must-see, and what to skip in favor of a hot chocolate.

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A view of Gary Hill's Frustrum (2006).  

1. Anthony McCall
Sean Kelly, 528 W. 29th St; through March 17

In his first New York gallery show in decades, McCall returns to the abstract cinema he developed in the seventies: film-as-sculpture, experienced by staring away from the screen into a slowly moving projection beam. Stunning from any angle, these works have been compared to Plato’s cave. Exercise caution when leaving the gallery: Watching the light shift and suddenly enclose you in a misty cone might make you think, for a moment, that you have the power to walk through walls.

2. Michael Rakowitz
Lombard-Freid Projects, 531 W. 26th St.; through February 17

Fleshing out Rummy’s concise response (“Stuff happens”) to the looting of the Iraqi museum, Rakowitz has re-created missing artifacts with papier-mâché made from Mideastern newspapers and packaging. It’s a powerful combination of connoisseurship and conscience, one that shifts our focus, if only briefly, from car bombs to cultural casualties.


John Sonsini's David (2006)  

3. John Sonsini
Cheim & Read, 547 W. 25th St.; through February 10

Picking up illegal immigrants at the Home Depot and other gathering places near Los Angeles, the figurative painter John Sonsini paid them an hourly wage to pose for a series of studio portraits. They’re empathetic, but in simplistic, how-thoughtful-I-am terms: Look, poor people. It’s telling, in fact, that the former scenic artist’s breezy, uniform brushwork fails to distinguish hands from backpacks, faces from work boots. Single portraits, like Fernando (2006), work best; grouping the men seems to reinforce their social invisibility.

4. Gary Hill
Gladstone Gallery, 515 W. 24th St.; through February 10

By accident or design, the digitally animated eagle at the center of Gary Hill’s new installation is a wimpier version of the squawking bird that opens The Colbert Report. Here, the veteran sound-and-image artist’s political symbols of the most obvious kind (gold bullion, a broadcast tower) upstage an unsettling soundtrack of cracking whips. Guilt, an installation of gold coins printed with torture scenes and viewed through telescopes, combines a bad pun with a weary metaphor. Turning the abuses of Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo into genuinely affecting work is more difficult than it looks; Thomas Hirschhorn and Fernando Botero are among the few who have pulled it off. And in art, unlike TV satire, the blowhard act wears thin fast.


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