Duane Michals: Kaleidoscope
New York CityDc Moore Gallery
April 1 – April 30, 2022
Now 90 years old, Duane Michals continues to make striking, idiosyncratic images that range in influence from modern and contemporary art to works that celebrate authors of major recognition. His current show indicates he is in full strength, usually creating staged photos and, in this show, sculptures and films whose force comes from a humorous surrealism close to the absurd. His self-portraits and filmed narrative sequences, along with the three-dimensional work, lead us to an intersection where imagination, visionary realism, and abstraction come together. Sometimes there is a determination to do away with common sense; sometimes, the imagery is so sharply discernible as to offer a perfectly crafted realism that doesn’t make sense. As a result, Michals becomes a champion of the whimsical, yet his humorous outlook acts as a veil for something more serious, namely, a stage in which the psychic properties of his imagination are supported by a point of view that also promotes precise reason. So the strangeness of his art has as much to do with an assault on the constraints of figurative imagery as it does with a comic eccentricity.
Likely the most striking image in the show is a self-portrait of Michals. Self-Portrait as a Unicorn (2022) depicts the artist with a spiraling white horn, ending in a point, coming from the top of his head. He sits at a table, while behind him, to the right of his back is an ornate fireplace. Some three hands hold the book, which is open but whose handwriting cannot be read. The two hands on the left hold long gray quills, while the one on the right grips the upper-right corner of the outsize volume. Michals’s expression—quite serious—establishes a sobriety that transmutes what would otherwise be a set of absurd circumstances. This mixture of the nearly somber with the implicitly comic is central to the artist’s point of view. The Reign of Pills (2022) presents a supine young man with black hair and a white shirt extending his left arm to his face. Scores of white pills seem to be falling on him from above, filling a copper goblet found right next to the man. The image, typical in its combination of absurdity and seriousness, plays off the effects of the unusual scenario and our knowledge that we have become highly dependent on medicine.
Michals’s wooden sculptures use abstraction to develop a reference, evident in the work’s title, to a well-known artist. These are mostly abstract works, but they are also vertically figurative in a whimsical way. In Tolstoy (2022), the piece is just under six feet, and is made of half circles of light–colored wood alternating from one piece to the next in opposite directions while rising from a flat pedestal of marble. Something of the great Russian novelist’s moral clarity comes through in a work that suggests the evocative poise of modernism. The repetition of the simple forms is marvelously lyrical and suggestive of achievement, despite the work’s essential abstraction. Cavafy (2022) is a non-objective treatment of the great 20th century Greek poet; the work consists of white wooden squares, angled so that they look like diamonds, balancing on top of each other from one tip to the next. Attached to the edges of the white planes are four circles—green, yellow, blue, and red in ascending order. It is difficult to say how this work relates to Cavafy’s historical incisiveness and homoerotic sensibilities, but the construction is highly poetic in its treatment of simple forms and materials. There are two films as well in this show; one triad of images from the film 2022 (2022) present three colorful abstractions: large circles dominate the front of the image, behind which are small wooden tables with objects. Then, behind the tables are abstract designs in white, behind a blue ground. Michals’s show, entitled “Kaleidoscope,” often uses a dense array of abstract effects to convey his outlook. This body of work proves that Michals continues to make memorable art that spans genres and themes, mostly in a whimsical manner.