3 Art Gallery Shows to See Right Now

Henni Alftan Through Nov. 1, Karma, 172 & 188 East Second Street, Manhattan; 212-390-8290, karmakarma.org . Because the paintings ...

Through Nov. 1, Karma, 172 & 188 East Second Street, Manhattan; 212-390-8290, karmakarma.org.

Because the paintings of the Finnish-born, Paris-based painter Henni Alftan stood out in Karma’s “(Nothing but) Flowers” exhibition last month, I expected a bit more bang from her solo debut in New York. For one thing, her palette here is a little too subdued. Still, the show introduces a painter with a distinctive artistic vision, even if its power is more forceful in the hefty book that accompanies the show.

And the paintings do bang, but slowly. Their spare compositions emphasize silence and stillness, the artificiality of painting, the magnification of everyday detail and the division of reality into nearly abstract areas of color and texture. The images come at you in stages, sometimes by requiring a second look. In the diptych “Haircut (Déjà-vu),” from this year, one panel shows a hand with scissors, poised to cut through a plane of long strawberry blond hair; its color is reflected in the scissors’ top blade. In the second panel, the deed is done; no reflection now. Just the closed scissors, the shorn hair and the bottom edge of the painting, all exquisitely and a little too strictly parallel.

In other works, the eye must hold two thoughts at once: The subject of “The Curtain” is half drawn across a dark nighttime window; its cheerful geometric pattern is distorted by its lavish undulations. The view outside is dark, recessive; the lighted windows of apartments beyond muster a sparser pattern. These paintings can be subtly confusing. Examples include the dagger of light that cuts through the becalmed geometry of the living room of “Morning Sun,” or, in “Self-Portrait,” where a vaguely male hand that holds up a pocket mirror in which is reflected a richly made-up female eye.

Ms. Altfan’s precedents include Alex Katz, Domenico Gnoli and William Bailey, but her work’s absorbing deliberation and atmosphere make it debt-free. ROBERTA SMITH

Through Oct. 31. Aicon Gallery, 35 Great Jones Street, Manhattan; 212-725-6092, aicongallery.com.

If museums are serious about globalizing their collections, it won’t do just to pick out a few Africans or Asians or Latin Americans whose art superficially resembles what the West already approbates. Art history has to be reconceived as a perpetual migration of artists, images and ideas — across oceans, across decades. A sterling case study awaits in the upstairs space of Aicon Gallery, displaying the lean, precise, calligraphic abstractions of Ernest Mancoba (1904-2002), a South African painter who spent his career in Denmark and France. Defying past and present received ideas of nationality and identity, these delicate abstract compositions resound as the work of an artist committed to his full liberty.

Mancoba was born in Johannesburg in 1902 and studied art at an Anglican school; his early figurative sculptures, not in this show, are arguably the first “modern” artworks by a Black South African. The sensitive allover abstractions on view here were made in European exile (he left before apartheid was instituted in 1948), and feature thickets of lines orchestrated into discrete zones of color. Often scaled like portraits, they almost always incorporate a few strokes that hint at a stick figure amid soft, syncopated slashes of ocher, mauve, teal or gray; the use of untreated canvas, too, give the compositions the melancholy delicacy of a muted trumpet solo.

Drawings and paintings on paper are sparer still, and reveal outlines of bodies whose angled stylization put me in mind of Central African reliquary statues. The later works on paper here, some from his tenth decade of life, appear like sentences of black asemic glyphs over colored slashes and Xs.

This show at Aicon includes 18 paintings and works on paper by Mancoba, handsomely installed against peach-colored walls, and paired with bronze sculptures by his wife, the Danish artist Sonja Ferlov Mancoba. Her bronzes of roughly finished metal, which can recall masks or totems, show the enduring influence of African sculpture on European modernism — and reaffirms that both husband and wife were working in a postwar Paris where a clean division of “African” and “European” aesthetics could not be made. The real urgency here, though, remains Ernest Mancoba’s abstractions. They ought to be in every serious modern art museum: not as a token of “African” modernism, but an exemplar of forms in motion. JASON FARAGO

Through Oct. 30. Danziger Gallery, 980 Madison Avenue, third floor, Manhattan; 212 629-6778, danzigergallery.com

The inward-looking focus of much contemporary photography takes on a different air when the insularity becomes a necessity, not a choice. Matthew Porter made a splash at the “After Photoshop” exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2012-13, with images of airborne cars that he composed by digitally combining photographs of toy models and streetscapes. But like the chase scenes they replicated, those were stunts.

While some of Mr. Porter’s new photographs in the show “This Is How It Ends,” made during the coronavirus pandemic, also involve digital manipulation, the overarching mood is more “oh no” than “gee whiz.” Fronds of Los Angeles palm trees bristle as dangerously as barbed wire. In one photograph, the silhouettes of trees against a jaundiced sky are backed with the lattice pattern of a chain-link fence. Another bilious yellow sky, this time in New York, adds to the ominous portent of a helicopter hovering over the 30 Hudson Yards tower. In a gorgeously post-apocalyptic picture, two birds — cordoned off graphically by an open parallelogram of electrical wires — rejoice on a streetlamp that hangs above arboreal foliage as beautiful as the Martinique banana-leaf wallpaper at the Beverly Hills Hotel.

Finding a Baudelairean beauty in polluted sunsets and wire coils, Mr. Porter gives us an up-to-date report on the natural world that was recorded a half-century ago by his grandfather, the eminent photographer Eliot Porter. The traffic signals in several of his pictures glow an admonitory red or orange. ARTHUR LUBOW

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Newsrust: 3 Art Gallery Shows to See Right Now
3 Art Gallery Shows to See Right Now
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