The Biggest Picture
A group show takes a trip through grand visions and imaginary universes

by Jerry Saltz
February 1st, 2007

James Cohan Gallery
533 W. 26th Street
Through February 10

We tend to forget how endlessly odd it is, but art is perhaps the most radical and radically weird way yet devised to imagine and depict our inner and outer worlds. Of this odd visualizing mechanism, no sub-category may be odder or more fantastical than art that posits an encyclopedic, grandiose, or otherwise complete cosmological system or world outlook. Once upon a time when I made art, I was working on an elaborate 25-year project involving abstract-symbolic-diagrammatic drawings and altarpieces based on the 100 cantos of Dante's Divine Comedy, one canto at a time, 100 works per canto. The cuckoo goal of this endeavor was to reach Dante's "Paradise" after going through his "Inferno" and "Purgatory." I imagined the final cantos would be the sounds of bells and chimes. The project foundered, of course, when I got as far as the fourth canto of the Inferno, moved to New York, entered by own inferno, and stopped being an artist for good.
The after-effect of this close encounter of the cosmographic kind is that I'm still irresistibly drawn to things like Tibetan mandalas, Tantric manuscripts, esoteric illustrations of the cabala, depictions of Rosicrucian world orders, and diagrams of any phantasmagoric system. I love images of the Garden of Eden, Kingdom Come, paradises lost and found, journeys to the bottom of the sea, the center of the earth, and the underworld, as well as Henry Darger's sprawling universe, Adolf Wölfli's roiling world, Joseph Beuys's blackboard drawings, metaphysicians like Robert Fludd and Athanasius Kircher, and the art of Brueghel, Bosch, and Piranesi. Then there are those contemporary artists developing their own visual cosmos like Paul Laffoley, Lane Twitchell, Alice Aycock, Dennis Oppenheim, Barry Le Va, Mel Bochner, Agnes Denes, Will Insley, Beth Campbell, Kim Jones, Douglas Blau, Pedro Barbeito, Danica Phelps, and Benjamin Edwards. Matthew Barney fits this category not because he's the "greatest artist of his generation," as he's often called, but because he's a mystic trying to climb his own inner cathedral.

  "Cosmologies," at James Cohan Gallery, is a playground of inner-cathedrals, a walk-through compendium of impinging universes, totalizing visions, and demented imaginings. With more than 60 objects, the show veers wildly off course and leaves a lot out (including all the above-mentioned contemporary artists). Yet, "Cosmologies" moves across multiple cultures, continents, and times, from 10th-century Native American ritual vessels to Dawn Clements's ball-point pen drawing on one 10-foot circular piece of paper recording five years worth of soap-opera watching. As flawed as "Cosmologies" is, if it were up for four months it would still be worth visiting for one of treasure or another.
The best works in "Cosmologies" are the Indian, Tibetan, and Mongolian spiritual and medicinal diagrams. Splitting the difference between these realms is a 19 th-century geometric Jain "Gyanbazi," or "Snakes and Ladders" diagram, a game board in a grid configuration with snakes and slides leading from one tier to another, taking the viewer on a metaphysical journey closer to nirvana or deeper into the endless cycle of being reborn. Across the room is a riveting little pastel-colored 19th-century Mongolian medical mandala in which a flayed man in the shape of a turtle has genitals serving as a wiggly tail. Inside his body are skulls, faces, and fire. His spiral configuration calls to mind some cosmic yoni or a prototype of Robert Smithson's "Spiral Jetty."
Speaking of which, there's Smithson's wonderful photograph-and-text "Urination Map" showing how he peed in five places in a New York state park corresponding to the coordinates of the constellation Hydra.



This kind of I-am- the-Universe big-thinking is endemic to this subgenre. Another enticing example of this galaxy-in-a-grain-of-sand thinking is Ward Shelley's flow chart depicting all the art leading up to and deriving from Carolee Schneeman's landmark 1975 performance, Interior Scroll, in which the then 36-year-old artist stood naked on a table, her body slathered in mud, slowly extracting a paper scroll from her vagina while reading aloud from it. As Schneeman later recalled, "I thought of the vagina physically, conceptually, as a sculptural form, an architectural referent, the sources of sacred knowledge, ecstasy, the birth passage, and transformation." Shelley's chart correctly lists Duchamp, Brecht, and Artaud as antecedents and Karen Finley, Annie Sprinkle, and Janine Antoni as descendents. Also in the small-is-large category is Kamrooz Aram's lovely ink-on paper depiction of a Rastafarian exhaling a marvelous claret-colored cloud of breath that is a world unto itself.
For the sardonic-fantastic side of all this don't miss Ad Reinhardt's "Portrait of the Artist as a Young Mandala," a chart with categories such as artist as shaman, social worker, war-God, traveling divine-spark salesman, black sheep, noble-savage, Doodle-Kaboodle, and Poetartcrrritic. In the end, this returns us to the idea that however odd art is, it still excels at depicting things that feel like they're only one tiny tip of a million possible icebergs.
Ward Shelley, Carolee Schneemann Chart, version 2, 2007