Genesis Breyer P-Orridge in New York

"People pay to see others believe in themselves," musician and former art critic Kim Gordon once wrote in the pages of Artforum. "As a performer you sacrifice yourself, you go through the motions and emotions of sexuality for all the people to pay and see it, to believe it exists."

Few have embodied that ethos as literally as legendary British artist, musician, and provocateur Genesis P-Orridge. His current retrospective at Invisible-Exports, 30 Years of Being Cut Up, features dozens of his collages and suggests that his reputation as hero to generation after generation of outsiders is well deserved.

P-Orridge, 59, is the avant-garde’s Madonna, continually reinventing himself, usually one step ahead of — and sometimes galaxies away from — his peers. There have been writings with William S. Burroughs, postal art exchanges with Ray Johnson, performances in staid European museums that were denounced by politicians and the press, and a run with industrial music pioneers Throbbing Gristle. Any one of these projects would have been enough to secure a decent legacy.

But his art and his life — it has become impossible to distinguish between the two — have only gotten more bizarre. More recently he has been transforming his body. First he underwent breast implants, face alterations, and all manner of plastic surgery with his partner Lady Jaye Breyer. They said they wanted to become one person. Then she died in 2007, and he decided to subsume her identity into his. He now refers to himself in the plural (but we've kept with "he," for clarity's sake). Even Matthew Barneys very public explorations of intimacy with partner Björk begin to look tepid.

P-Orridge is equally experimental and disciplined in his photographic assemblages, which often mimic the work of the Berlin Dadaists. Like them, he seems obsessed with the tabloid imagery of contemporary life: Princess Di, the serial killers Brady and Hindley, and fashion models all make appearances in his works.

But that’s a superficial comparison: P-Orridge prefers unfiltered fantasy and personal neuroses to the political concerns of Höch, Hausmann, and Heartfield. Images of hardcore pornography and fetish objects accumulate, flowing into and on top of each other. In Education Sentimentale, a painted nurse monitors a photomontage of sex acts. It’s a proto-Richard Prince, though more adventurous than anything he has attempted. It was made in 1978.

Most of the compositions are tautly composed, often seamlessly filling the page, but the sheer brutality of his obscenity can become tiresome, bordering on caricature. Thankfully, though, these are the exceptions, and it would be unfortunate if overwrought moments obscured formal achievements. Thee Fractured Garden (1995), for example, features photographs of houses, flowers, and gardens delicately spliced together. One first reads it as a single photograph, as if it were an analog Gursky, and learns that P-Orridge wants to — and can — do more than shock.

Though there are no obvious evolutions in the three decades of work shown here, it all manages to look relevant. It would be strong in any environment, but it probably helps that collage is fashionable again. Dr. Lakra, Bjorn Copeland, and Dash Snow owe a clear debt to the work here, though P-Orridge’s pages are more intricately assembled — and more interested in art history — than those of his followers. P-Orridge riffs on Giuseppe Arcimboldo in English Breakfast (2002-09), using the hearty meal's components to construct a portrait of Queen Elizabeth II. In Constructivism (1987) he uses the Russian movement’s vocabulary to more manic and mannered ends. Red, black, and white shapes swirl around masked portraits and scrawled drawings.

Six Polaroids showing P-Orridge and Breyer’s chests after their dual implant operations compose Two Into One We Go (2003). Cropped from the neck down, they conceal the identities of their subjects, borrowing a trick from Man Ray, who photographed a genderless chest in his Minotaur (1935). 

It is sometimes difficult to imagine now, but Man Ray and many of his Dadaist and Surrealist compatriots once believed that their art could transform the way people thought and lived. P-Orridge, an arch propagandist, seems to be one of the few who still believe that. His art documents an obsessive, relentless desire to enact in public the grotesque and taboo: This is the way he is choosing to live, it says. The work implies that you can do it too.

We had no idea what a thorough and impassioned critic P-Orridge would turn out to be when we asked him to recommend a few shows to see in New York this weekend. Click here for his full text, or read below for the highlights.

1. “Juergen Teller: Paradis” at Lehmann Maupin, through Oct. 17

Ever since Night Porter we have been obsessed with Charlotte Rampling (and leather caps), so we couldn’t help but utter a loud exclamation of joy at seeing her included in this new series. Taken at the Louvre, these pristine photographic works juxtapose woman in middle age with woman in a younger, more classic image of beauty, with the Mona Lisa and, my favorite, a marble sculpture of a prone naked body. The sheer openness and total lack of guile makes both naked women (Raquel Zimmermann is the other) transcend the definitions of perfection around them to stand vindicated as pure physical power projected as quintessentially female. Incredibly liberating in an age of Photoshopped polish. Our favorite show bar none.

2. “The Girl Effect” at Lombard-Freid Projects, through Oct. 10

A group exhibition that claims to be “inspired by the notion that young girls are powerful agents for social change.” Immediately we are limited to “young” and “girls,” never mind the dreary reduction from any, all, and absolute change to merely “social” change. And as there are as many social environments as languages, plus a few, we wonder why the narrow interpretation. What we get is joyless and didactic. There are attempts at humor, but it feels like Stalinist Russia and occupied Eastern Europe (and YES we were there in that era and so speak from experience), where every Xerox had to be politically vetted, every theater and comedy script made officially palatable. Only the most courageous and daring, wild and shocking people cried, “Fuck ’em all!!!” This show was depressing. Lots of awkward and self-conscious posturing disguised as commentary. It is sad that feminist art and artists so often paralyze their imagination in dogmatic bondage and ghettoize themselves in a cul-de-sac where the only audience is each other because they’ve become exclusive instead of succeeding in releasing inclusivity. Don’t waste your precious time.

3. Anthony Pearson at Marianne Boesky Gallery, through Oct. 10

Just when we thought it couldn’t get worse. Minimalism can be difficult at its best of times. Often the process is the product and immaculate, though the presentation is “so what?” My rule of thumb tends to be: In a thousand years would this work be as significant as the Sistine Chapel? Will there be lines of E.T.s lining up to see this work, like we do now to see the Mona Lisa? A perky gallery assistant explains at great length and in even greater detail the convoluted manner by which the artist generates these photographs of the backs of heated foil and the columns and … blah blah blah.

4. “Sam Cady: New Paintings” at Mary Ryan Gallery, through Oct. 17

Realism seems to be back and all the rage. Perhaps in a time of financial paranoia and uncertainty people become conservative once again? Perhaps. Or perhaps this is a calm before an even bigger, more disastrous perfect storm. We hope things get so terrible that artists realize they have nothing to lose and go wild, irrational, and innovative! In the meantime, we have pastoral land- and seascapes of Maine by Sam Cady. Hazel and I chatted with Sam and in particular discussed his major work here, an oil on shaped canvas titled Katahdin South Basin, Chimney Pond to Knife Edge. Sam is in the tradition of Walt Whitman for sure. His work is devotional, describing the profound connection he feels with the earth. Life extending from nature into him, and from him back into nature, through his creation of art. The shaped canvas could be seen as a “brand,” the ever-desired unique formula or style that is instantly recognizable and associated with the artist, thereby making product primary and perception secondary. But in this case, hearing the deeply passionate lyricism that flows into his paintings as Sam speaks, we are prepared to let that concern go, to flutter and swoop like a shed feather in the eddies and swirls of air above Katahdin.

After this gallery, we walked up and down 24th, 25th, and 26th streets looking in gallery windows for something appetizing to draw us in, but pretty soon either Hazel or I were saying, “OH, more realism … NO!” or “More MESSY paintings … NO!” Yes, hot on the heels of new realism is new messyism, folks. The more unpleasant and drippy the better. It does seem as though these are paintings made by people who hate art and hope to finally repulse whatever idealism in the power of art to begin the process of positive change remains. Hazel says it’s time to move on from Chelsea to the Lower East Side, but not before we mention …

5. “Zane Lewis – Watch Me Slowly Death” at Mixed Greens, through Oct. 3.

An appalling conglomeration that seems a twist of airport designer boutique and shopping-mall window display. Tinsel and glitter. Others, most notably Sylvie Fleury and Warhol, have done the Chanel No. 5 to death, and these works make resuscitation a bad idea. John Armleder (Sylvie’s ex) has done the skulls and drip paintings to perfection, as have others. We began to wonder if this was an homage to John Armleder? But, like a great deal of contemporary “art,” this work relies upon the public’s ignorance of its sources: Rather than revel in exposing and championing these inspirations and influences, Zane Lewis appears to rely on keeping them buried.

6. “Marie Maillard: WALL 0909” and “Phantoms Too” at Luxe/Stephan Stoyanov Gallery, through Sept. 26.

Marie Maillard’s piece is a double video projection onto a rough gallery wall. Clouds broil and tumble into endless forms. Maillard then stretches the pixels into straight lines, thus creating a strange series of tensions: organic seething clouds versus straight lines; natural and chaotic versus controlled and artificial. As a child, like almost everyone, we would lie on the grass and watch the clouds for hours, seeing shapes of all kinds. In all honesty, we prefer the unexpected and chaotic to the digitally controlled and predictable. Maillard’s work is often site-specific in conjunction with large-scale events and architecture, in which setting it makes more perfect sense. Also here, in the basement, is an ad-hoc show by various artists represented by the irrepressible Stephan. We noted the drawings of William Downs in particular, but both Hazel and I fell head over heels in love with a tiny but vibrant painting by Houben R. T. that seemed to explode with sheer exuberance. We wonder how the artist trapped a living spirit inside the painting and yet maintained its happiness!

7. “Spaced Out / On Time” at Canada, through Oct. 11

In many ways, this carefully curated group show is the most difficult and challenging exhibition currently on display. In a subtle, nondidactic way, it traces influences in painting, including Joan Brown, whose Woman Waiting in a Theatre Lobby maintains a Zen-like tension against a background that proposes infinity, with a tile pattern almost vibrating like particles within an atom. A massively accomplished work. Dona Nelsons Red Mist is a surprise gift, although it could have been even more powerful if it had more wall space around it. Nelson’s shadow is everywhere, as other painters in this show were her students, but her touch is more numinous than authoritative. Katherine Bernhardts watches are strong and have a certain pop aspect, remaining, as they do, purely on the surface of the canvas, as thin as rice paper in a sense, which, with their sensation of constantly renewable present time, gives an effect of time frozen. These paintings refuse past and future, existing instead only as they are seen: that first engagement of eye and image. Sadie Laska has two paintings, Redhead and Snake, which devour the canvas with a corrosive energy. As we follow the gestures of the artist’s brush, we seem to rip through the painting plane into different dimensions. Nothing is flat, and there is no escape from this mélange of passion; once viewers turn away, they are left feeling as though they have been entranced, held in a powerful hypnotic spell, maybe malevolent, certainly overwhelming. This very real sensation of physical escape is inexplicable and envelops the paintings in a co-opted mystery. All in all, a heavy show with a lot of “serious,” very thoughtful works. But there is also lightheartedness, especially from Otis Houston Jr.