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What to See Right Now in New York Art Galleries

Through Feb. 15. Canada, 60 Lispenard Street, Manhattan; 212-925-4631, canadanewyork.com.

People of all ages fell for the cute gnome-like alien at the center of Steven Spielberg’s 1982 movie “E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial.” But some fell extra hard; Katherine Bernhardt, who turned 7 the year the movie premiered, was smitten enough to paint portraits of E.T. in art school. In her latest show, “Done with Xanax,” she returns to him, pushing her distinctive fusion of Pop Art, Color Field and graffiti toward a more vulnerable, narrative expression and more complex painting process.

Ms. Bernhardt has at times seemed stuck in her signature patterns formed by repeating images of popular commodities and motifs — cigarettes, sharks, cellphones, slices of fruit and floating emojis — on expanses of bright color. She has painted fictional figures like the Pink Panther, Babar the Elephant and Garfield, but E.T. is more dimensional, complicated by a kind of saintliness, otherness and conflict: He is a stranger in an inhospitable land who has healing powers and wants to go home.

Ms. Bernhardt renders E.T. single and large, like an icon, often outlined in gold or silver spray paint and frequently raising his glowing forefinger in benediction. She evokes but also takes liberties with moments from the movie, making them vaguely recognizable in the way that scenes from the Bible can be. For example, the paintings “Halloween in California” and “Halloween E.T. + Strawberries” show the extraterrestrial wearing the blond wig from the dress-up session in Gertie’s bedroom and a patterned muumuu that suggests suburban California of a certain era. In others, he’s famously aloft, in the basket of Elliott’s bicycle, or surrounded by push-button telephones reflecting his oft-stated desire to “Phone home!” Especially good is “Sick,” where E.T. is shrouded in a brilliantly white blanket that is unpainted canvas. It symbolizes the way Ms. Bernhardt has opened up her work — and her style. Hopefully, her progress will continue.

ROBERTA SMITH


Through Feb. 22. Jane Lombard Gallery, 518 West 19th Street, Manhattan; 212-967-8040, janelombardgallery.com.

Last year, Michael Rakowitz got more attention for his protests than his participation in New York museums. He was the first artist to withdraw from the 2019 Whitney Biennial, providing a template for others whose departures eventually helped drive a tear-gas magnate from the museum’s board; later, in a move aimed at a board member of the Museum of Modern Art, Mr. Rakowitz tried to pause his own video work from a show at its sister institution, PS1.

Mr. Rakowitz’s current show at Lombard, at least, lets us assess his work on its own terms. Here the Chicago-based artist is showing the latest chapter in an ongoing project, “The Invisible Enemy Should Not Exist,” which reconstructs looted or destroyed Iraqi antiquities out of humble materials. An earlier exhibition focused on objects stolen from Baghdad’s National Museum; here, he and a team have remade reliefs of an Assyrian palace that was blasted by the Islamic State out of packets of mixed herbs, newspapers and other scraps from the regional economy.

I suppose the colorful reliefs have a baleful relevance for those of us already incensed by the cultural (and human) devastation of Iraq. But they are also rehearsed and self-contained, and that goes double for “The Ballad of Special Ops Cody,” a haughty work of stop-motion animation filmed at the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago, which depicts a U.S. Army toy figurine inspecting the museum’s Near Eastern collection while a voice-over recounts various lootings and atrocities. Mr. Rakowitz is better when he pushes his historical and political engagement into generosity, as he did in his moving “Return,” his contested video at PS1, which allegorizes the Iraq war and refugee crisis through his red-tape-choked efforts to import Iraqi dates to Brooklyn.

The life-altering peculiarities of the American immigration system collide, in Hunter East Harlem Gallery’s group show “The Extraordinary,” with the slippery problem of defining artistic success. The show, curated by Arden Sherman with Nora Maité Nieves, began with an open call to artists who had or were pursuing the O-1 visa for extraordinary ability: Promising works by Yue Nakayama, Woomin Kim, Shimpei Shirafuji, Firoz Mahmud,and Catalina Tuca might earn them permission to live and work temporarily in the United States, or renew the permission they already have, if their inclusion in the show helps persuade the immigration service that they’re renowned in their field.

Ms. Nakayama’s video of child actors performing incongruous monologues is strangely fascinating, as are the tabletop “minerals” that Ms. Kim makes from everyday materials like colored chalk or acrylic nails. But the show’s distinct highlight is a short narrative video, “The Challenges of Imagination,” made by the Iranian artist Ramyar Vala, who has an O-1 visa with no re-entry stamp, with his older brother Rambod, whose O-1 was rejected. The only piece to treat the show’s premise explicitly, the video includes amazing real-life details like an immigration officer pointing out to Ramyar Vala that he’s not as famous as Jeff Koons. But it’s equally a critique of the art world itself, which can be just as blithe about treating market success as a proxy for inherent merit. As an Iranian exile, Mr. Vala would clearly find the most success here by making work about his situation — but what if he wants to make work about something else? The video’s last scene, which captures Rambod Vala in the tub, eating Haagen-Dazs and singing along to Lou Reed’s song “Perfect Day,” is an exhilarating rebuke to the very notion of success.

WILL HEINRICH


Through March 1. James Fuentes Gallery, 55 Delancey Street, Manhattan; 212-577-1201, jamesfuentes.com.

What if Max Beckmann had made a painting about illegal abortion? He might have produced something like Juanita McNeely’s 1969 “Is It Real? Yes It Is,” a magnificent nine-panel installation showing now at James Fuentes Gallery in collaboration with Mitchell Algus. A squatting skeleton, pinioned women with buckled knees and crows picking the flesh from a prone female body are all rendered with Beckmann’s crashing color scheme and Expressionist urgency. But they don’t come across as allegories — they look like facts. In the central canvas, a hand holding glittering silver forceps reaches toward a woman’s naked crotch under an oversize Donald Duck toy. Altogether it’s a searing evocation of the fractured way we remember traumatic experiences — and of the many bloody realities most people prefer not to look at.

In 1985, after an accident put Ms. McNeely in a wheelchair, a doctor told her she’d never make another large painting. She responded with “Triskaidekaptych,” which comprises 13 substantial canvases parading edge to edge around two full walls of the gallery. Contorted female figures are still here, along with torture, medical horror and a screaming baboon’s face. But the introduction of softer blues and pinks, and of a cloudiness in the way those colors are applied, changes the tone, and these writhing figures could very well be dancing. Two faceless women on trapezes, swinging through banks of mirrors, add a heavy note of self-consciousness: If “Is it real” is the moment of trauma, in all its kaleidoscopic brutality, “Triskaidekaptych” is the elaborate mental process a person goes through to make sense of it.

WILL HEINRICH