303 GALLERY through May 25; 555 West 21st Street, 303gallery.com. Doug Aitken has stepped back from the large video spectacles for which he is known to make a small one, “New Era.” It occupies a hexagonal space that alternates wall-size mirrors and video screens, often to great kaleidoscopic effect. It centers on Martin Cooper, now 89, who as an engineer at Motorola invented the mobile phone and on April 3, 1973, placed the first mobile-phone call, from a street in Manhattan. His voice-over proceeds from an initial optimism that the world might become one, to observations about aging and technology that seem more like a lament. Mr. Aitken’s camera takes in vast stretches of barren terrain and highway cloverleafs. He also manipulates images of the original phone’s keypad, creating patterns resembling housing developments that turn deliriously hallucinatory. In keeping with Mr. Cooper’s darkening view, there is a prevailing sense of isolation and anonymity, alternating with breathtaking beauty, especially of the earth itself.
JACK SHAINMAN GALLERY through May 12; 513 West 20th Street and 524 West 24th Street, jackshainman.com. Hank Willis Thomas’s art always hits its mark, but the question is, does he aim high enough? “What We Ask Is Simple,” his especially ambitious show suggests a steeper angle. Seen in dimmed lighting, it occupies the gallery’s two spaces, and its most plentiful works are wall pieces on glass that lead double lives. Initially they look mostly blank — some have textures suggesting abstract painting, others have fragments of figures. Shine a cellphone flashlight on one or flash-photograph it, and crowded, sometimes violent vintage photographs appear. They show various civil rights protests — Birmingham and St. Augustine (anti-segregation), London (women’s suffrage), Nuremberg in 1933 (anti-Nazi). The shock is magical yet emotionally unsettling, reminding you of people’s courage in the face of oppression, history’s erasures, and the way the past recedes into darkness. The problem is that the images and the history they preserve gets a little lost in the brilliant, if slightly gimmicky, technique.