In the past several years a number of younger artists throughout the United States have concerned themselves with what seems to be a more private and often visceral project: investigating, poeticizing, and somehow trying to understand the mortal workings and capacities of the human body. These attempts have taken many forms over the past twenty years, from the video self-probings of Vito Acconci or Bruce Nauman and the (often) tortuous performances of Karen Finley or Chris Burden, to the graphic photography of Jeanne Dunning or Robert Mapplethorpe and the figurative works of Nancy Spero or Tom Czarnopys.
What distinguishes the artists in this exhibition from earlier body art is that, while all of them are concerned with notions of the human body none of their works directly represent it, in pictorial or figurative terms. Rather, these artists insinuate the body in ways that make us more physically aware of ourselves, incorporating viewers as “scale models” in relation to the content and material of their artworks.
New York artists Kiki Smith and Orshi Drozdik, Los Angeles artist Sean Smith and Chicagoan David Sedaris make sculptures that focus on specific (and predominantly internal) parts of the body. Smith’s work frequently cross-references internal organs with materials whose physical traits enhance our awareness of each part, as in rubber lymph nodes, glass sperm, or iron intestines. Drozdik’s sculptures often feature giganticized porcelain platelettes in glass vitrines or scattered across leaden rugs, suggesting the process or feeling of isolation and enlargement that medical examinations-particularly blood analyses-involve. Sean Smith’s “Penetration” installation concerns with the possibility or dysfunction of sexual gratification in a series of modified and dehumanizing sexual aids, encased like commercial products or bizarre museum relics in slick Plexiglas vitrines.
Chicago artist Laurie Palmer, New Yorker Patti Martori and Los Anglenos Doug Hammett and Sara Seager implore the body through the manipulation and use of a number of its social accessories and extensions, making us aware of how, through make-up, language, hand tools or fashion we adapt ourselves to our environments. Palmer’s blown glass perfume bottles are about the size of large eggplants, are voluptuously shaped, heavy, and yet hand-sized, and contain the synthetic, fragrant “perfume” equivalents of sweat and menstrual blood. Martori’s work often incorporates standard bed pillows in strapped or contorted positions (reminiscent of (female) torsos), or harsh chemicals applied to metal in shapes suggestive of eyes, vaginas, or lips and which slowly fester, discolor, and corrode. Doug Hammett’s sculptures include samples of HIV-positive blood and semen encased in attractive glass paperweights and bolo neckties, and empty gift boxes whose spacious and vacuous insides have been seductively smeared with red lipstick. Both refer to the way in which human beings often fetishize what is fearful (sex, blood, disease, or death) in order to subvert or subsume its powers.
The work of Los Angeles artist Liz Larner, Chicagoan M. W. Bums and Wendy Jacob, and New Yorker Felix Gonzalez-Torres is the subtlest of the group and may only refer to the body in the context of the other more specific and literal works. Lamer’s most recent art has taken over entire galleries with complex “spider webs” of cloth, belts, memorabilia and chains. Because the installations are often made up of the artist’s personal remnants they could be seen as representing the complex networks of memory within our brains. In addition and on a more physical level, the installations require a good amount of agility to negotiate. Bum’s architectural structures require equal amounts of negotiation, presenting columns and doorways which have become so laden with ornamentation as to threaten making their passages impassable. Bums has also done a number of sound installations which create a similar effect in language, using words and sentences in such effusive or convoluted ways as to render it nearly incommunicable.
Thus a persistent inquisitiveness will be palpable throughout this exhibition, with its varyingly probing, cloying, and hopeful artworks heightening our awareness of our senses and ourselves.