Sing the Body Electric
At least since Paleolithic man carved the fecund shape of the Venus of Willendorf from a chunk of limestone 24,000 or so years ago, human beings have been sculpting images of themselves. The frequency and variety of the images have increased throughout history in proportion to man's growing self-awareness. We find ourselves infinitely fascinated with the form of our bodies and the stuff contained therein. In popular culture today, the figure is more of an obsession than ever, given our media-generated fixation on appearance as well as our ever-expanding ability to surgically alter our bodies for aesthetic reasons. All this is combined with a rapidly growing understanding of our internal functions down to the cellular and even molecular levels. "The Perfect Figure" at ArtScan Gallery is a relatively diverse group of 3-D works that deal with some aspect of the figure, exploring the varied ways to approach the figure as well as investigating the essential nature of our bodies.
Vaguely reminiscent of some ancient image of religious supplication, Timothy Nero's Laughing at the Ground (1999) gives us an abbreviated symbol of a figure with his wax-coated and simplified wooden sculpture. The S-curved and kneeling torso shape is armless, while a blocky little featureless head pokes up from a spindly neck at one end and an assortment of toes stick out from the other end. The poignant awkwardness of the object evokes both laughter and pathos; it's enough to make you want to hug the piece as it peers over the edge of its pedestal.
Jesse Lott's Miss Texas is a full-blown figure, a visually arresting assemblage that stops you dead in your tracks. Crafted from his characteristic mass of metal detritus -- wire, old mattress springs, part of a chair, and other unidentifiable objects -- the piece has a fantastically uniform rusty patina. The hulking seven-foot Miss Texas lurches forward, arms out, a frozen invitation to dance or embrace that's simultaneously amusing and ominous. Our pageant winner's nose is composed from what looks like an old refrigerator handle, and in an uncharacteristically glamorous touch, her eyes are rimmed with rhinestones. Lott works his materials with a deft and witty hand.
Derived from the real thing, Tracy Hicks's Fragments (2000) presents photo-transparency images of a woman's body at close range. The transparency surfaces are buckled and bent as they are pinned up, leaving space between the image and the wall, and changing the flat 2-D to the curving 3-D. Light shines through the transparencies and projects the images onto the wall behind, creating ephemeral double visions that are anything but static.
In StudyPreserving a Body (2000) Hicks seeks to capture, deconstruct and contain the figure in a tower of mayonnaise jars. This time a woman's body has been photographed from different distances and angles. The images, inserted into the jars, record the subject section by section, from head to toe and around, an ear here, a profile there, a hip, a belly button. The photos document, and the jars house, the totality of the figure. It's a formally and conceptually interesting piece, but the base and something about the jars is distracting. About 99 percent of America is culturally encoded to recognize a mayonnaise jar by shape, with or without its label. You see the photos and the jars here and think, "What does she have to do with Hellmann's?" It might work better with vessels that are less product specific and more scientific, maybe those cylindrical lab jars, the kind they use to contain formaldehyde-soaked dead stuff. The marble slab base is an allusion to classical sculpture, but its jagged edge feels a little "arty" and obtrusive.
Janet Kastner further disassembles the figure, extracting its internal components in her installation Insides-Out. The wall is painted the red of "saturated hemoglobin." Stark white porcelain sculptures of bones and organs are arranged from the upper right corner to the lower left. The white porcelain neutralizes our awareness of the parts' original functions and calls attention to the form. You see the strange organic sculptures contained within our own bodies -- the elegant symmetry of the pelvic bone, the gorgeous, supple curve of the stomach, the smooth, fleshy arc of the liver, the snaking zigzag of the intestines. The lumpy shapes of the Tongue and the Auditory Ossicles from the ear are less compelling.
Shirley Klinghoffer creates glass casts of the exteriors of two figures in CRT 0981 (1998). Working from actual radiation-therapy casts created to hold patients in the same position for repeat treatment, her sculptures are casts of casts. She "slumps" glass over the original by placing a sheet of glass on top of it, then heating the pane until it melts over the form like a slice of cheese on a tuna melt. The casts are the backs of torsos with an arm or arms extended over the head. The sculptures convey draped sleeping forms but are derived from the positions patients are held in for breast cancer treatment. The indistinct forms resemble the casts of bodies from Pompeii -- and in some sense share a feeling of something frozen in a tragic moment.
J. Hill's Red Hair & Long Legs (1999) is a wonderfully spare shorthand abstraction of a figure. Two long, slender square rods are covered in a luxe red silk brocade. One angles out from the wall; the other sticks straight up. In the center is a tangle of black hairpins, allegedly symbolic of a head. The pins look like a mass of hair from a distance, and their location at the juncture of the splayed stick "legs" creates a distinctly crotchlike impression -- stick-person porn!
A man and woman sing in the shower in Serena Lin's Lingering Doubt (1998). Well, they aren't exactly in the shower, more like under it. A shower base is placed on the floor and covered with a tactile fleshy coating of rubbery latex. A tiny video monitor is placed under the shiny stainless-steel shower drain. Peering down through the drain you see alternating silent images of a female mouth and a bearded male mouth moving as water streams down. An overhead speaker projects the sound of dripping water. It is a strange and intriguing piece, especially if you wait until the end of the video when some indistinguishable movement occurs, maybe a glimpse of a hand and a man's voice says, "Are you all right?" You wind up absurdly crouching on the ground and squinting through the obscuring grates of the drain in frustration, trying to figure out what's going on. The oddly organic shower pan seems to be alive and offering you a glimpse into something contained within it, leaving viewers to construct their own scenario.
In art circles today, the idea of working with "the figure" is often tinged with historical and conservative academic associations; artists tend to think of models and life drawing classes, rigid classical training. In a case of semantic irony, merely substituting the word "body" for the word "figure" -- when both are generally interchangeable -- carries less art stigma. It's nice to be reminded of the concept of the figure, historical baggage and all, and have it reintroduced and presented as a still-fertile territory for artists.
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