Three different couples in their underwear tickle each other on the three large screens of Alison Ruttan’s video installation at Monique Meloche, Love Me Not. The scenes produce an overwhelming avalanche of flesh and gestures at once playful and aggressive as the ticklers lunge for a torso, try to fend off the other person, or grab the sole of a partner’s foot. The camera tracks around them in circles, adding to the delirium.

Ruttan found her performers–two male-female couples and a pair of sisters–through a Reader ad seeking people “willing to be tickled to exhaustion.” She was surprised when most of the more than 100 responses were from singles expecting to be hooked up with a partner, and since she didn’t want to get into the world of tickling fetishists, she chose from among the few couples who applied. She conducted the shoot in the wrestling practice room at the University of Chicago, where she teaches.

Ruttan’s long interest in the “emotional content of physical expression,” an interest she sees as more anthropological than voyeuristic, comes in part from her childhood. Her family moved often, and she attended six different elementary schools: she says she grew up “like a tourist. Moving to so many different places, I would try to figure out what the rules were.” Her economist father also encouraged study–a family outing might consist of going to the beach and collecting shells, but the next two weeks would be spent “researching them, categorizing them, and putting them on boards properly labeled.” When Ruttan lived in the Philippines in fourth and fifth grade, “My father stressed the importance of respecting cultural differences and trying to understand them. There were a lot of foods that we were told we had to taste and couldn’t make ugly faces. It was like being in a strange wonderland.”

Ruttan studied drawing at the University of Michigan but majored in photography, graduating in 1976. While doing her own staged shots with a psychological component, she also made before-and-after photos for a plastic surgeon. In her last semester as an undergrad her boyfriend died of skin cancer, giving her a “traumatic experience of bodily disfiguration.” She continued working in Minneapolis, then in New York, supporting herself with various jobs, including construction.

In 1990 she moved to Chicago to begin graduate studies in painting at the School of the Art Institute, starting out making mostly abstract works. In her second year she began creating installations, and by graduation she was covering mirrors with latex (to suggest flesh), reading about the philosophy of the body, and studying the body-oriented work of Kiki Smith and Ann Hamilton. She also discovered a medical textbook titled Internal Surgery, which she says “had a real draw because it strongly disturbed me. I could almost feel physical pain looking at the illustrations. I’ve always been such a physical wimp–when I had to get shots as a kid I’d back into a corner and scream. For quite a while now I’ve been interested in things that trigger responses deeply embedded in our biological nature, things that tend to bypass our intellect. Part of the challenge looking at what I’m uncomfortable with is finding a way to control it.” A year after graduation she made a sculpture that looked like a half section of a head and put it in an upside-down fedora.

Ruttan says the humor in her work acts as a kind of reality check–a reminder not to take her own intense reactions so seriously. A decade ago she made a series, “Dough Girls,” that consisted of pieces of bread shaped like female midsections and clad in underpants–she cast a pan from a mold of her own buttocks and placed the panties on the rising dough so that it would “pour out” from the openings. In 1999, both embarrassed by and interested in porn videos, she began a series of digital animations based on them. Her brightly colored shapes are flattened and cartoonish, though some echo the color schemes and figures of Miro and Matisse.

After 9/11 Ruttan dropped work on an orgy video and began thinking about aggression. “Tickling is a kind of passive-aggressive activity–it’s play but it often conceals hostilities,” she says. Her other piece at Monique Meloche is even more clearly about hostility–in the slow-motion video Lapse, a man opens his mouth and emits a sound like a lion’s roar, then puts on his glasses and becomes mild mannered. It’s being shown on a monitor but on February 24 switches places with Love Me Not, moving to the large screen while the tickling videos will be on monitors.

Alison Ruttan

Where: Monique Meloche, 118 N. Peoria

When: Through March 12

Info: 312-455-0299

Long interested in alternative ways of representing space, Julia Marsh wanted to memorialize Dogmatic Gallery, which has stopped exhibiting in Pilsen (this is Dogmatic’s first show in a different space). So she made digital prints section by section of Dogmatic’s walls, floors, and stairs–a process so lengthy she burned out two flatbed scanners. Each scan yielded an ink-jet print, which she’s arranged on the walls and floors at Butcher Shop in a paper re-creation of Dogmatic. Some prints have been stepped on and at times the paper has curled–ravages that add to the distancing effect of this huge, nutty, obsessively literal mapping project. Many prints just show a flat wall, so when a pipe runs across several sheets it’s a moment of high drama.

Julia Marsh: Re:Location

Where: Butcher Shop, 1319 W. Lake, third floor

When: Through March 5

Info: 312-421-1917

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Cynthia Howe.