Family First?

at Skestos Gabrielle

When Nietzsche said “What does not destroy me makes me stronger” he was clearly referring to the napoleons at a certain patisserie in Basel. But he could have been talking about family. There’s nothing more destroying/strengthening, betraying/protecting, lonesome/convivial, foreign/familiar, mournful/delightful, and, of course, hateful/loving than one’s family. You have to survive them to appreciate them.

Most of the half-dozen artists represented in “Family First?” draw on this paradox for their contributions. Curated by Jennifer Jankauskas, this strong show at the seven-month-old Skestos Gabriele is overwhelmingly preoccupied with the complexities of familial intimacy.

There are exceptions. Francine Spiegel’s only preoccupation is what childbirth does to a perfectly good body. Her mixed-media “pelts” look like the combined contents of a baby’s stomach and a new mother’s psyche, vomited up together on a wall. Albert Chong, meanwhile, uses a corridorlike area to create a completely unironic shrine to his family, unusual for its mixed Chinese and African ancestry. The shrine comprises six photographic still lifes–mostly arrangements of old snapshots splashed with artfully strewn flowers–three of which are matted in copper decorated with iconic images representing the Chong clan’s intercontinental heritage. The effect is beautiful in a misty, lavender-and-old-lace sort of way. But Chong seems to be relying on the novelty of black-Asian miscegenation to give that beauty some drama, and intermarriage just isn’t the surprise it used to be. The shrine comes off as little more than a stranger’s rather overproduced photo album: a wan tribute to people we don’t know.

Infinitely more compelling as a record of family history is Polish artist Zuzanna Janin’s ten-minute video loop, Between, which crosscuts between separate interviews with Janin, her mother, and her daughter to tease out the dynamics of their relationships with one another. Here the drama is innate. Looking tired and a little bedraggled despite her hip eyewear, Janin tells of “nonstop” friction with a willful mother. Mom, in her turn, seems anything but willful as she wearily, wistfully expresses her near idolatrous feeling for her own mother–a pianist–and tries to get a handle on her troubled relationship with Janin. Finally there’s Janin’s daughter, apparently in her late teens and not yet worn down by the regrets that dog her elders. Only she has the will and energy to embrace the dialectical contradictions of love: its theses and antitheses all arrive at a matter-of-fact synthesis in her heart.

But inspiring as that is, especially to a parent who wants to believe he hasn’t infected his children with his own family sickness, a daughter’s vindicating goodness is not the ultimate point of Between. The point begins to manifest itself as Janin’s editing creates intentional ambiguities, making you wonder whether this remark of hers refers to her mother or daughter, or that comment of Janin’s mother describes the venerated pianist or Janin. Eventually each is whipped up into the others, caught in the destroying/strengthening grasp of generations, stuck between.

Karen Skloss’s six-minute video piece, Give and Take, has a similar Laocoon-like energy. It’s the melancholy story of a divorce as told on two monitor screens. Except during an introductory passage, the left screen is the exclusive home of the former husband, a long-haired, delicate-featured, altogether too nice computer geek; the right, of the motorcycle-riding, bright-red-dreadlocked former wife. Their intense relationship eventually produced burnout, they explain–and a gorgeous blond child. Skloss’s very simple conceit is to have the ex-husband or wife talk into the camera as the child wanders from screen to screen, never appearing on both simultaneously. Whenever the child is with dad, mom goes into a kind of meditative stasis, staring off in the direction of the other screen; whenever mom has custody, dad goes similarly inert. There are no tears, no recriminations, and certainly no confrontations, but it’s heartbreaking all the same.

Christopher Miner’s video, Gulf Shores, is also worth watching, assuming you can stand Miner himself. The guy’s horrible, especially in the early going of this 27-minute video centered on a family vacation in Florida. He’s the quintessential Holden Caulfield-oid teen (even though he’s 32), constantly reviewing and critiquing and exposing what he views as the fakiness behind every word and gesture of his parents and married sister. Even his toddler niece is a fake, in his opinion–merely playing at playing. When he admits to being a shithead at one point, it’s hard to disagree.

It’s just as hard to stay mad at Miner, however, when he turns the attack on himself in the final half of the piece. Although far too talkative and obvious in his use, for instance, of a glass sliding door to suggest his anomie, he endears by virtue of his absolute willingness to anatomize himself as brother, son, and–ultimately–man. He may not take control in Gulf Shores, but he takes the blame. In that context, even the sliding door assumes a degree of poignancy.

The show’s signature piece is Skinned, a series of three large-format photographic self-portraits by Swedish artist Annee Olofsson. In each picture she appears with her back to the camera, wearing a formfitting off-white leotard. In each picture, also, she’s being gripped by a pair of hands. We can’t see whose hands they are, only that they aren’t hers and–based on the angle–must belong to someone standing in front of her. Here, they’re in her hair; here, on her shoulders; here, around her rib cage. In the shoulder and rib cage images, the hands are under her leotard.

My first reaction was that Skinned is a comment on sexual abuse–an idea that becomes incredibly lurid when you learn that the hands belong to Olofsson’s father. But that’s an unnecessary imposition. Skinned is unsettling, not dire. It can just as easily be understood as a deadpan pun on the notion that relatives get under our skin and in our hair. Which is the truth.

When: Through Sat 2/4: Tue-Fri 11 AM-6 PM, Sat noon-5 PM

Where: Skestos Gabriele, 212 N. Peoria

Price: Free

Info: 312-243-1112