Morbid Curiosity

at DePaul University Art Gallery, through March 9

By Fred Camper

A forest of skeletons rises like a horror-movie apparition from a rectangular bed of bones. With indistinct faces and only vague indications of eyes, this little army is a lot creepier and less human than the zombies in Night of the Living Dead. But most of the arms and legs of Ronald Gonzalez’s Catacomb, one of the two room-sized installations that make up the exhibit “Morbid Curiosity” at the DePaul University Art Gallery, actually consist of segments of rusty rebar, the serrated metal bars used in construction, to which groups of animal bones are attached with wire. It took the artist a year to make; the bones, Gonzalez told me, were collected primarily from the pits and ravines where farmers discard dead animals. He cleaned them, then dipped them in plaster, covered them with metal filings, dipped them in hot wax, and applied a flame to change the surface texture.

Part of the effect of Catacomb is a feeling of material excess. There aren’t just a few skeletons here, but 75 of them. (The piece was shipped to the gallery in over 140 separate parcels.) Dwarfing the viewer, the installation also denies entry: you can only walk around it, not between the skeletons or over the bones heaped in piles at their feet. And the viewer quickly realizes these are not human skeletons or human bones but an almost otherworldly accretion of industrial materials and animal bones gathered by an obsessive collector.

There’s more than just first-glance creepiness here, however. Part of what makes the piece so compelling is the way it fuses opposites; these skeletons are both rising and falling apart. On the one hand, they appear to be growing out of the bones around them: the rebar frames suggest trellises–or maybe the small wooden sticks gardeners use to guide plant growth–and the bones that hang from the frames are the beginning of forms still coming into being. The wax surfaces have an embryonic quality, with clusters and clumps that look dynamic, as if still changing. On the other hand, the bones hanging by thin wires, the rust, the sections of empty rebar, and the visible signs of gravity’s pull on the wax all suggest the final stages of decay, as if the bones at the figures’ feet were all once part of the standing forms, and we are merely seeing their last remains.

Part of the point, of course, is that growth and decay are inevitably linked: decaying plants and animals give rise to new life, while living beings begin the process of dying almost from birth. Gonzalez’s life also suggests a few other sources of inspiration. Born in 1952 in Binghamton, New York, where he lives today, Gonzalez was the product of a blue-collar family. “We grew up pretty poor,” he told me. He was subjected to the opposing influences of a mother who was religious and a father who taught him to steal meat from grocery stores. His father worked in a factory and later sold used cars, “a bunch of junks,” Gonzalez recalls, which sometimes couldn’t even be driven away.

Gonzalez made things as a child, such as little ships from bottle caps into which he would insert needles and tiny sails. He’d put ants in them and “sail” them in mud puddles. It wasn’t until his late teens that he had a serious encounter with art–he was struck by a book showing Rodin’s Gates of Hell, and by the pictures of fragments of limbs that had accrued during the making of this monumental, multifigured work. “That very day I bought a bag of clay and started making hundreds of little hands and feet,” he says. He had never been to a museum and knew little of the art world; working at various jobs while he made art, he was in his late 20s before he went to college, where he was exposed to the work of Francis Bacon. One day he heard that a film-class instructor was screening something about autopsies. He found the instructor, Ken Jacobs, who later became a friend and important influence, and asked if he could sit in. Stan Brakhage’s The Act of Seeing With One’s Own Eyes (1971) was Gonzalez’s first exposure to avant-garde film, a light poem in which gruesome images, such as facial skin being pulled away from a skull, emerge at surprising moments.

Brakhage’s work is distinguished by irregularity and unpredictability; he has often declared his dislike for symmetry, and famously objected to the emergence of “structural film” in the 70s. Likewise, part of the power of Catacomb is its irregularity of design. Often a bone on one side of a figure will be balanced by a bone on the other side that’s very similar but never the same; this semblance of symmetry makes its absence more strongly visible. Though the overall array is rectangular, the figures are not positioned in a strict grid; rather they echo the natural arrangement of trees in a forest. The rectangle seems like a nod to the artificially imposed geometry of the gallery room, while everything within is a blend of order and disorder. Presenting the face of near chaos to the viewer, the work’s apartness also suggests the limits of our own ability to know and understand a nature of which we are only a tiny part.

For both Gonzalez and Sally Thomas, the other artist in the show, “the terrifying fragility of the body is a rich and challenging topic,” exhibition curator Laura Fatemi writes in the small catalog. And while Thomas’s installation Of Another World is not as overtly weird as Gonzalez’s piece, its even greater profusion of materials–and their personal, handmade aspect–ultimately gave me an equally creepy feeling.

Born in Ottumwa, Iowa, in 1941, and a longtime resident of Manhattan, Kansas, Thomas is also a collector. “I collect too many things,” she told me: quilts, kitchen implements, old books, and sticks and pieces of paper and metal she finds in the street. These materials make their way into her work. Most of the 365 items here are untitled; in the gallery’s inventory list, they are referred to as “hanging slips, unframed images, framed images, pod people, nylon wrapped sticks, nylon wrapped pieces, wire hanging pieces, works on fabric, birds.” Made of newspaper, paper sacks, fabric, and plastic bound together with wire, the birds are prominent: chicken- or turkey-shaped, remarkably lifelike considering their crude materials, they appear to strut about the floor, beaks at various angles. Other works hang on walls or from the ceiling or perch on pedestals: in contrast to Gonzalez’s confining rectangle, Thomas’s work surrounds the viewer. The feeling created is not unlike the unease of being in a stranger’s cluttered bedroom.

The body is at issue, too, and with some of Gonzalez’s weirdness: the “slips” are actually two-dimensional images suggesting women, outlined with strips of cloth. Sycamore branches serve as shoulders, and ceramic insulating pipes, nails, and springs suggest ribs, but there are no heads. Seen near the birds these torsos imply that we are losing the supposedly unique intelligence that makes us human. There are human faces elsewhere in the installation, but not conventionally expressive ones; what faces there are have dark, hollow, skull-like eyes.

Like Gonzalez, Thomas began making things as a child and attended art school relatively late in life; she names van Gogh, Matisse, Paul Klee, Joseph Cornell, outsider art, children’s art, and Persian miniatures as among her influences. She also told me that her father ran a poultry hatchery when she was young, and that she grew up with many pets and frequent visits to her grandparents’ farm. Perhaps her upbringing helps account for the sense in her work that human and animal intelligence is somehow equivalent. Indeed, the birds seem to be taking over: on the floor, on a sill, drawings of them covering the text of Shakespeare plays, they contrast with the headless slips and with the “pod people” that have only colored balls for heads. Fatemi suggests “a craft project gone awry” in Thomas’s varied surfaces. Both Gonzalez and Thomas play at including chaos, trying to balance it with human-imposed order. In fact, Thomas has attacked some of her pieces with a meat hammer to give them a damaged look.

The small collage Annunciation refers to Renaissance paintings of the same subject, though Thomas told me she only chooses her titles after the works are finished. A large bird on the left is quite unlike the dove that traditionally represents the Holy Spirit; of the two figures on the right, the one in red is presumably the Virgin Mary. Both have indistinct faces, and instead of the bird and Mary being connected by a mystic beam, they are separated by a splotch of white paint and scribbled writing, some of it crossed out. There’s also scribbled writing in the collage of the same title as the installation. Bands of red on the left and right edges are of unequal width; a blank-faced human figure in the center is flanked by an animal on the left and a piece of fruit on the right. These side images are drawn on rectangles of paper that have been sewn on; the threads are not only visible but prominent. I saw here an echo of Gonzalez’s mixture of growth and decay: the stitching suggests a binding, an almost organic coming together. But the torn surface is held together only through conscious effort, with the stitches that link the images also creating a feeling of rupture.