THE VIEW FROM THE BED: A PERSONAL LOOK AT ILLNESS AND DISABILITY
at the International Museum of Surgical Science, through January 14
Magnetic Resonance Imaging is a diagnostic tool useful in a variety of situations–but while MRI generates high-resolution pictures of the insides of our bodies, it also unnerves patients, who must enter a claustrophobic space and listen to strange, metallic noises. And in Body Criticism: Imaging the Unseen in Enlightenment Art and Medicine (1991), University of Chicago art historian Barbara Maria Stafford notes the contradiction between current scanning technologies like MRI and the breakdown of trust in the doctor-patient relationship. She asks, “As we approach our own fin-de-siecle, how can we remedy the immemorial rift between knowing and seeing, internal cause and external effect?”
Seven artists bring their own images of the unseen to an exhibit at the International Museum of Surgical Science, “The View From the Bed: A Personal Look at Illness and Disability.” These works seem to compete with the visual data produced by scanning equipment: doctors see illness and disability as “cases” to be solved, and artists see them as personal crises with no immediate solutions. Naturally, their visions collide. Sometimes, they miss each other altogether.
Riva Lehrer, William Harroff, David Richards, and Stephanie Bernheim have experienced the medical ordeal as patients, while Lucinda Naylor, Nicole Ferentz, and Tim Lowly have had loved ones undergo treatment. All the artists are acutely aware and often suspicious of medical technology and personnel, though they feel they should trust them. Sometimes that suspicion is slight and seems natural, as in Ferentz’s booklet of captioned sketches, Recovering From Cancer at Home, in which she gently chides the nurse responsible for instructing her cancer-ridden mother how to get in and out of bed. But in other cases resentment at being at the mercy of impersonal powers rises up, as in Lehrer’s painting Chorus, which captures the icy horror of a physical exam: a patient sits on an examination table with her back to us, her gown falling off her shoulder to reveal tattoos of the faces of the doctors who have seen her body. In front of her their white coats hang on pegs, their instruments sticking out of the pockets like claws.
The museum proves a strange and appropriate setting for the works on display. Presenting the history of surgery, the permanent exhibit starts with the drilled skulls of 2,000-year-old Peruvians and moves through a suggestive array of blades, clamps, forceps, curettes, and scopes that must have damaged as often as they healed. Some of the implements recall the barbaric tools invented by Jeremy Irons’s evil gynecologist in David Cronenberg’s horror flick Dead Ringers, based on a true story. The collection’s Eisenhower-era iron lung must have made children with polio think they were entering a torture chamber. Overall the museum’s neo-Gothic architecture and intimations of pain and death in every room make it a scary place, and all the scarier when you realize that the items on display once represented state-of-the-art medical technology. How long, you want to ask, before the MRI chamber ends up with all the other artifacts?
Lehrer’s powerful paintings and glass-covered boxes take as their subject the human body’s transmutations under the influence of the medical ordeal. She also explores the sexuality that charges the doctor-patient relationship, depicting the hospital bed as a site of seduction in Diagnosis II (The Mirror) (1992). A male doctor approaches a female patient, who sits up in bed dressed in a red gown. Thick glasses obscure his eyes, and the reflecting light on his head shines into hers. Above this scene smaller, isolated images of a flower, an ear, and a stethoscope obliquely tell the story of her real or figurative seduction.
Richards combines anatomical elements with mechanical devices in his mixed-media works. Shaped frames of painted wood surround collages of game boards, erotic engravings, and assorted other bits of the artist’s personal iconography. On the Eccentric (1991) shows a human heart held together with clothespins. His Proteus (1993) presents in wood what might be a cross section of bone, but instead of marrow the bone is filled with collage elements, including illustrations from an old biology textbook–a reminder of the inevitable obsolescence of any scientific enterprise.
Harroff’s small offset lithograph, Mayo’s, chronicles a visit to the Minnesota clinic, whose eminent reputation and automated hardware clearly failed to reassure him. In order to calm himself he played “Exquisite Corpse,” the surrealist parlor game in which segments of a picture are drawn with the rest of the drawing covered up. Although playing the game by yourself makes as much sense as challenging yourself at ticktacktoe, Harroff has created an arresting picture, darkly punning on the game’s title. Each of the four frames contains a segment of the body rendered in black and white along with comic book-like bursts of text, including the evocative formula: “Man + machine.”
Naylor’s acquaintance with AIDS patients has shown her the chill of the modern hospital, but she seeks comfort in spirituality. “Even though we live in a time of medical wonders and cures beyond our ancestors’ imaginings,” she explains in the text accompanying her tempera paintings, “the state of our own mind/our own spirit still impacts greatly on our health and our healing.” In her ribbon series a twisting ribbon of paint pierces and connects naked bodies in a desolate landscape, acting as a metaphor for a disease that constitutes a tremendous challenge to modern medicine. The pre-Columbian style of figuration in her paintings recalls Paul Gauguin and underscores her position in the battle between the ancient and the modern, the spiritual and the technological. The Milagro (“The Miracle”) depicts a murky blue green head and torso with the rib cage exposed, skillfully reinventing a vocabulary created by Frida Kahlo: the victim of a streetcar accident that broke her spine and pelvis, Kahlo knew all about the view from the bed.
Lowly’s daughter Temma was born with extreme brain damage, and his art testifies to the hours and hours he spent by her side. An artist whose careful way with line nearly derails the immediacy of the emotions he wants to convey, Lowly paints his daughter’s face in extreme close-up in If (1992), as though he were searching for a sign of brain activity the EEG might have missed. Temma’s head fits in one small square engulfed by a blank white space. She appears in all the pictures but is sometimes joined by other figures. In Cantique Pupal (1992) a humble glow-worm toy offers comfort, and in Sentinel (for the Blind Guide) (1989), a pink stuffed cat hints at a hopeful prognosis. The notoriety of American artist Mike Kelley, who sews stuffed toys together in obscene positions, threatens to negate Lowly’s symbols of childhood, but finally Kelley’s perverse irony just adds to the poignancy of Lowly’s art, which reclaims the genuine comfort of kids’ toys.
Ferentz does not challenge medical science the way the other artists do: she seems resigned to the fact that neither art nor medicine will prevent her mother from dying. In her ink-and-watercolor sketch, Going Off the Edge of the World, an old woman with a walker and a cigarette steps off a small planet and into the cosmos. As she moves forward, she loses one slipper–which is probably fine with her since her feet won’t be touching the ground again. The amusing booklet Recovering From Cancer at Home offers neither practical advice, as its title suggests, nor sentimental recollections. Instead Ferentz finds solace in sharing the aggravating and ridiculous moments in taking care of her mother, who is bald from chemotherapy but still clings to her cigarettes.
Of the seven artists, Bernheim shows the least specific reaction to an encounter with medicine. Her acrylic paintings on archival paper capture an inarticulate, intense fear of the unknown. Cartilage/Hand, with its scrawled letters and incoherent forms, could be a young child’s attempt at playing doctor or an admission that the doctors we want to trust are really just children, as puzzled as anybody when something goes wrong with the body.
In the debate over a national health care plan, both sides swear up and down that they will protect the trust between doctor and patient. But the ideal they invoke, rooted in the dry soil of another era, fails to convince in the MRI era, when out of apparent necessity we trust printouts more than we do people. While art cannot replace the human element lost in today’s health care process, at least it can show what’s missing.