Dysfunctional Home

at Northern Illinois University Art Gallery, through March 6

Traci Molloy: Still (The Final Chapter)

at Artemisia, through February 28

Robert Wilson: The Theater of Drawing

at the Museum of Contemporary Art, through March 14

By Fred Camper

“Dysfunctional Home” at the Northern Illinois University Art Gallery made me think of the antiseptic kitchens in TV commercials, with every surface perfectly clean and the whole room an object of proud display. But this exhibit of 27 works by eight artists (six Chicagoans) offers a humorous critique of that bloodless bourgeois cleanliness, illuminating issues of perfectionism and narcissistic exhibitionism. In an untitled piece, Jennifer Mannebach mounts on the wall Hydrocal casts of furniture parts that she’s manipulated, introducing an odd curve or sharp angle that makes them look deformed. Her Chronicle is a pinkish Hydrocal sculpture of an old ottoman complete with stains, dirt, a fringe (made from mops) on its sides, and an indentation on top from someone’s feet or rear end. These signs of wear combine with the title to suggest the familiar idea that a well-used object evokes a whole history, stories of the people who used it that we can never know.

Curator Julie Anne Charmelo writes, “Through the distancing of objects from the realm of utility, Dysfunctional Home… [explores] varied notions of what a home is,” and many of these artists add elements typically thought undesirable in our self-made refuges: mess, decay, evidence of previous occupants, hints of violence. Christine Tarkowski’s “wallpaper installations” include Feverish Interior, a large wall covered with dark, irregular woundlike semiellipses surrounded by blackened areas. She created these marks by burning small amounts of magnesium and gunpowder–and the residue of fire is unnerving.

Messiness is at play in Jane Benson’s three witty dust pieces (one titled Under the Chair Dust). She’s painted dust bunnies with white enamel in some 50 layers, which partly preserves and partly obliterates the texture of the dust: the glossy, reflective enamel recalls those perfect TV-kitchen surfaces, but makes a witty joke on the impossibility of perfect cleanliness.

Another group of works comments with equal wit on the idea of display, of the home not as a refuge but as an object to show off. Frances Myers in Best China mounts two porcelain plates side by side on a wall, one printed with the word “Best,” the other with “China,” effectively ridiculing those people interested in objects not because they’re beautiful or useful but because they announce the owner’s wealth. Paul Sacaridiz’s Ornament is a huge triptych, three white plaster blocks showing fruit in relief: in the manner of a trompe l’oeil painting come to life, grapes, bananas, and pineapples stick out of these large white slabs. Of course, in interior decorating schemes bowls of actual fruit are meant to convey bounty, but Sacaridiz undercuts that effect by leaving his surfaces white. Tonya Hart’s Vanity offers a witty comment on another kind of excess: her oversize shelf in front of a huge mirror is cluttered with containers of colored liquid, apparently perfume and cosmetics but, as I learned from the gallery director, actually different types of liquor.

Linda Horn’s Turf Lounger brings together the show’s themes with particular clarity. Her lounge chair is covered in AstroTurf, whose faux perfection–no bugs, no brown blades–not only eliminates mess but proudly proclaims its presence with a color even brighter than grass.

Most of the work in “Dysfunctional Home” offers a level of aesthetic quality rare in group shows. But only a few pieces are really moving. Perhaps because I connected the show’s title with the phrase “dysfunctional family,” I was surprised by how much of the work lacked a personal or emotional component. Hart’s large, obsessive Asylum–a room whose walls and floor are covered with mattresses–certainly has it, perhaps to excess, but most of the other pieces seem a bit detached, amused explorations of cultural contradictions whose playfulness limits their emotional impact.

By contrast, Traci Molloy’s 11 mixed-media works at Artemisia immediately evoke violent trauma, death, and perhaps a dysfunctional family. Yet in her statement she remarks only that her art “has dealt with issues in education” (Molloy has taught art in the public schools and college), alluding cryptically at the end to a “destructive overtone.” The Chinese Fire Drill, for example, shows a charcoal-colored background in the upper two-thirds punctured by a huge splash of white paint, a bit like a figure, with the words “my cancer” written to the right. This splash of white–looking as if it were the result of some violent impact–has a raw immediacy that suggests splattered blood or a bloody corpse on dark ground.

I asked Molloy, who lives in Atlanta but was born in Vermont in 1970 and raised there, about my perception, and she confirmed that this body of work does have trauma as a subject–not from her childhood, which she describes as “idyllic,” but rather from a fatal car crash a few years ago. She wouldn’t tell me anything except that she wasn’t involved in the crash, saying she wanted to “leave the work more open so that people can project their own experiences” onto it. But one smaller piece here, Raw Gasoline and Other Memories, includes part of what appears to be a newspaper report on a rollover crash that killed two in Vermont.

Despite Molloy’s silence, what’s affecting about her work is its specificity. Here is dominated by a thick black X, above which is written the word “here” in white chalk, as if marking the position of a corpse on the ground. This work is also stamped with small happy faces and festooned with a string of cutout paper dolls; across the bottom the words “GASOLINE RAW GASOLINE” are stenciled in mirror reversal, a tactic that underlines the disordered nature of the scene she evokes.

What’s most powerful about Molloy’s work formally is the way she layers paint, chalk, stamped images, cutouts, and other materials. At the same time that her lines and color fields project outward, toward the viewer, her dense and mostly dark surfaces seem to be absorbing them, as if she were visualizing death as the loss of form and identity. The heavy black field in the top part of Everyday, for example, partly surrounds or obliterates the work’s horizontal lines and yellow rectangles. Three words–“today / yesterday / tomorrow”–written in white chalk, then crossed out, make the point that death blots out not only the present but the past and future; the piece conveys a terrifying finality and emptiness.

Molloy’s work succeeds because she gives form to the event at its core, but her reference is so specific that the work may not have the universal power she hopes for: I kept thinking of specific bodies, the smell of gasoline, a specific stretch of road. In a way Molloy’s pieces reminded me of Hart’s roomful of mattresses in Asylum: both seemed tied to a particular personal moment. The two shows together momentarily made me wonder whether the cool, almost impersonal quality of the art in “Dysfunctional Home” was necessary for it to achieve generality.

But the strongest piece in “Dysfunctional Home,” Sean Rowe’s Mantrap #1, reminded me that art can be both emotional and controlled. A long cylindrical cushion, made to look as if it came from an old, very large chair, is suspended way above a long, ornate synthetic rug lying on a thin platform. The rug is surrounded by a low-lying rope almost like a tiny fence, while the red cushion points downward; its shape, angle, and the work’s title are obviously phallic. But the piece also relies on the oddity of removing household objects from their everyday functions, and more than anything else it evokes some unnamed dread, a disordered world in which objects seem to suggest more than can be logically explained. Roping off the rug reminded me of the middle-class tradition of designating some furniture too good to be sat on, and the cushion’s connotations of aggression certainly relate to the “display” quality of domestic objects elsewhere in the show. But in part because of the cushion’s precarious dangle, Mantrap #1 also suggests impending disaster.

A similar mix of emotional suggestiveness and cool formal control marks two sets of chairs designed by director Robert Wilson for his productions, part of a small exhibition of Wilson’s notebooks, drawings, and other objects at the Museum of Contemporary Art. Stalin Chairs are based on chairs Wilson designed for his 1973 The Life and Times of Joseph Stalin. These, however, are covered with lead: their surfaces look like slipcovers, complete with fabriclike creases and folds, but assert the heavy physicality of metal. “Dysfunctional” in the sense that lead is toxic, these two rounded shapes nonetheless suggest real chairs. I’ve rarely seen a sculptural object express contradictions so well: they’re both human and antihuman, squat and vertical (because of the drapery folds), heavy and light. Weaving together such contradictions, these objects unite rather than separate emotional expression and formal elegance.

Wilson’s two Queen Victoria Chairs, from his 1974 A Letter for Queen Victoria, reveal an equally powerful set of contradictions. Huge, heavy, and rigidly geometrical, these chairs each have six lights embedded in them, four of them in the legs. These bright lights make each chair into something of a magical kid’s toy, so that finally this furniture conveys a mix of oppression and playfulness, of overwhelming mass and gentle glow. In the original Broadway production, of course, one couldn’t see them this well; here they lose their place in Wilson’s tableau but are in a way even more powerful than they were at a distance.

Wilson’s productions have only rarely played in Chicago; most of the ones I’ve attended have been in New York, and his work is produced even more often in Europe, where unconventional art is far better funded. But in Wilson’s greatest performances, the entire spectacle resembles a film in slow motion. His perfect control of costumes, props, gestures, movements, and lighting produces a spatiotemporal image with the integrity of a piece of music. His actors most often speak and move in a kind of deadpan, and his scripts vacillate between playfulness and absurdity; his is a theater of primarily visual poetry. Often very slow by conventional measures, his performances produce the sense of a mechanical process that’s both inevitable and inexplicable. These chairs capture some of the almost surrealist magic of his theater, which uses objects, actions, and lighting to create effects unlike any seen before.

Unfortunately the rest of the exhibit mostly fails to capture Wilson’s stage magic. The 20 drawings on view do indicate the way he designs his work–thinking of the stage as a single image–but their sketchiness gives no sense of his obsessively clean lines onstage. His 1981 video, Deafman Glance, indicates what his theater pieces look like–a woman slowly performs a variety of actions, such as pouring a glass of milk–but the video conveys none of the power of his work onstage. When she stabs a boy, who falls to the ground at a rate far slower than that of a real fall, it reads like yet another slow-motion rendition of disaster, a Hollywood cliche. Deafman Glance doesn’t respect the nature of the medium the way Wilson’s stage pieces do. The exhibit also includes a CD-ROM, Visionary of Theater, documenting Wilson’s early theatrical pieces, but the computer that runs it apparently keeps crashing. Though museum officials did say they got it working again, it was dysfunctional on my three visits.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): “Best China” by Frances Myers; “queen Victoria Chairs” by Robert Wilson; “The Chinse Fire Drill” by Traci Molloy.