Angela Willcocks: Walldrawings

at Artemisia, through December 1

Siebren Versteeg

at Suitable, through December 1

Our culture is preoccupied with objects and their consumption. Possessing things, we’re told, enhances the self–and advertising images offer the kind of instantly apparent “perfection” that invites ownership. Artists opposing this ethos often create notably “imperfect” works, seeking to disturb rather than satisfy. And with their references to internal organs, Angela Willcocks’s nine creepy installations at Artemisia almost literally get under one’s skin.

Willcocks’s titles are simple lists of the materials in each piece, typically made up of sculptural elements plus wall drawings. The centerpiece of Chitlins, Chewing Gum, Red Carbon, Pins, Shadow is a bit of pig intestine pinned to the wall; orange chewing gum on the intestine’s surface creates the illusion of overlapping membranous layers. Overall Willcocks’s creation gives the impression of something that really shouldn’t be displayed in a gallery. On the wall around the chitlin Willcocks has drawn broken geometrical patterns in red; multiple hexagons suggest the benzene ring, a basic chemical building block. Willcocks creates a vivid, almost irreconcilable contrast between her straight lines on a flat wall and the irregularly shaped three-dimensional intestine.

Weirdness in art can be just plain weird, provocative only for a moment. But the visual contrasts Willcocks creates and the way her pieces both engage and repel prevent simple apprehension. The show also offers some oblique social commentary, referring to silicone implants (one piece includes hand-cast silicone) and artificial body parts (others use rubber or acrylic). “I’m interested in how we’re changing who we are,” Willcocks told me. “I want to create a feeling of beauty from a distance, but then when you get up close, a lot of people are disgusted.” The benzene rings, she said, are meant to suggest “how we change things chemically, beautifying ourselves.” Willcocks, who was born in Australia in 1961 and now lives in Atlanta, uses chitlins–a characteristic southern dish–to reinforce the importance of local culture despite the globalization of our era.

Willcocks’s pieces recall those of an artist she cites as an influence, Richard Tuttle, whose installations–made of such minimal materials as torn cardboard–call attention to the space around them. Another way Willcocks creates unease is by making her works sprawl across imagined borders, also suggesting the way that the boundaries between artificial and real, public and private, are broken down by modern life. Hair, Chitlins, Fake Fur, Sequins, Oil Paint, Shadow, Pencil, set in a corner of the room, spreads strands of hair across both walls, descending from a sharply defined curved line in a way that evokes a mustache and beard. In this piece Willcocks attaches sequins to little balls of fake fur; creating additional sprawl are two sequined blobs, one on the ceiling and another on the floor, lying next to many hair strands and hair balls. It’s almost as if someone shedding his beard had encountered an obsessive sequin decorator–but what’s with the pig intestine?

The most elegant piece sprawls in a different way. Copperwire, Hair, Pencil, Shadow consists of five clusters of wire and hair, four arranged on one wall and one on another separated from the first by a doorway. The hair is tied to wire frames, creating little clusters of junk materials; organically arranged, they evoke dense skeletons or little creatures–Willcocks even hints at wings in a drawing on the wall behind one of them. Complex shadows mix with the lines of the wire and hair and the pencil lines to confound easy apprehension.

Employing dispersion and a jarring oddity to defeat objectification and complacency, Willcocks ultimately critiques the idea of art as a fixed, limited, or unified entity. With greater subtlety than many installation artists who make a similar point, she prevents the viewer from mentally enclosing each work in a single gestalt.

Siebren Versteeg’s four strange pieces at Suitable also call attention to the viewing experience. A key inspiration for the show’s nocturnal mood–one room is kept quite dark–is his job as a multimedia Web and CD-ROM designer: “I work in a storefront with blinds on the window, often very late at night,” he told me. He mentions as influences Bill Viola, Tom Friedman, and Gary Hill but adds, “I think everything is an influence–my cell phone is an influence.”

Born in New Haven in 1971 and now living in Chicago, Versteeg began as a sculptor (his father was a metal fabricator who did work for David Smith and Claes Oldenburg), then switched to video at the School of the Art Institute. Lens Crafter, the only brightly illuminated work here, combines his interest in sculpture with a critique of perfection. He says a friend gave him “a pair of really busted up eyeglass frames for my birthday, and I decided I wanted to make lenses that conformed to the frame.” Part of one lens is bloated to match a break in the frame, suggesting that the lens somehow caused the rupture–a standard consumer object gone haywire.

For Junkyard Versteeg placed old batteries in a plastic box along with a mix of dirt from his front yard and the more evenly textured soil used by model railroad builders. He says this piece stems partly from his “guilty environmentalism”: Versteeg had been saving half-dead batteries for possible reuse, knowing that “it’s not really right to toss them in the trash.” Where a minimalist might have created a grid with a single type of battery, reflecting a universalizing ordering impulse, Versteeg includes a chaotic jumble of battery brands and sizes, a collection that evokes the messiness of life. A little handmade lamp rising elegantly from the center of the box provides the only illumination; this plus the dirt transform the batteries into art, refocusing the viewer’s attention and memorializing the ordinary.

Delf (the artist says the title is current slang for “self” as well as an acronym for Digitally Engineered Life Form) is at once the most seductive and unsettling piece. A silhouetted figure appears to float in space, drifting and rotating, its arms and legs extending and retracting. Using a photo of his own body, Versteeg wrote a program that created random movements, displayed on a laptop screen covered with blank newsprint, which softens the figure. His weightless dance recalls scuba diving, and the slight but constant variations in movement and position are hypnotic, aspiring to timelessness. A single chair encourages one viewer at a time to sit facing the screen, whose light is transformed by the newsprint into a strangely organic glow brighter at the center because Versteeg made the image lighter there. Behind the screen is a single candle–and it seems that its flame, not thousands of tiny transistors, is what illuminates the silhouette. In Delf Versteeg both utilizes and undercuts the computer, a cultural icon: it clearly creates the movement yet its man-made rectilinearity and cold, even glow are defied by the flickering firelight, which recalls ancient forms of shadow play.