In the world created by Nancy Bardawil and Matthew Owens the word “colostomize” comes up more often than usual. It’s a world of blood, bile, and feces, where cadavers don’t just walk the earth but talk, philosophize, and carry a tune; where death is king, and life is of little consequence.
The pair are sculptors, performance artists, and, for a new series of shows at Club Lower Links, impresarios. Last year, in a series of performance-art revues called “The Monster Show,” they and a bunch of fellow performers celebrated deformity, monstrosity, and mutation. This year, the pair has conceived an ode to killing in all its manifestations in a presentation called “The Cide Show.”
Homicide, suicide, patricide, spermicide–if it has to do with induced death, it falls within the show’s purview. The series, which continues on Saturdays through August, had its genesis in a chance encounter. “We were driving and saw a truck in front of us,” says Bardawil. “On the left it said ‘passing side’; on the right it said ‘suicide.’ I said, ‘Matt, let’s do a cide show!'” The series opened last weekend with an eight-foot-tall cadaverous clown (Owens was inside) intoning, “I could kill you,” and then embarking on a philosophical discourse on the phrase’s casual prevalence. Opening-night attendees saw essays on everything from suicide (a hilarious will read by David Sedaris) to insecticide (Owens as a fly spookily entreating, “Stop spraying! Stop spraying!”) to homicide (an eerie, brutal piece by magician and performer John Keith) to what might be called iconicide (Owens again, brandishing a hapless, crucified Garfield doll).
Owens and Bardawil perform and sculpt separately, but they found their sensibilities similar enough to form a professional partnership sculpting and painting on demand–murals or trompe l’oeil commissions for homes or businesses, elaborate room designs for corporate parties or bar mitzvahs–and undertaking creations like “The Cide Show” on the, uh, side. What unites them is a confrontational, assertive use of sculpture. “We like to do really dynamic things with sculpture, instead of spending all our time doing it for other people’s bathrooms, or bar mitzvahs,” says Bardawil. “Some of [the commissioned work] we like–we did a pig carcass, all really bloody and everything, for a stockyards display at the historical society. Or we do mummies for the opera. But sometimes it’s not so much fun, like doing a replica of the Statue of Liberty.”
They use a variety of materials, depending on the project–rubber or foam for full-body creations, the substance used for dentures or prosthetics for small limbs and such, and tubing, latex, and painted cloth for the most gruesome effects. Bardawil once created a life-size dummy out of rubber, based on a mold she made of a friend; it was put to predictably bloody use in an Owens piece about Jack the Ripper. She does her own performances as well; at Lower Links some time ago, she fashioned a seven-foot-tall pair of female legs, attached a correspondingly large skirt, and hung upside down between them playing a fiddle. Owens works with both human and animal figures, but tends to like them dead-looking. His elaborate, corroded cadavers tend to have their skin rotten away, their bones left covered with desiccated muscle tissue. His comic, disturbing performance pieces include manipulating a giant skeletal Karen Carpenter puppet to the strains of “Top of the World” and playing a cowboy astride a gigantic, decayed horse corpse, singing about the importance of keeping one’s steed well fed. (“Don’t forget to feed your horse.”)
Bardawil was born to Lebanese parents who lived in both New England and Guanajuato, Mexico; Owens grew up in Wyoming. The Art Institute eventually brought both of them to Chicago. They met at a prop-making workshop in 1985 and established a loose partnership. At one point, they cohosted a weekly show about performance art on cable-access TV. “We’d throw inflatable love dolls around and demonstrate how to drill holes through baby dolls,” says Owens. “It was a call-in show, and most of the calls were people amazed that adults did this sort of stuff and that people paid to see it.”
While some people do pay to see it, performance art remains somewhat dicey as a profession. (“There’s not a lot of money in cadavers,” says Owens.) On the other hand, it does seem to have achieved a relatively healthy status in Chicago, a situation that seems due in large part to the Chicago performers’ enthusiastic embrace of the variety show. One of the biggest, of course, is Brigid Murphy’s Milly’s Orchid Show, which brings crowds to the Park West on an almost monthly basis and has introduced performers like Owens, Bardawil, Sedaris, and many others to a more mainstream audience over the last few years. At the same time, Lower Links has pioneered undertakings like Owens and Bardawil’s–collections of performances on a set theme, running over four or five weeks, the range of performers contributing to the variety in the audience. The popularity of performance art here may be rooted as well in the relative friendliness of the Chicago scene. “There’s one aspect of it that’s pretty critical to here,” Owens says, “one that performance artists from New York instantly recognize. The artists here tend to support one another and promote one another’s work.”
Judging from its first-night draw, “The Cide Show” has got some mass appeal. What’s the attraction? Bardawil notes that there’s an element of universality to their subjects. “The Monster Show,” she says, came at least partly out of the pair’s observance of some of the other performance revues: “There were shows by disenfranchised groups, women or whatever, that were kind of exclusive. We thought, if we do monsters, that’s not exclusive at all.” Death, of course, is even less particular and equally attractive to the pair’s sensibilities. “We love killing,” says Bardawil. “It’s just so funny.”
“You’d think that with all this stuff in Milwaukee or the Persian Gulf people would be inured to it all.” says Owens, “People must figure out a way to abstract it away from themselves, and then someone like me comes along and puts it right back into their laps.”
“The Cide Show” continues at Club Lower Links, 954 W. Newport, at 9 PM tomorrow, August 24, and August 31. Tickets are $8, and seating is limited, so getting there early is probably a good idea. Call 248-5238 for details.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Charles Eshelman.