Iris Moore and Christina Cobb

at Randolph Street Gallery,

February 18 and 19

Iris Moore, who will probably never do a sitcom, is something of a pure artist. She does what she does because it feels right to her and because she has something to say. If there are other considerations–say, extending an engagement, playing to a particular funder, or sucking up to a critic–these never show. My hunch is that they don’t even enter the picture.

But I don’t want to give the impression that her work is narcissistic: among Chicago’s performance artists (yes, I know she moved to Portland a year ago, but she still seems rooted here), Moore is the most intuitive, the most anticipatory. Yet she’s not a deliberate trendsetter. That she’s proven to be such a phenomenal influence here–on artists such as Lawrence Steger, D. Travers Scott, Douglas Stapleton and the late Randy Eslinger, Suzi Silver, Beth Tanner, Dani K. (the list goes on and on)–is simply a by-product of her personality. She’s an original. She stimulates and engages you. She challenges you. She’s generous–and sometimes a little nasty. She doesn’t mince words. The thing is, she’s so damn far ahead of the curve, it sometimes takes a while for the rest of us to catch up. By the time we get there, we’re breathless and she’s already onto something else. I’ve found that it’s a good idea to see her work more than once, and I’ve never felt that way about any other artist I’ve reviewed.

What all this means, of course, is that Moore is cursed: she’ll never hit the big time. You may not get all this from watching a single Moore performance–they’re usually so thick with text and allusions in the text that it’s difficult to sift through them. But to connect with a Moore piece only on the intellectual level would be a mistake: not so far from the surface of her lopsided, sardonic grin is a reservoir of pain, of feeling. There’s heart. The girl is a sentimentalist. Double curse: smart and sensitive.

Moore’s lastest piece, The Last Act of Cruelty, made its Chicago debut at Randolph Street in mid-February. It’s a bone-chilling, aching work, wordy perhaps but visually arresting. It runs about 45 minutes but feels like a snapshot. And in many ways it is. Played out on an altar flanked by two candelabras, with the participation of Steger and Steger’s dog, Laszlo, Moore’s piece is dazzling–and so is she, bedecked in a skintight, nearly translucent lace dress.

The Last Act of Cruelty doesn’t contain one thing that’s out of place, one thing that’s predictable. A piano solo on the sound track is punctuated by a horse’s whinnying; a string of pearls delicately affixed to Moore’s lower lids is brutally torn off; thin candles stuck to her fingertips like claws are suddenly aflame.

The piece is divided into three sections: “Life,” “Love,” and “Death.” The text is by Moore, except for the last part, which she appropriated from Artaud. Whether by Moore or Artaud, the language is often lush, often startling. The two texts blend seamlessly. As always, Moore surprises with the quirky image: “And love is like shitting a lantern,” she says. “You have no idea how it got into your system, but there’s the evidence, right there in the toilet bowl. . . . And if this metaphor goes on too long, well, so does love.” OK, so love is just about impossible, its perfection to be found only in the exact moment of falling. Before that, it’s just a scary possibility. Afterward, it requires an ambulance–if you survive at all. But here’s the rub, says Moore, we keep going at it, like trained dogs.

The dogs–Steger as a metaphoric dog and Laszlo–add a weird, uncomfortable erotic quality to the proceedings. It would be too easy to say that they bring in male energy; they’re really about something more than that, something eerie and otherworldly. They are odd but poignant choices to represent hope, and death, and the hope of renewal through death–symbolic and otherwise. They verge on the sentimental, reminding us that we too will grasp at straws just as melodramatically, just as pathetically, just as innocently; we are as Pavlovian in our behavior.

Steger has no lines (though he does lip-synch lines recorded on tape by someone else), but he’s brilliant. He brings an elegance to the piece, a sense of the friendly but dangerous stranger. At the same time, it’s soon clear that in the eyeball-to-eyeball match he has with Moore, he is the one who will blink first–even if she has allowed him to think he’s leading in their bizarre little dance. Steger seems more focused, more disciplined, more on top of his game when he works with Moore than in his own solo performances. And Laszlo, a burly shepherd mix I think, is amazingly well trained. The final scene of The Last Act of Cruelty–offering a spine-tingling punch–depends entirely on his cooperation, and both nights I saw the piece Laszlo came through like a champ.

There’s more to The Last Act of Cruelty, of course. There’s the gender play, the inherent sadism and masochism of knowing the end is coming, the longing to belong somewhere, anywhere, even if only in death. There’s enough wordplay and role-playing (not just reversal) to turn feminism on its ear, shake it up like a can of Jolt Cola and hand it back ready to explode.

Christina Cobb, who shared the bill with Moore, had problems with her piece that went beyond the drawback of The Last Act of Cruelty–that it’s virtually impossible to follow. An obsessive movement piece involving the manipulation of a chair, Concourse is described as having been inspired by many hours of waiting at airports. Cobb has a nice presence, and her control is obvious, but Concourse is a very young, very shallow work.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photo/Peter Taub.