at Ehlers Caudill Gallery
This gruesomely appealing show demonstrates the paradox of human existence through an aesthetic treatment of butcher-shop entrails. British artist Helen Chadwick, in her large color photographs and photo sculptures, uses offal to symbolize our own insides, reminding us of how dependent our intangible spirit is on such tangible things as our hearts and livers. Her literal approach is both a strength and a weakness, however. It makes for a distinctive show with a great impact but reduces the thematic exploration in some pieces to mere repetition.
Eight of the ten works in this small one-room gallery are 20-inch-by-24-inch matted and framed still-life Polaroid images; each has the title Meat Abstract. Each features some internal organ, a few handfuls of fat, and often a glowing light bulb decorously arranged on a background of expensive-looking fabric or animal skin. The lighting is deliberately and obviously seductive, macabrely titillating. Highlights emphasize the mucousy shine of a clump of liver; folds of soft azure silk slip gently into enticing shadows. The glossy surface characteristic of Polaroid images heightens the slick, wet look.
Chadwick’s literal approach establishes an immediate dialogue with the viewer. As I looked at the first Meat Abstract, I couldn’t help thinking that a reconsideration of vegetarianism might be in order. In this first piece, several yellow gelatinous balls with fine red veins are scattered about on a soft pale orange cloth. A vertical seam of heavy thread runs up the cloth several inches from the right edge of the image–the stitches look like sutures. To the right of this seam are two butter knives of fine old silver and one chicken drumstick. To the left of the seam is a long slender piece of gristle, repulsively mauve and membranous. A cluster of vertically arranged silverware lies to its left. Completing this unsavory place setting is a neat length of cloth the color of dried blood running across the bottom quarter of the image.
The sharply focused details of this photo confront us with our own mortality. These parts may not be human, but we grasp the connection instantly. We too have flesh, bone, gristle, and veins. Seeing such parts arranged so daintily is comic, but it’s also disturbing. At least, we sigh, they are only chicken parts. But in other photographs, the origin of the parts is less sure. The fatty heart in one abstract looks human enough. In the upper half of this composition, an electrical cord emerges from the base of a metal socket holding a glowing light bulb, passes through the heart, and runs down to the bottom of the picture. In the lower left section of the image rests a large, ponderous red brown organ, connected to the heart by a thin, tautly stretched string of tissue.
The light bulb, which appears in five of the eight photographs, is a simple, obvious reference to our unquenchable quest for knowledge. We can see and touch the external parts of our bodies, but not our internal ones. Only in death can hidden organs be examined and displayed in a bright, clarifying light. We will never know ourselves in this way, but the seductive shadows and luxurious fabrics seem to suggest a morbid desire for such knowledge. We are necessarily separated from ourselves by our own encasement of skin, a boundary between interior and exterior worlds. The animal-skin backgrounds may also refer to this physical boundary.
Many of these meat abstracts fail to transcend the literal, to reach the metaphorical. With a few exceptions, the relationship between visual elements and their meaning can be drawn in one step. The organs, background fabrics, and shapes of the light bulbs vary from picture to picture, but their straightforward handling remains the same. One of the exceptions to this overliteral treatment is an image of 20 to 30 wet-looking tongues stacked in a crescent formation. These tongues are colored and patterned differently: they might be gray, beige, black, speckled or plain, and so on. If these tongues could talk, what would they say? Each might have different story to tell and a different language in which to tell it. The Tower of Babel comes to mind. This composition speaks not only about mortality but also about how, in facing death, everything else becomes insignificant. In the end, all tongues spout gibberish.
In the midst of such serious contemplations, the strongly humorous edge of the show’s two photo sculptures is most appealing. Part of the “Meat Lamp” series, these pieces are actually uniquely shaped light boxes that illuminate their photographic images from within. The Philosopher’s Fear of Flesh compares human and chicken to instant comic advantage. Two light boxes of polished maple in the form of large teardrops are hung on the wall one above the other to form a figure eight. Inside the top teardrop is a large color transparency of chicken skin, complete with goose-bump patterns. A hot yellow spot glows small but intense beneath the pale violet and yellow orange flesh. The lower teardrop displays a transparency of a man’s belly. A number of formal similarities relate the two. The hair on the belly forms a pattern that resembles the chicken skin’s goose bumps. The shape of the human belly button is repeated by the small circular hot spot inside the chicken skin. The lower section of each image slips into delicate shadow.
Again we see the themes of physical boundaries and the desire to see the unseeable. But the overt equalizing of human and chicken allows for a wonderful layer of absurdity lacking in the more refined and solemn Polaroids. The humor is reinforced by the shape of the piece, which seems arbitrary and therefore farcical. Even the title seems to poke fun at our need to rhapsodize about, analyze, and agonize over the human spirit. By focusing on the metaphysical, we reassure ourselves that we are superior to other earthly creatures. On a physical level, though, we have to admit we are equal.
The other light-box sculpture is called Agape. Inside a pink leather case is a transparency depicting the interior of a wide-open mouth, shiny with mucous and colored in blazing reds and oranges. The back half of a yellow tongue in the bottom center of the image seems to say “ahhh.” Part of the pink case is a small pink prong extending down from the top middle of the case a few inches in front of the cavelike mouth. It looks like a tonsil and sports a real light bulb, which is lit. The garish colors of the illuminated image are rather horrible, but they’re offset by the ridiculousness of the pink case. Agape seems a direct attempt to satisfy the desires expressed in the Polaroid prints. It literally lights up a bodily interior. However, the title and the fiery colors seem to warn against going any deeper. We might be shocked by what we’d find. Perhaps it’s best not to contemplate our physical mystery too closely.
You may get a bit of a twinge in your own guts as you look at Chadwick’s work. Her meat abstracts, with their lumps of glistening organs and fat tissue, certainly give a new, literal meaning to the term “still life.” While some viewers may find such direct reminders of their own mortality distasteful, others will perhaps come away with a renewed sense of awe. For despite every scientific breakthrough, the relationship between body and spirit is still enigmatic and amazing. Chadwick’s humorous sculptures go the still lifes one better. And we will need to draw on this humor as our bodies begin to betray us.