Melissa Pokorny

at Bodybuilder and Sportsman, through April 27

Vladimir Grigorovich: The Poetry of Mirrors

at Maya Polsky, through April 30

Art that eschews beauty, seeking to confront rather than soothe, goes back almost a century, to the dadaists. Falling into this category, Melissa Pokorny’s six sculptures at Bodybuilder and Sportsman are “often vomitous” (in the words of the gallery’s press release). Simplicity Inc. (Silver Lining) seems a drunken builder’s nightmare, its only sense its own nonsense. Gray “cement” oozes from between six boxes covered with faux-brick paper stacked on top of one another. What looks like a latticework fabric (actually cut from a craft material called “Wonderfoam”) is draped over part of the top one, a yellow and blue “awning” hangs from the side of another, and a resin “rock” inscribed with the word “spirit” sits on top of the stack. But even as Pokorny’s works seem to be coming apart at the seams, they mix forms and undercut expectations in ways that are oddly sensual and pleasurable.

The two main parts of Glister Glam (Crevasse) are boards covered with fake-wood patterns jutting up from the floor and meeting at different angles. A cloth draped over one of the boards has three holes in it–the result of a mouse chewing it to build a nest while it was rolled up in her garage, Pokorny told me. The other board holds a big mound of resolutely ugly, almost fecal polyurethane balls that Pokorny cast. Sticking up between them are tiny flags she made of floral drapery fabric, recalling the pennants conquerors plant on the tops of hills or the banners businesses fly. The fabric’s nature pattern suggests beauty amid detritus–the way plants can reclaim rubbish piles–while the flags parody phallic conquest and patriotism, and the mouse holes more generally undermine human assertiveness.

Born in the Detroit area in 1962, Pokorny grew up there and in a working-class suburb of Saint Louis. She moved to California in 1986 and lived there until a year ago, when she took a teaching job at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Always making things as a child (“If somebody threw out an aspirin bottle, I’d paint it pink and make it into a pig”), she was influenced by an aunt who was “a very eccentric Dumpster diver, a natural bricoleur who would put together these amazing hideous lamps. Her whole house was done up in odds and ends.” Pokorny’s shipping-clerk dad was an autodidact who had “English aspirations,” so their home was decorated in “sedate cool colors”–but friends’ homes might feature “red velvet with Spanish matadors on the wall.” Acknowledging that her art is in part a rebellion against her parents’ decorating, Pokorny says that she was influenced by Philip Guston, Louise Bourgeois, Mike Kelley, and California funk artist Robert Arneson (with whom she studied).

Sharp Yellow (Ravine)–which takes its title from a Guston painting, Ravine–overturns traditional sculptural and architectural distinctions between inside and outside. Two parallel walls form a tall, very narrow passageway, but the faux brick is on the inside faces. A mound of polyurethane balls sits within–as well as fragments of Pokorny’s old work, because she thinks of a ravine as “a place where you throw shit.” Attached to one of the outside walls are torn yellow strips of cloth wound around still more balls, confounding another distinction: are these balls sculpture or junk?

Throughout the show, the point isn’t simply that the mind can’t integrate the piece’s elements into a unified composition but that their functions are constantly shifting–in fact some of the pleasure comes from the mind-tickling way one must continually reinterpret them. That there are balls on both sides of the walls in Sharp Yellow (Ravine) further blurs the distinction between inside and out, in the same way that the miniature awning in Simplicity Inc., the abstract artist-made lattice, and the actual object of the stone take different, incompatible approaches to representation.

Pokorny’s incongruous awnings and faux surfaces address the way symbols in mass culture are often decontextualized for shock effect, as in the clothing-boutique window display I once saw based on a slaughterhouse motif. By making pieces incorporating both formal contradictions and contradictions in content, Pokorny foregrounds our current cultural chaos.

Born in Moscow in 1939 and now living in New Jersey, Vladimir Grigorovich is a generation older than Pokorny and a bit more traditional artistically. But for both artists, the challenge is to find ways of organizing chaos. Grigorovich’s 13 paintings at Maya Polsky (most made between 1988 and 1990) all include images of mirrors, and one is on the metal backing of an old mirror. But instead of a representational reflection within them we see an abstraction. Inspired in part by his interest in early American furniture and frames, Grigorovich says that the fields within the mirrors are related to the paintings of Pollock and Rothko. But Grigorovich’s fields seem at times more random and at times more mechanically rendered than abstract expressionist imagery. Mostly Grigorovich’s abstractions suggest decay: the pattern in Mirror in a Metal Frame, the one painted over an old backing, resembles metal oxidation.

One thing that makes the series engaging is the number of different methods Grigorovich uses to bring order to chaos. In some of his fields, repeating patterns of gray look almost photographic. The frame in Reflection in a Bronze Frame consists of multiple parallel ridges; echoing them are the grays and blacks within the mirror, which form horizontal lines. Mirrors (#29) incorporates what looks like an ornate frame painted gold (actually assembled from several pieces Grigorovich took from old furniture). While the image within shows some similar curves, its irregular dark splotches form a striking contrast to the frame’s symmetry and elegance. Ultimately the frame suggests a melancholy assertion of order in the face of the ravages of time.

Grigorovich seems to speculate on the mystery of mirrors, their inadequacy and the inadequacy of all realistic imagery. Two pieces carry a particular emotional wallop. One is rather frightening: the luminous whites of the large painting Two Mirrors are almost overwhelmed by looming shadows. In Grigorovich’s favorite piece, Mirror With Tassel, a dark channel like a road begins at the lower right and appears to recede into the distance; hovering above it is a dark blob like a human head. The suggestion of deep space is heightened by the tassels hanging over the surface, creating a recess that just might harbor ghosts. If a conventional mirror reassures us by confirming our everyday existence, these mirrors hint at spirit beings–or the decayed matter we all will become.