General Idea

at the Arts Club, through May 21

My Little Pretty: Images of Girls by Contemporary Women Artists

at the Museum of Contemporary Art, through June 22

By Fred Camper

How can one make art about AIDS? The question calls to mind T. W. Adorno’s famous remark, “No poetry after Auschwitz,” not because the epidemic is similar to Nazi genocide but because both events are so enormous, so pervasive, that they resist reduction to imagery. Consider simply the AIDS memorial quilt: it’s grown so large that it’s almost impossible to exhibit all of it in one location, its very sprawl a marker of the epidemic’s reach.

Of the three men in the Canadian art collective General Idea, formed in 1968, two died of AIDS, in 1994. From the beginning its members questioned notions of “individual genius” and the “unique object,” often producing multiples. They turned their attention to AIDS in 1987, creating posters for subways and public spaces among other things. The current exhibit of works in diverse media, installed by surviving member AA Bronson, is the inaugural exhibit in the handsome exhibition space of the Arts Club’s new building. And because these works avoid cliches, employing indirection instead, they effectively, poetically mirror the impact of the virus.

In three canvases, White AIDS #4-6, faintly tinted gesso lightly outlines the word AIDS, its letters arranged in a two-by-two grid identical to Robert Indiana’s much-reproduced “Love” design of 1967. But because the difference between the letters and background is so slight, I found myself thinking more of Ad Reinhardt than of Indiana. Reinhardt’s late paintings are simple grids of varying shades of black that appear to be all-black at first; the tiny contrasts give his works a haunting purity. General Idea’s almost-blank canvases evoke similarly ethereal feelings–until one realizes that a real word has been spelled out, a real disease invoked; the collective critiques art-for-art’s-sake modernism by reintroducing “content” in the form of this life-and-death matter. One is reminded of all the wars and revolutions and genocides that have always been outside the ambit of modernist art.

In an interview General Idea pointed out that, because Indiana never copyrighted his image, it “spread…rapidly through the commercial media”; their use of a similar design thereby suggests the virus’s rapid spread. They also hoped that Indiana’s “Love” design would create for theirs “an aura of familiarity that would allow a more alarming content.” And alarming it is–partly because White AIDS #4-6 are installed on a large wall covered to the ceiling with Blan©, Blan©, Blan©: wallpaper bearing the same logo, though the contrast between the letters and background is more visible than in the canvases. Together these works are the most effective expression I’ve seen of the pervasiveness of AIDS. You strain to read the letters on the canvases, insinuating the word into your consciousness almost as if you’ve created it yourself; their almost-whiteness suggests that AIDS may be present even in apparently antiseptic realms. But then the wall–most commonly white in modern art exhibits–is now also inscribed with the word AIDS: the disease is everywhere. The gallery is no longer a neutral space; AIDS has become a kind of perceptual ground, the basis through which everything else must be seen.

Other works are representational but emphasize the metaphoric potential of their imagery. Black Floaters is a group of nine drawings made by Jorge Zontal in 1993 as he was dying. In each he covered a color photograph of a room interior from a paint catalog with thick, black acrylic paint–messy streaks and cockroachlike blobs. On one level, these are literal depictions that parody the cliched injunction to paint what you see: AIDS patients frequently have eye diseases that can cause a huge increase in “floaters.” By covering these clean interiors with his marks, Zontal also suggests an alienation from mainstream culture. Finally, and most movingly, by depicting his floaters as roaches he “infects” these new, clean rooms with a kind of scourge. Just as roaches hide in walls, the AIDS virus can lie dormant in the body for years before its effects are seen; just as, once you see a roach, you know your place is infested, so once you see the effects of the AIDS virus, you’re already very sick. Both infestations do most of their work out of view; both are seemingly unstoppable.

Black Floaters is moving, too, because the room interiors are not approached ironically, in the way artists so often treat mass-culture images. By taking them instead as legitimate objects of aspiration, Zontal more powerfully underlines his personal infestation. Indeed, the sincerity of General Idea’s imagery contrasts with much current art. As Joshua Decter points out in an excellent essay in the exhibition catalog, the group’s goal has not been to unveil “the ideological or political dimensions of a cultural language or system” but to create “poetically transformative relationship[s].”

Fin de Siecle, a room-size installation, is the show’s most poetic work. Large white polystyrene slabs, four feet by eight feet, almost fill a large room; a few even spill out one doorway. The slabs are arranged to suggest sea ice–most are nearly horizontal, but some poke up diagonally or vertically–a suggestion heightened by the way they butt up against the sides of the room. At the installation’s far end are three life-size harp seal pups on “floes.” The group says the piece “incorporates ecological ambiguities”: the banning of seal hunting due to pressure from environmentalists led to a bounty on seals because of their decimation of cod, reflecting the twists and turns of well-intentioned but confusing social policies. They also say that the three lone seals form a group “self-portrait of the artist as victim.”

The work is startlingly seductive. The white slabs seem arranged with great care to reproduce the chaotic results of pressure on ice; in fact the far North, because it constitutes so much of Canada, differentiates the country and its art from the United States. And the seals seem utterly distant, as if in another world. Arctic wastes and a polystyrene wasteland create new metaphors for AIDS: the first as an almost unimaginable other country that isolates its inhabitants from the rest of us, the second a wilderness of mass manufacture, which replicates the same forms again and again, like a quickly proliferating virus.

Staci Boris–the curator of “My Little Pretty: Images of Girls by Contemporary Women Artists,” an exhibition of 24 works by six women now at the Museum of Contemporary Art–writes in her catalog essay that these pieces are opposed to “images of the feminine idea…still fed to us” by the mass media. By contrast, these artists “investigate different aspects of female identity and question the way women and girls are represented in our culture.” This is not exactly new territory for the art world: many orthodox feminists have long questioned depictions of the female form as too loaded, too culturally overdetermined, to be reclaimed. The fact that in this show the artists depict pubescent or prepubescent girls only heightens its provocative quality. One doesn’t have to agree with feminists’ proscription of the female body as a subject to see that they had a point: many of the works here have an erotic edge. Even when the artist’s perspective is different from the male one, it’s often hard to disentangle the girls’ apparent seductiveness from the artists’ proposed critique of voyeurism. But what’s troubling about the exhibit is also what’s interesting, as we’re reminded that few of us can be pure as the driven snow given the tangle of conflicting thoughts, troubling associations, and basic drives that constitute our natures.

Nicky Hoberman acknowledges troubling associations in her two large paintings, to judge from their titles. In Glacé Cherry she labels its larger-than-life little girl a delectable sweet and paints her with an almost tactile sensuality; at the same time the paintings’s somber blue tones evoke a sense of melancholy distance. Lisa Yuskavage’s painting Faucet–an almost surreal combination of a faucet at the upper left with a large, nude girl at the lower right–also draws on sexual stereotypes. The girl’s breasts are unusually large given her early-teens face, their exaggerated size suggesting not only a joke on male fantasies but, with the faucet, alluding to breasts’ function. Blond hair covering one eye, the girl regards the viewer with the other, her skin similar in tone to the solid apricot background, reminding us that she’s not “real” but painted. In Yuskavage’s odd mixture of eroticism, surrealism, and abstraction, each element undercuts the others, preventing the work from being seen in any single way.

Two other artists undercut their depictions even more acidly: internal contradictions make these works as conceptual as they are visual. Inez van Lamsweerde’s photograph Claudia 60-54-61 shows a girl clad only in a blue bikini in front of a desolate construction site. Though she stands in a pose of blithe unconcern, arms raised over her head and eyes closed, the empty site seems to menace her nearly nude form, evoking both a potentially dangerous urban locale and leering construction workers. Yet the photo also seems to assert the right of women and girls to go anywhere they please safely. A tiny oddness that completes the picture both underlines and undercuts all these points: the girl has a ripe, red cherry in her mouth. Sensual in itself and provocative in its allusion to schoolboy slang, the cherry deconstructs the photo into two unresolvable questions: is the girl displaying her body innocently, or is she offering herself for sex?

The nude girls in Judy Fox’s four life-size sculptures, made of terra cotta or hydrastone and painted with casein, are posed to suggest our cultural past, as indicated by the titles: Cinderella, Sphinx, Olympia, and Delilah. “Olympia,” for example, lies seductively on her side in imitation of the famous Manet painting. Remarkably realistic, they have a powerful presence despite their childish dimensions. The girls are also not idealized beauties: “Sphinx” has the beginnings of a double chin.

But what rescues these depictions of preteens in adult poses from mere pomo provocation is the complex coloring the skin. Fox colors each figure with about 20 layers of paint, moving from dark to light. Look closely, and you can see the little-girl pink penetrated by patches of gray, even blue: this is the skin of an older woman. Thus Fox gives us the skin of the elderly on the bodies of children posed as adults. The artist makes a number of points here, not all of them culture-bound or gender-related: these figures are in part a version of traditional “Three Ages of Man” depictions, with the three “ages” bound up in a single being. But one cultural interpretation gives these works their fullest resonance: a society that forces girls into adult sexual roles also evades the fact that old age is our ultimate destination, a legitimate and equal partner in women’s lives.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): “fin de Siecle” by General Idea and “Claudia 60-54-61” by Inez Van Lamsweerde.