Katherine Shaughnessy: Doegirl–and Other Adventures in Bioengineering

at Bodybuilder and Sportsman, through February 20


at Margin, through February 27

Helen Mirra

at Chicago Project Room, through February 27

By Fred Camper

Perhaps it’s the long winter or the anticipation of spring, but it appears to be silly season in several Chicago galleries this month. There are funny animals at Bodybuilder and Sportsman, and Margin is showing works made of or inspired by butter, including a butter bust of Richard Nixon. Helen Mirra’s thoughtful exhibit at the Chicago Project Room is mostly not silly, but in one piece she’s tied together all her clothes except one outfit–which means she’ll be wearing the same clothes for the show’s duration, “unless I buy some more.”

Spring is definitely in the air at Bodybuilder and Sportsman: Katherine Shaughnessy’s show, occupying two storefront windows on either side of the gallery entrance, plunges the viewer into a fantasy world redolent of flowers and woodland. In the window to the right is the life-size Princess Isabella, the Doegirl From Pleasant Forest, whose head and torso come from a female mannequin while the rest of the body is a hunter’s decoy deer covered with fake fur. Many small animals with human hands grafted to them face her worshipfully, offering flowers. The other window reveals strange tiny creatures, most combining human and animal features, in cages with a mirror on one side. Inside the gallery a “Princess Isabella Coloring and Activity Book” tells us that the doegirl’s father “was shot and mounted on a board by a man with a gun” (we see a deer head on the wall behind her), that the “handimals”–animals with human hands–are her admirers, and that the caged creatures are “mutants.”

The excess of Shaughnessy’s exhibit–the multiple animals and flowers and the painted forest backdrops–gives it an immediate visual appeal. And the combination of Disney-esque images with the caged mutants suggests a world that maintains perfection by imprisoning every being that’s different, even those as innocuous as her charming mutants–a fawn with two heads, a squirrel with a baby-boy head. Even the lamb with baby legs for horns reads more like a collage of toys than a real creature. There’s also something appealing about the contrast between the show’s bucolic fantasy and the gritty setting.

Shaughnessy–a Chicagoan born in Ohio in 1970–writes in her statement about the dangers of cloning, mentioning its possible use as an instrument of racism and the way that “Hollywood and Disney” insist on perfect bodies, whether for actors or animated characters. Remarking that “every kid in America who can afford it gets their very own, pocket-size, plastic hero,” she’s also selling tiny mutants in tiny cages and plastic-wrapped miniature replicas of Princess Isabella and two other doegirls–“her friends…from a nearby forest,” the coloring book tells us.

But the question remains, as it does with much postmodern art purportedly offering cultural commentary, how far this work actually departs from mainstream values. Princess Isabella is blond, light skinned, and of normal weight; the two other doegirls are dark-skinned sidekicks, available only in miniature. Shaughnessy may oppose the perfection of Disney figures, but her creatures are arguably no weirder and almost as charming. Why aren’t her mutants more threatening? And how is buying one of her miniature figures different from buying a toy based on a movie? Even the painted forest backdrops–the part of the exhibit in which Shaughnessy’s hand is most visible–reveal little or no commentary, being perfectly matched to the show’s coloring-book aesthetic.

If “Doegirl” offers a hint of spring, “Butter” is possible only in winter. These 35 works about or made of butter are being shown at a new gallery, managed by artist Nathan Mason, in an underheated basement apartment–fortunately, because on a warm day many of these pieces would melt. “Everybody knows I’m cheap and don’t like paying heating bills,” Mason told me, and this show gives him an excuse to keep the heat turned down.

Mason’s solicitation letter invited artists “to think about butter and do a piece about it (either ephemeral and made of butter or engaging the concept of butter in their more typical medium).” Thus Adelheid Mers, who’s best known for her light projections, gives us a wonderful faintly yellow square of light like a pat of butter on the floor outside the gallery door. Joe Ziolkowski, whose photographs are usually homoerotic, shows an image of a well-muscled man holding an unusually long stick of butter; the title, Twelve Inches, makes more explicit a reference that’s already pretty clear. The apartment’s back bedroom, which is farthest from the heater, contains a number of pieces of actual butter. Don Stahlke–who’s previously created assemblages of real fruit–presents a small staircase of butter sticks, the faux-grand Tower of Babel/Stairway to Heaven.

If there’s an idea here it’s that butter can be or suggest anything, from insubstantial yellow light to ideas of ascent to an oversize unit. Butter has no essential nature, it’s just what artists make of it–a pomo idea at odds with concepts like “truth” but perfectly suited to something as neutral as butter. Indeed, the artists’ playfulness, producing an improbable diversity of works, is what makes this exhibit a delight. In Carla Preiss’s gouache I Can’t Believe, the words are dimly visible as white letters on a yellow field; Aimee Beaubien and Art Jones in Everything’s Better show a book whose pages are covered with butter, oozing thick gobs as the book is slowly closed in an accompanying video. Barbara Koenen in “(PARKAY)” has put tiny daubs of butter and imitation butter on the wall over the kitchen sink. And Andrew Rubinstein in Power Figures embeds porcelain shards and corn-cob holders in butter sticks in the manner of African fetish sculptures, which have foreign objects driven into them to give them power.

The purest conceptual work here is Michael Piazza’s M = Butter Rate, a shelf of books in which references to butter have been highlighted (in yellow, of course) and bookmarked with cards reporting prices for butter futures. Piazza makes the point that butter can “mean” anything by contrasting, for example, an offhanded mention of it in Saul Bellow’s Herzog (“I used to rub my patent-leather shoes in butter”) with Joseph Goebbels’s reference in his diaries to Nazi official Rudolf Hess advocating “guns instead of butter.”

The ease with which these artists can acquire and lavishly goop on butter in this show reflects the material excess of America at the end of the millennium. In the famous cream-separation scene of the 1929 Soviet film The General Line, Eisenstein valorizes the mechanization of butter making, celebrating a process that made food production and distribution more efficient. But for us, butter is there for the taking.

Maybe one set of clothes should be enough for anyone–after all, Helen Mirra displays all but one of her outfits in Garanimal. Her 17 other pieces at the Chicago Project Room are just as conceptual–an approach for which the University of Illinois at Chicago, where Mirra received an MFA in 1996, is known. A Chicagoan born in Rochester, New York, the same year as Shaughnessy, Mirra has a filmmaker father, and her work includes abundant references to celluloid–to frames and sequences of frames. She cites among her influences John Cage, Bruce Nauman, Gordon Matta-Clark, concrete poetry, and some Fluxus artists; this show reveals no single subject or theme but has a curiously understated ambitiousness that I find rare. Several pieces evidence a desire to remake the world, to return our urban surfaces to nature: Untitled (Outside Sally’s House) documents a project in which she’s painted individual squares of Chicago sidewalks green, and Sidewalk Cover is a 40-foot-long piece of green fabric displayed parallel to the gallery windows, as if intended to cover the sidewalk below. Indeed, Mirra’s clothes in Garanimal are all nature colors: brown, green, and blue.

Perhaps the world can’t be remade, but at least it can be mapped. A Map of Parallel 52o N, at a Scale of One Inch to One Degree Longitude and Tropic of Capricorn are both 360-inch-long strips of cotton banding mounted horizontally and alternating between green, blue, and brown in a direct, inch-per-degree correspondence with the presence of vegetation, water, and desert along these two latitudes. Mirra also translates the 52o N piece to a hand-painted, 11-minute 16-millimeter film, with brighter and paler greens roughly corresponding to more and less densely forested land at a ratio of one foot to one degree. (Call the gallery for screening times.)

What I liked about these pieces was their mixture of ambition and modesty: wishing to embrace, even gird, the planet, the artist also lets her art be determined by the earth’s actual form rather than trying to reshape it, as in the sidewalk pieces. Two other works are even sparser visually: Rounding Cape Horn and Crossing the Equator show a blue thread sewn onto blue paper in a single curving line like the route a ship might take, neatly conflating the domesticity of sewing and a long voyage.

The most intriguing works are five large sheets of paper with multiple fold lines mounted together on a wall. The titles give latitude and longitude coordinates; when the location is water, the paper is blue, and when it’s land, green. Glued to each paper are smaller pieces containing one or several typewritten words, almost as if the words were naming features on a map. For example, in 50o N / 121o W, which names a point in western Canada, we read “range sound,” “tread woods,” and “throw track.” For 59o N / 29o W, in the North Atlantic, we read “blear helm” and “blundr.”

These little attempts at poetry may not be completely successful, but I liked Mirra’s combination of spatial and linguistic effects. Her words float on a blank sheet of paper like an unfolded map, struggling to tell the story of a landscape referenced but not shown. One thing Mirra likes about maps, she told me, is that one speaks of both reading them and looking at them–just as her pasted-on words both tell an enigmatic story and form a simple design against a solid field. They also introduce a different kind of referentiality, the realm of language–an area she’s only beginning to explore.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): “Mutant “5: Baby Squirrel with Boy Head” (detail) by Katherine Shaughnessy; Welve Inches” by Joe Ziolkowski; “A Map of Parallel 52 (degrees) N, at a scale of One Inch to one Degree Longitude” (detail) by Hellen Mirra.