The Grotesqueness of Desire

at InsideArt, through May 1

All and Nothing

at Margin, through May 8

A catalog essay by Mary Murphy helps explain this show’s provocative title: “What is often thought of as the grotesque is perhaps nothing more than desire made public.” While most of the work isn’t sexual, Barbara DeGenevieve’s video Untitled (Steven) shows an apparently nude man talking to the camera operator, asking her first to undress, then to have sex with him. Though he doesn’t mention any unusual fetishes, he apparently recognizes at some point how bizarre it is to be making these requests on tape for a gallery show; more than once during this short video he asks that the camera be shut off, which it finally is. Playing a complicated game with gender roles, DeGenevieve makes “Steven” as much the object as the objectifier. And shifting the camera from the desired object to the desirer exposes desire to the kind of cold light in which it typically withers, placing it under an almost sterilizing gaze. Perhaps what’s most grotesque in DeGenevieve’s piece is her desire to do so.

Most of the works in this exhibit by 14 Irish and American artists, curated by Clodagh Kenny and Marjorie Vecchio, address the issues of looking and being looked at; most of the artists are aware that the very act of making an artwork involves some distortion of the subject matter. This is perhaps clearest in Michael Merrill’s photo Sink Drinking, which shows a plump man kneeling on a countertop, drinking out of a sink like an animal at a water hole; some lotions on the counter suggest that the bathroom is a woman’s. Perhaps this hapless fellow was caught enacting some strange fetishistic ritual, but it’s more likely that the image was staged–which further foregrounds the theme of display.

Much of the art in “The Grotesqueness of Desire” posits that the very act of looking at objects–or arranging them to be looked at–irretrievably changes them. This is just as true of the more modest works, mostly by Irish artists, based on fragments of nature. Alice Maher’s small, elegant Shelf of Thorns juts out from the wall, neatly arrayed thorns projecting from all five surfaces. Removed from plant stems, they’re arranged just irregularly enough to suggest natural patterns but densely enough to make clear that this is an artist’s construction. Of course the thorns negate the function of a shelf–the piece’s hostile-looking surface distantly recalls the aggression of DeGenevieve’s camera.

Placing objects on display is what an artist does, but for most of these artists it’s also connected with all the decorating and merchandising in our culture, arranging everything with appealing neatness–even one’s own body–as if the whole world were being offered up in a mall window. Gary Nakamoto’s installation, Intake and Output, consists of a chair on a platform-scale in front of a table; whoever sits in the chair is weighed precisely, to a hundredth of a pound. Take a sip of water from the glass on the table and you can see yourself grow heavier–as can anyone nearby. By making the act of weighing public, and by measuring weight so precisely, Nakamoto at once mirrors and mocks our obsession with weight.

Dan Shipsides’s John Cabot’s Court seems to take the now standard pomo line that images and physical objects are equally unreal, but what’s interesting about this installation is the peculiarly mixed drama it appears to present. Two identical armchairs have been overturned, facedown, with the tops just touching; hanging on either wall of the corner behind them are a polka-dot cloth and a photo of a person wearing the cloth like a skirt while standing on two similar chairs. Which is more real: the dress and chairs or the photo of the artist’s performance using these objects? That the photo is actually a print from a video further complicates the piece, creating another layer in the documentation of these objects’ use. At the same time, the video interferes with our ability to see the objects as autonomous things.

The theme underlying many of these works is that our display-oriented culture inevitably distorts objects and situations. It’s one thing to desire a woman, and quite another to put one’s fantasies on display. Few of us are likely to drink from our sinks, but many might occasionally be found in poses just as grotesque–they’re just not documented. The sense of dislocation the viewer feels is the result of the artist making an object or scene into something to be viewed.

My favorite work raises these issues in the form of poetic paradox rather than social commentary. Grace Weir’s And consists of two circular video images: the one projected on the ceiling was taken looking up through water, while the one projected on the floor looks down at the surface of the same water. At regular intervals a stone is dropped, making a splash simultaneously in the two images–though of course we can’t see them both at once. Indeed, the space between the images seems to be what interests Weir–in her statement she talks about “exploring the structure of the middle.” Her curiously nonspatial world, in which we’re simultaneously under the water and above it, makes us see that neither image is “correct,” that both are partial and incomplete, and that seeing is a process of integrating contradictions.

Installations by Shuko Wada and Arthur Myer, the two Chicago artists presented in “All and Nothing,” occupy all four rooms of the basement apartment that is Margin Gallery. Wada’s use of the front room is the most effective: she restates on a more conceptual level the issues raised by many pieces in “The Grotesqueness of Desire.” Redoing this small living room mostly in white, she’s covered the floor with Styrofoam blocks taped together and the two windows with white chiffon, calling them “Window Paintings.” Floor Painting is a block of the Styrofoam cut to the same size as the windows and hung on a wall.

Wada’s pieces dislocate the viewer even more explicitly than the works in “The Grotesqueness of Desire.” The viewer of Floor Painting is stepping on the material it’s made of, and the almost transparent chiffon covering the windows hardly creates independent images; rather it filters the banal street scene outside. Wada is playing a familiar game of limits here: how little can I do and still have it be art? But she plays it with an elegance that places the viewer in a kind of labyrinth: anyone who steps on her floor enters her shifting game. And like many of the “Grotesqueness” artists, she questions commodification–her “paintings” are barely objects at all.

There’s a bit of humor here, too. In Warm Painting, also in the living room, she mounts an electric blanket’s circuitry, including its white fabric covering–and it is faintly warm to the touch. Wet Painting, a small white rectangle with a rough surface that viewers are encouraged to touch, leaves oil paint on your fingers. There’s a white box of tissues on a white table below the painting, but of course solvent is needed to get you clean. Wada reveals that the white-walled purity of galleries and museums is not actually neutral: no space leaves the viewer untouched. And the room’s big, ugly heater, poking up through a gap in the Styrofoam, creates a humorous counterpoint to Wada’s varieties of whiteness.

The next two rooms, the kitchen and bathroom, are intentionally messy collaborations by Wada and Myer (who are husband and wife). The bathroom has fish in the tub; in the kitchen, visitors are encouraged to draw on the table or walls with crayon; children seem to have been the primary participants thus far.

Myer’s room in the back is messier still: its shelves and walls are covered with a wide variety of found objects–ledger books from 1940s businesses, parts of a computer keyboard, a lone zipper. Disappointed with viewers’ lukewarm response to an earlier version of the installation, Myer sits in the room whenever the gallery is open, ready to tell the stories of the objects he’s found. I learned that the mannequinlike torso parts were used to instruct women how to check themselves for breast cancer, and that he’d taken some of the photos himself.

Like Wada but even more explicitly, Myer is foregrounding the act of viewing: he tells you what you’re seeing. And even though his demeanor is gentle and unassuming, there’s something unsettling about his presence: viewers who enjoy the anonymity of art exhibits, the ability to spend as much or as little time as they like, will certainly be challenged by the artist’s impromptu performance.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): uncredited photo.