Attributed to: Anomalous

at the Better Weimaraner Gallery, through November 1

Margaret Welsh: Pure Moods

at Chicago Project Room, through November 2

By Fred Camper

Artists, from students to stars like Cindy Sherman, have of late focused on themselves, their own biographies and bodies. At worst, such art is little different from a personal Web page: here’s me, here are my friends, here’s my life. At best, artists see through the problems and paradoxes of such a focus and show that extreme narcissism never leads to the validation the artist seems to be seeking but instead to the negation of self and, often, a melancholy emptiness.

The three artists represented by ten works in “Attributed to: Anomalous” at Better Weimaraner have not only chosen anonymity as their subject but have decided to remain anonymous themselves, “to fully honor the object,” a gallery flyer says. Their choice seems in part a protest against art based on identity politics–though that hasn’t stopped one artist from presenting certain details of his or her identity. A Week’s Worth of Wipes displays seven blocks of handwritten text on a single large sheet of white paper, each apparently a list of the food the artist consumed that day, ranging from orange juice to Polish sausage with mustard and hot peppers and generally heavy on greasy meats and ice cream. The paper next to each “menu” is crinkled, and in the middle of the crinkle is a smear, each a slightly different shade of brown.

The rather unpleasant meaning is obvious, though gallery director Jason Zadak assured me the smears are only paint. (“I was worried about taking it in my car,” he said.) This extreme example of the “look at me” trend, like most of the best work in this mode, soon suggests its opposite. The heavy diet carefully recorded almost shouts its defiance of the prevailing dietary puritanism; the smears exaggerate that defiance to the point of absurdity. Though the artist remains anonymous, this seems the work of the kid who fears he or she will always be unpopular, puts his or her nose in the air, and shuns everyone. The artist had to know that some people would be put off by this work but made it anyway.

By contrast, the self is mostly hidden in Trophy, a display of store-bought trophy figures on faux marble shelves. Two figures, one male and one female, occupy each of four successive “panels,” set off by kitschy trophy pedestals, that seem to tell a story comic-strip style. In the first, the male seems about to touch the female’s rear; in the next two, she kicks him; in the last, they dance together. Most of the figures are different, pointedly depersonalizing the “story,” though one possible interpretation is that the artist is complaining–or joking–about sexual harassment. Fragmenting the protagonists universalizes the tale, as does seeming to find such a story in the poses of mass-manufactured trophies. It’s as if the work were saying that any male-female couple, even an inanimate one, will come to blows.

Five works by the same artist–Zadak confirms this much–are the only pieces here to emotionally evoke anonymity and loss. Four of them are paintings hung side by side, with slightly varying titles: one is Now for Something Completely Different, while the others replace the word “completely” with “entirely,” “totally,” or “wholly.” But the works themselves are almost identical: all are cool, detached, mostly blue abstractions with messy brushwork. The small differences between them seem random and unimportant in this mildly humorous attack on the idea of originality in art, especially art in abstraction’s “heroic” branch. A thin slice of apple in the lower right corner of each painting functions as the artist’s signature–an approach not unlike the stamps that Chinese artists once used to sign their work. But by using apple slices, this artist subjects his or her own signature to decay.

The fifth work by this “Master of the Apple Slices” is Differance. Hung on the wall opposite the four paintings, it’s a sketch of that wall showing two of the works and the outlines of a door and a wall outlet. The images are flipped right to left, as if the painting were a mirror, but otherwise they’re almost perfectly aligned. The sketch includes a woman standing in front of the wall whose face has been replaced with a small mirror. Clearly the artist is conscious of an inability to see outside the boundaries of the self. But that self is empty, and the viewer–looking for artwork and seeing himself–realizes he shouldn’t look to art for substitute worlds but to his own life for inspiration.

Though the Chicago Project Room has regular hours three afternoons a week, I recommend making an appointment to see Margaret Welsh’s installation after dark. Then the two neon signs spelling out “pure moods” in the window seem almost beaconlike, and the three works inside don’t lose the energy they do by day; Welsh’s machines and pop-culture icons are grounded in the media-made world, not the world of sunlight and sky.

Describing Welsh’s work makes it sound pretty silly; I’m glad I saw it without knowing anything about it. A description of Self-Portrait as a Higher Life Form, a photograph of the artist disguised as Star Trek’s Spock, might have made me ask, Haven’t we seen enough of such nonsense? But actually the photo depicts not the success but the failure of celebrity worship: Welsh’s “ears” are obviously very bad fakes, her eyebrows mere drawings. This is a fantasy that never took flight. The large size of the print gives Welsh a near monumentality, heightening the contrast between aspiration and actuality. This depiction of pop fantasy gives the lie to the nostrum, “You can be anything you want to be.”

Welsh’s video, Expecting to Fly, combines a sound track of the old Neil Young song of the same title with footage from a Bruce Lee movie and abstract footage from a New Age hypnosis tape. It’s hard to imagine a combination less promising, but after I watched it a few times the elements began to fit together and to seem emotionally resonant. Abstract moving circles turn into Bruce Lee leaping through space and turn back again; the song opens optimistically with “There you stood on the edge of your feather / Expecting to fly.” Lee’s free movements through space seem to parallel the tape’s weightless, hypnotic abstractions–some sort of ascent seems the goal. But soon Bruce looks pained and begins to break glass in a rapid montage, and Young sings, “I tried so hard to stand / As I stumbled and fell to the ground.” Meanwhile the circles turn into rotating ovals, whose goofy patterns of movement look ridiculous. These cultural artifacts may suggest that you can be anything you want to be, but they come together finally in a depiction of failure. The advertised freedoms don’t materialize, and the individual who wants to become something else winds up with nothing: the tape ends with an empty circle frozen against darkness.

Welsh’s critique of “human potential” ideals is equally pointed in 50 Uses. Three rented bubble-making machines sit on the floor of a small room filling the space with their gossamer, light-reflecting spheres. Mixed into the bubbles are aromatherapy oils; posted at the entrance is a list of their alleged benefits (“to assist in soothing chapped hands”). The viewer can watch from the door or enter the room and be surrounded by bubbles rising to the ceiling and falling–most burst when they finally hit the floor. Meanwhile a pleasant odor fills the room.

50 Uses apparently promises transformation, but I saw its obverse: these almost weightless spheres can be broken in an instant, and all of them sink in the end. Standing in the midst of them does at first give the viewer the illusion of floating, as they seem to be rising and falling at once. But step back and look again, and you see that they do fall and that falling destroys them. This piece and Expecting to Fly suggest a person who vividly imagines weightlessness and flying but who recognizes that the transformations our culture promises are phony.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): “Trophy” “Self-Portrait as a Higher Life Form” by Margaret Welsh.