at Club Lower Links

August 15

Matthew Owens recently said, “One of the functions of the artist is to point out what is denied in society.” And Owens is indeed hell-bent on making people aware of the sort of unpleasantness that happens to all of us–death, injury–but that we would rather pretend only happens to the unlucky, the unprepared, and the unrepentant.

Last November Owens made something of a splash in Chicago’s performance-art world with his Traumarama. Every Wednesday that month his self-proclaimed “celebration of wounds of everyday life” began with a gruesome slide show of gunshot wounds, hand and head injuries, and other bloody physical injuries. This was followed by a series of original performances by Chicago artists (among them Steve Jones, Alan Tollefson, Karen Johnson, and John Spear) on the same theme. Owens even opened up the microphone for those who wanted to share their past pain with the audience.

So happy was he with this show that Owens has curated a follow-up, The Monster Show, using macabre sculptures–mummified corpses, decapitated heads, a crucified Garfield cat–created by Owens and his collaborator Nancy Bardawil. Like Traumarama, this show is an anthology of performance artists and features an ever-changing bill.

Owens and Bardawil set the mood by placing their grotesque work throughout Club Lower Links, giving its usual bawdy, blood-red-velvet decadence a darker, cryptlike atmosphere. Front and center on the tiny stage was a sculpture of a dead woman on a gurney. The show began when a gruff-voiced puppet-baby pushed its bloody way out of this dead woman’s belly and then delivered a prologue of sorts to what turned out to be an evening of wildly uneven performances. It began with Iris Moore as a half woman, half snake (complete with dark gray blue makeup and a tail that curled around the stage) who delivered a venomous, but hilariously specific, monologue about all the things she hates. And it ended with a god- awful video.

The best performances were delivered by Owens, the show’s emcee and the chief character in a very funny, ad-libbed bit about a fictional “Stuttgart Insect Theater” that features “real” examples of “Insect Theater” performed by “real” insects whose dialogue–“Where have you been? I smelled your pheromones on the docks”; “My egg masses are just for you”–is simultaneously translated by Owens.

Owens’s emcee is a fascinating mass of contradictions and wild emotional swings: easygoing and well mannered, yet quick to anger and ready to cut anyone down to size with his bitter, lightning-fast wit. In his introduction to Joe Medosh’s piece Owens began (in the show-biz tradition) by praising Medosh’s work to high heaven and ended by ridiculing him for how much time it was taking him to set up. And in introducing Brendan deVallance, Owens wore a headpiece of glowing skulls, a mild parody of deVallance, who likes to wear crazy headpieces in his performances.

Sadly, none of the performers seemed as capable of creating a monster show as Owens. His introduction of Medosh was far more entertaining than Medosh’s tedious and trite take on Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven,” the high point of which consisted of a recording of an actor reading the poem with all of the pomposity–the rolled Rs, the pregnant pauses, the great booming voice–we associate with “great actors” of three generations ago.

DeVallance’s performance, though shot through with his trademark manic energy and hyper-postmodern self-consciousness, seemed less a fully realized work than a collection of comic twitches (deVallance has an undeniable little-boy’s charm about him) and neat props–among them a record (20 Monster Hits) that was made up of glued-together halves of A and B sides, and a card table with a drum embedded in the middle of it. His performance seemed to be about nothing so much as his conflicted, narcissistic desire to feel at once loved by and superior to the audience. (He spent an awful lot of time making whining jokes about how badly things were going and how hard it was to perform his act given the less-than- perfect conditions at Club Lower Links.)

Ending the evening was Mary Jo Schnell’s long, confusing video, which featured, over and over again, the image of a woman in a bridal dress. This video, the epitome of stillborn academic video art, succeeded in doing what an hour delay in starting the show, two hours of performances of varying quality, and Owens and Bardawil’s intentionally horrifying sculptures could not. It sent half the audience running for home and the other half to the bar for a beer to wash down a couple, three aspirin.

Thankfully, Schnell’s video is not slated for the last Monster Show in the series, August 29. Nor are any of the other performers mentioned in this review, except Owens and Bardawil. It will also feature the work of Brigid Murphy, Frank Melcori, John Spear, Julie Laffin, and Douglas Grew and Lionel Bottari.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/S. Antonini.