at the Museum of Contemporary Art, through April 21

Only connect. –E.M. Forster, Howards End

N early a century has passed since Forster issued his terse prescription for the modern malaise of alienation–yet what have we learned in the interim? Linked by modems and mobile phones, we can communicate until we drop–but we speak less often face-to-face. We socialize by watching TV or movies together, and when consensus exists, it’s almost always to oppose something: all can unite to dismantle “evil terror” but few come together to work for positive change. In our nervous place and time, alliances are superficial, mere simulacra of interrelatedness having more to do with markets than community.

Well, at least there’s good sex–the solution of another English novelist, D.H. Lawrence, for the individual’s isolation and society’s incoherence in a mechanized world. Two people who fuck purely, merging the personal and political in seamless pleasure, can start a revolution. Unfortunately, if the dispiriting little show “Lovesexy” at the Museum of Contemporary Art is any indication, the majority of artists and curators today view the erotic less as a trope for transformation than for simpleminded transgression. Far from connecting–with sexuality’s powerful depths, with audiences eager for understanding–these artists are “creating” from a solitary mire, and the curators defiantly rub the results in the faces of a numbed postmodern public.

Billed as a meditation on “identity and desire” and installed in a cul-de-sac on the MCA’s third floor, these 12 works in various media often go out of their way to repulse. Turn left into the gallery and you’re greeted by Rebekah Levine’s P*ssy Fever 2000 (the coy asterisk’s not mine); turn right and you’re drawn like a fly to sh*t by Catherine Opie’s Self-Portrait/Pervert (1993). Both are chromogenic prints, i.e., full-color glossy photos. Levine’s shows the truncated torso of a young woman in a miniskirt, captured parting her legs to cross them; Opie’s features the photographer, naked, seated before a sumptuous gold-and-black cloth with her head bondage-hooded, her arms pierced at regular intervals with needles (46 to be exact), and the word “Pervert” carved with calligraphic flourish into her chest. According to the wall text, Self-Portrait/Pervert “confronts society’s negative perception of homosexuality.” It confronts society, all right, but with no certain purpose other than to shock. Positing that their viewers are “feverishly” male and full-of-hate straight, Levine and Opie then try to suggest our complicity in voyeurism and violence. But in the end we learn more about their own aggressive, enforcing desires.

The heavy-handedness of most treatments here, in fact, is part of what makes the exhibit depressing and its puerile title (copped from a 1988 Prince album) misleading: there’s precious little “love” on display and not much that’s sexy. Almost no one is shown with anyone else; instead of even an illusory interaction, momentarily gratifying if nothing deeper, we see kitschy exhibitionism and the loneliness of sad or angry monads. The exhibit’s largest piece–the painting Zebra, one of only two works that aren’t video or photography–shows a Barbie-doll playmate complete with bikini tan and bouffant sitting fatuously astride the title animal; though good for a smirk, Mel Ramos’s 1970 work says zilch. Jack Pierson’s diptych of fuzzy photos pairs a young fully and frontally nude male swaggering poolside in Palm Springs with a woman in Jackie O sunglasses floating in another pool, her anomie conveyed less by the setup than it is announced by Pierson’s title (appropriated from Roxy Music’s world-weary glamour): In Every Dreamhome a Heartache. If these are visions, they’re recycled.

Also inexplicably included in the show are stills of two performances, imparting little of whatever live charge they might have possessed. (Such items would have been more excusable if the curator had actually stuck to the museum’s holdings as advertised, but several offerings here are on loan from private collections.) Wall texts sketchily describe the performances and analyze their “meaning.” The shot of a trademark Vanessa Beecroft presentation from 1998 shows some 20 mannequinesque women arrayed in gallery spaces in frozen formations a la Busby Berkeley, some naked, some in red sequined underwear, all catatonic. We can see only the trees of their varied hairdos, never the forest. The photograph of a 1991 Matthew Barney extravaganza is more remarkable for its weird fleshlike fingered frame (made from prosthetics material) than for its tiny image of Barney striding down a runway in drag homage to Jim Otto, a legendary pro football lineman. Did the artist purposely crop off the top of his head? And what is that curious contraption hobbling his lower legs? The work’s title–Radial Drill: Ottogate–hints at multiple historical meanings that the photo can’t begin to unfold.

Which brings me back to connections–between artists and viewers, makers and their materials, subjects and the objects they desire, the curators responsible for contemporary canons and the museumgoers they’re paid to entertain, if not enlighten. Two works here, and part of a third, connect magnificently on these levels.

First the partial success: the single best of 12 twisted vignettes in the 1995 parodic video Fresh Acconci, by bad-boy sensationalists Mike Kelley and Paul McCarthy. They used porn actors and settings to re-create scenes from several experimental films Vito Acconci made in the 70s, essentially making porn films out of art films. (More recycling, but fortunately you can watch one of Acconci’s originals, the uncanny Claim Excerpts, by going up one floor.) In this segment a panting woman writhes atop a struggling man, clutching at his eyes: it seems she gets off by spreading the lids extrawide. Sufficiently pleasured, she rolls off him in a unique version of what Blake called “the lineaments of gratified desire,” only to start back at it within moments. This is ontological slapstick of a high order, as if Beckett had made fuck films, its self-referential wit central to a fascinating anatomy of bedroom politics and preferences and of the often repulsive nature of contemporary art. The other sequences in Fresh Acconci are just one-liners, however; in fact the work as a whole left me wondering just how interesting send-ups of pornography’s cliches–the sterile rooms and “romantic” lighting, the ludicrous situations and howlingly bad line readings–could ever be. I also wondered what schoolkids on field trips thought about the X-rated video showing in the Dr. Paul and Dorie Sternberg Family Video Gallery.

The richest piece here is Jeanne Dunning’s simple, focused 1994 The Toe-Sucking Video. Her deadpan-straight but kinky title can’t but intrigue: what it doesn’t tell you is that it’s the artist doing the sucking and that it’s her own toe (big one, right foot). Sitting full frame for a stationary camera, Dunning takes off her tennis shoe and white sock, casually brushes off the everyday gunk on her foot, then lowers her head and inserts the toe into her avid mouth. For the next ten minutes, with a couple of pauses for air, she lavishes her full attention and oral resources on this often neglected digit, her face a combination of effort and ecstasy. This is a woman’s do-it-yourself fellatio of sorts, but it’s also a child’s poignant hunger for its thumb and a monkey’s obsessive self-cleaning. Most of all, though, it’s a parable of absorption in the body as transcendence, the self blissfully obliterated by the urgency of its wanting. Multivalent in its meanings, the video evokes a complex of responses: disgust, amusement, arousal. To paraphrase Woody Allen on masturbation, Dunning is having sex with something she loves; meanwhile her bravura performance–fixated and fetishistic, vulnerable and narcissistic–communicates precisely her observations on the power of our bodies’ unaccountable demands.

A final piece worth pondering is a large color photo by the young Mexican artist Daniella Rossell. Excerpted from her 1999 series “Ricas y famosas” (“The Rich and Famous”), this one shows a celebrated prostitute looking out over the smoggy panorama of Mexico City from the roof of a high-rise. A bottle blond in a halter top and see-through harem pants, she squats with her back to us, face in profile, perched on what looks like a cross between a baptismal font and a slightly souped-up bathtub with Jacuzzi fixtures. An ornate, oversize crucifix on a beaded strand snakes across her shoulder and down her back. The setting, the props, and her self-display set off a series of signifying detonations; the cross, for instance, rhymes nicely with her thong panties, while the idea of a “world at her feet” is tarnished by the smudged plastic barrier (bullet- or suicide proof?) surrounding the rooftop. Rich and famous she may be, but she’s also ambivalently situated, whore and seeming believer, claiming her dignity in a rather squalid setting, a complex emblem of identity and desire. An exception, that is, in this often appalling half-baked show.