The Body in Question

John Haber
in New York City

Gallery-Going: Fall 2002

As politicians turn peace into perpetual war, the art world seems way ahead of the game. Artists, after all, have been wondering for years about the possibility of revolution or change.

Perhaps I have fooled myself into imagining a bitter kind of warfare even in art. Looking, I kept thinking, has become more of a physical act. Sam Taylor-Wood's Sleep (Matthew Marks Gallery, 2002)

Art, I keep thinking, has grown more visceral. It makes sense. It expresses vulnerability to events and even to images, like the ones replayed over and over last year. Only I might be imagining it, projecting my needs. Or I might be overreacting, projecting instead my fears of sentimental responses that surely I had put behind me. Walk with me through exhibits by Wim Delvoye and Karen Atherton, Sam Taylor-Wood and Tracy Emin, Gary Hill, Justine Kurland and Daniel Rozin, and others in this mixed-up fall.

Just one momento mori

Then, too, I might be seeing nothing more than a tired normalcy. What sounds more like a cliché by now than the body in art? Feminism, Minimalism, performance—they all put that one on the table decades ago. All of them indeed rebelled against and extended older notions of the physical in art, from Giacometti's nightmares to formalist interpretations of Jackson Pollock or Mark Rothko as "objecthood." The theme has since lost whatever claims it might once have had to an association with sincerity, after so many retreads of Neo-Expressionism.

On the third or fourth hand, this whole pocket history makes sense because looking really is an act. I mean that in all senses of the word—as pretense and as physical process. It took convention for Western art to pretend otherwise for so long, to aspire to Victorian ideals of sight as above it all.

A new theme sounds grand. one group show even calls itself "Immediate Gesture." In today's art scene, however, to ask where the bodies are buried has a more jaded meaning. Surely one sees much the same artists as ever, doing their thing as if the 1990s had never come an end.

Will Cotton has his usual painterly close-ups of sex and food, starkly physical concerns only in the self-indulgent sense of a Brett Easton Ellis novel. Wim Delvoye still offers gothic art for the S&M crowd. They could start their own FAO Schwarz, thanks to his miniature tractor in trefoil patterns and a smooth finish. They could see whether other species will play along, with birdhouses decked out in leather and chains. From across the room, his stained glass has a decorative charm, a tension between architectural aspirations and the gallery, and an awareness of the fragile boundaries between art and craft. Up close, minimalist or feminist ideas vanish into shadowy images on glass of human skeletons, alone or in a kiss.

Still, I kept feeling challenged as I had not before. I could not see the stained glass without thinking of a medieval memento mori, that remember of mortality. I could not see even toy construction machinery without thinking of the excavation of Ground Zero or the rituals that continue elsewhere this fall. In the back room, Karen Atherton's Shrines of twisted wood hold pools of blood-red wax. Like trees that had shriveled into death well before the axe, they have the same craft and chill, but rather less cheap exploitation.

Others sound like retreads, too. Sam Taylor-Wood once again photographs sex and death with a posh crowd of actors. Tracey Emin, as ever, still tells me how to respond to a woman's plight and then berates me for it. I first saw Gary Hill's gripping video of a woman stepping forward to scream her lungs out a couple of years ago now. Yet I had not seen the whole story.

Unreliable narrators

Taylor-Wood and Emin do leave me with qualms, a certainty that I have seen glib jokes in place of decent art. Taylor-Wood's friends still have more athletic sex than anyone I care to know, and her landscapes hold profound meaning known only to her. Now she adds riffs on Old Masters. These photographs and videos can easily fall back on ready-made emotions, as if to say, "Look what I did on my summer vacation." Her show's title, "The Passion," milks a facile pun on the Bible and sex. And yet at least one work has something of the intensity of Bill Viola and his more overproduced, slow-motion depictions of grief.

In the shallowest, in more ways than one, a woman simply lies on her back. A narrow frame gives her the stark proximity to death of Hans Holbein's Dead Christ. Elsewhere a weeping woman crouches as if crushed by grief into a torturous inner space of her own. I mistook a larger Pietà, the composition right out of Michelangelo and his most popular sculpture, for a still. Taylor-Wood and Robert Downey, Jr., try to sustain the pose before their own weight brings them both to new life. I left thinking that she had contributed little more than snapshots of her own European tour, but I could not forget my discovery of the dimension of time and its relationship to remembrance.

Speaking of cynicism and cool emotions, Tracey Emin flaunts her coolness. In flickering neon, she points out that "people like you need to fuck people like me." Who knows? She may have me pegged, but either way she had me laughing. She even gives me another excuse to connect art's obsession with sex and the body to 9/11. "Peace of mind Gas masks and bio-logical suits complete sets" runs one work, along with a phone number and prices. Emin has knitted at the very top, more lightly, "I don't think so."

She, too, mostly repeats herself, but perhaps that comes with efficient housekeeping. She works in primers, tapestry, and handmade bed covers along with the paper and neon. The warmth of the traditional materials again plays against the anonymous voices. They dare one to puzzle out the relationship between their discomforting subject matter, an woman artist's almost maniacal self-confidence, and global feminism. Yet the all-too-knowing words again dominate. I could have gotten along fine if the best work had appeared as a short paperback, but for once I mean to compliment her.

At each letter of the alphabet a speaker soothes, or pretends to soothe, a pregnant woman. The full capitals and illiterate spelling and punctuation make the voices all the harsher—and the pretense of a primer all the more chilling. "You will feel shit, weak mabe sick and afraid to talk it through" . . . "You may also feel in a state of euphoria from the relief be careful as depression may follow" . . . "Allways use a condom—carry them with you twenty-four hours a day" . . . Fancy concepts like the unreliable narrator leave one no less disoriented.

I can sure count on Gary Hill to make me tread carefully. Video's philosopher prince has evolved from pioneering explorations that could almost have served as epistemology lessons, growing more visceral but no less thoughtful with every installation. Often that has meant slipping the viewer into the very coils of the machinery—a scrambling of monitors, cables, and a bombardment of images. His new show, "Language Writing," sticks to projections on flat walls. Yet one again finds no sure place to stand and no less confrontation between the visual, the tactile, and the conceptual.

A hall of mirrors

One video duplicates, side by side, a shot of a hand constantly in motion. The hand might be signing, while a voice, another message too hard to decode, tries to make sense of the whole idea of right and left. Another work juxtaposes single hands on two flowered tablecloths. Each might be trying to find its way, to obscure, or to keep from obscuring the flowers. From three speakers, the unintelligible voices dare one to puzzle out sameness and difference. Hill's fragile shrieker daring one to respond to her madness—or maybe one's own—seems paradoxically at home.

The largest installation surrounds one with five projections, blinking on and off perhaps at random. The images capture older men and children, hanging out on street corners and trying to hold together their world. Has the viewer, from a more privileged world, cut them off from their connections, or has their very existence cut off the viewers from theirs? As the saying goes, does the left hand know what the right hand is doing? Few artists leave one unable to stop asking, even while reeling.

Hill has me looking yet again for the physical impact of the visual arts. I saw it in abstraction, such as James Hyde's painted canvas shaped into an enormous pillow, with air pump attached. (I never can find cotton bedding when I want it.) Elliot Puckette treats painting like fine ceramics. She covers the light washes with kaolin, into which she then incises a weave of curves.

I could see it in photographs by Justine Kurland. Naked men and women, set amid trees and grass, suggest the half-hidden sexuality of Lewis Carroll or Deborah Mesa-Pelly. Group shots, like reunion photos for a most peculiar family, made clearer the context of real or imagined communes. These place the nudity too firmly in their own imagination as opposed to mine. I preferred the scragglier photos in the front room. Their actors look open and naive, as if unsure what to do with the camera and themselves.

I saw it, of all things, in computer art. Daniel Rozin turns flat panels into electronic mirrors. One, for instance, ties gray tones to tiny pie charts—black circles with changing slices of white. It reduces the units of vision to a classroom exercise, but one with the tug of abstract art. One cannot recognize oneself in the shifting images, but one feels more conscious of the gallery and of one's body in motion. Another work looks like an easel with brushes, each resting in its own paint tin. One can wield any of the three across the flat panel, leaving swaths of electronic color with the rough texture of a real brush.

Had I found the body at last in a hall of mirrors, in show upon show of manipulated images? Perhaps I had, and it was always my own.

BACK to John's arts home page

Will Cotton ran at Mary Boone through October 19, Wim Delvoye and Karen Atherton at Sperone Westwater through October 26, Sam Taylor-Wood at Matthew Marks through November 2, Tracey Emin at Lehmann Maupin through October 19, Gary Hill at Barbara Gladstone through October 16, James Hyde at Brent Sikkema through October 5, Elliot Puckette at Paul Kasmin through October 9, Justine Kurland at Gorney Bravin + Lee through October 12, and Daniel Rozin at Bitforms through October 19.


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