Everything in excess: the expressive possibilities of extreme imagery are explored in the works selected by Robert Storr for "Disparities and Deformations: Our Grotesque," the latest SITE Santa Fe Biennial
Art in America, Nov, 2004 by Charles Dee Mitchell
Writing around 20 B.C.E., the Roman poet Horace acknowledged that "Poets and painters ... / have the right to do whatever they dare to do." But he knew where to set the limit: "Suppose some painter had the bright idea / Of sticking a human head on a horse's neck / And covering human nether limbs up with / Assorted feathers...." What would prevent such excess, according to Horace, was not only the public derision it was certain to meet, but also the important principle embodied in the dictum "whatever the work is supposed to be, / Let it be true to itself, essentially simple." (1)
Horace got that one wrong. Risking scorn and flouting essential simplicity, artists from his time on have continued placing human heads on horses' necks and the like. Robert Storr, curator of the fifth SITE Santa Fe Biennial, "Disparities and Deformations: Our Grotesque," thinks this is a good thing. In his essay for the catalogue that accompanies the exhibition, he quotes writers from antiquity forward who disparage the grotesque, but Storr also musters counterexamples to establish the grotesque as a vital element of artistic practice. Even John Ruskin, a staunch defender of "truth in art," has this to offer: "wherever the human mind is healthy and vigorous in all its proportions ... there the grotesque will exist in full energy.... I believe there is no test of greatness in periods, nations, or men, more sure than the development among them or in them, of a noble grotesque."
By such a criterion, we live in great artistic times. Although we may not see Ruskinian nobility in it, the grotesque permeates our visual culture. And yet, as Sterr pointed out in his press talk in Santa Fe, "nobody quite knows what it means, and what they think they know they don't really like." We hear the word a lot on newscasts to describe scenes of incomprehensible violence. It comes in handy for those who want to denigrate anything from horror films to their teenage children's favorite rock bands. In Storr's catalogue essay, we hear precursors of such comments across 18 centuries from writers who condemned decadent foreign influences, womanish decoration and blatant artificiality. Within a history of such strictures and repressions, the grotesque is "an eruption of things systematically denied."
The eruptions taking place in this biennial range from the parodic to the disturbing. There are laughs in Storr's exhibition but, depending on your comfort level with such things, some queasy moments as well. What is here, in abundance, is artifice, willful displays of technique aimed at producing visual wonders. As Storr said before he turned the press loose in the galleries, "The grotesque is the reinvention of the world in the spirit of play."
That notion of a "spirit of play" is a good thing to keep in mind as you approach the SITE Santa Fe building. For the previous biennial, Dave Hickey's "Beau Monde: Toward a Redeemed Cosmopolitanism" [see A.i.A., Nov. '01], Jim Isermann covered the building facade with squares of silver plastic whose beveled edges created a snazzy, high modern diamond pattern. Isermann's work stayed in place during the intervening years, but now the plastic squares are gone and Storr has turned over the projecting gridwork to Kim Jones, an artist best known tar his alter ego, Mud Man, his own near-naked body covered in mud, sticks and leaves, who has appeared in performance work since the 1970s. For SITE, Jones has covered the iron lattice with bundles of bright red salt cedar branches. Swarming over the branches are hundreds of 2-foot-long black rubber rats, the kind that squeak when you squeeze them. Plastic baby dolls that have seen better days dangle behind the grid, as do bundles of sticks and mud that are typical of Jones's work but here recall the talismans found in the woods by the hapless filmmakers in The Blair Witch Project. For the opening weekend, young volunteers worked at the artist's request at barbecue grills between the grid and the building. The smell was inviting, but the weenies they tossed toward the crowd were burned to a crisp. One landed at my feet as I was examining a plastic doll whose head had come off its body. "You can kick it, if you want," one of the chefs told me. I did, but it wasn't that much fun. A small boy who joined in after me found it more satisfying. His art-loving parents looked concerned.
Jones's untitled installation offered no clues to its overall meaning. It was creepy and comic, and listening in while the volunteers discussed their plans for the evening made the whole thing seem weirdly normal. The carnival inn house effect was a far cry from the elegant installation you encountered once inside, but it was present at the beginning and the end of your experience to announce that sometimes it's good to turn things--and institutions--upside down just to see what falls out.
The Jones installation was the only site-specific piece in "Disparities and Deformations," and a glance at the catalogue shows as many or more works from the 1990s as from more recent years, while pieces from the '70s and '80s occasionally put in an appearance. Painting, drawing and photography dominate, with only four videos to be found along with a few sculptural projects. But one of those projects furnished the exhibition with two presiding spirits. The polished bronze bodies of Thomas Schutte's Grosse Geister No. 1 (Big Spirits) and Grosse Geister No. 2 (Big Spirits) appeared to have swirled into being to dominate the gallery. Each is over 8 feet tall, and if their metal mass made them too substantial to be ghostly, their highly reflective surfaces lent them an ethereal presence.
Portraiture is a compelling focus for the grotesque. The catalogue cover pairs a detail from a fresco in the Uffizi Gallery that depicts a snarling mask sprouting feathery wings with Tom Friedman's pastel of a snaggle-toothed, long-nosed monster with goggly eyes and a repulsive grin. This is probably not an example of Ruskin's "noble grotesque," but the juxtaposition does make effective shorthand for the ongoing tradition that interests Storr, and captures the extremes of elegance and rambunctiousness the show establishes. For the latter, there's Douglas Gordon's color photograph Monster (1997), a double self-portrait. On the left, the young artist looks solemnly at the camera. On the right, thanks to transparent tape stretched across his face, his eyebrows arch, his eyelids are pulled up and down, his nose looks like a snout, his mouth is splayed and his ears are pinched. Gordon has unleashed the monster within and left all the gimmickry showing.
The transformations in Jim Shaw's Dream Object (I was looking at drawings of successful businessmen which became increasingly distorted and became a pornographic hedge ...), 2001, are sequential and more complete. In their earliest stages, they could be drawings found in the boardroom of any corporation, but things soon get worse. Chins and eyes droop alarmingly. Before long, these upstanding citizens are smeared across the paper, their faces giving way to shrubbery filled with sexually cavorting couples. By casting his work as a dream, Shaw invites analysis, but I became increasingly aware at this exhibition that the grotesque is here to entertain us. It's a great pleasure to see these suits morph into a topiary orgy. Other artists in the exhibition take darker paths than Shaw and Gordon, but the fun is never far away.
Two galleries were devoted almost entirely to portraits from artists such as John Currin, Lisa Yuskavage, Peter Saul and Jim Nutt. Perhaps because they are seen less often these days, Saul and Nutt upstaged their colleagues. Saul showed two large acrylic paintings, Brush Your Teeth and Ok, I Messed Up: What's Next? (both 2003). In the first, a little girl has taken the traditional bedtime command perhaps too seriously, but then again her head appears to consist of nothing but curly blonde ringlets and teeth sprouting everywhere. Site is going 'after the latter with an oversize brush in each hand and working up a lot of foam. The features of the man in the other painting are multiplying, sliding and vying for position. His bright red skin fits like a loose rubber mask. Saul adds spaghetti-like hair, days-old stubble and loose lips that you just know are about to drool. The title of the painting appears in a cartoon bubble in the upper right.