The title of CentralTrak’s new exhibition, That Mortal Coil: Rebuking the Ideal in Contemporary Figurative Art, has a prepositional problem. The rebuking here has less to do with the ideal in contemporary figurative art as it does with challenging ideals at play in contemporary consumer culture. Representations of the figure by a hundred years of artists — from Schiele to Bacon, Freud to Sherman, Currin to Koons, McCarthy to Kaws – have been engaged with a similar effort to wrestle material form from metaphysical form. Perhaps “in” is best swapped with “with.”
Rebuking with contemporary art, after all, is the clear polemic at play here. The CentralTrak exhibition belongs to consumer culture in the way that Pussy Riot belongs to Putin. It offers a collection of contemporary artists in sharp reaction to the way advertising and pop culture present images of perfection and to the way consumerist depictions of beauty entangle our contemporary notions of desire and desirability – and by small extension, our conception and relation to life and death. In a foggy essay in a pocket-sized catalogue accompanying the CentralTrak show, Charissa Terranova tries to sketch out an additional relationship between these reactions and evolving forms of technology. We have the omnipresence of Reality TV, which construes an improvised narrative of the grotesque in an effort to appeal to the voyeuristic pleasure idealizing ourselves in disdaining contrast to the televised everyman other. And we have new technologies which disperse our experience of the self by enhancing and exaggerating the mediation of experience.
So with That Mortal Coil we don’t so much have reaction to a trend in contemporary art making, but rather a variety of expressions of neurosis generated by a prevailing culture that commodifies the body in order to create an illusion of the ideal that is both disposable and unattainable. It is a grotesque show, featuring twisting spirals of glued-together fingernails (Ari Richter), photos of Photoshop-ed dead bodies (Denise Prince), Hopper-like paintings of enormous mammories that rest on windowsills like apple pie (Seth Alverson), ink drawings of girls with vagina mouths (Taro-kun), bulbous sculptures made by sticking baseball bats or hamster bottles into orthopedic socks (R.E. Cox), and videos of transvestite clowns with bouncing Muppet tits (Brian Jones) or paint-splattered girls in bikinis (Nina Schwanse). Like a John Waters film, the show is, by design, equal parts nauseating and crudely hilarious.
The big gross out for the more sensitive Dallas souls who wander into CentralTrak during the exhibition will be Ari Richter’s two penis sculptures, each adorned with his girlfriend’s hair, which has been meticulously inserted, strand-by-strand, into the rubber phalluses (one limply falling over its tentacles, the other as stiff and erect as a Corinthian column). They are like lovely little playthings. The erect penis is covered in short hair, the limp member caged in a tangle long black hair. They feel like uncouth extractions from an anthropological exhibit on Neanderthal, or the prosthetics from an imaginary faun that was cut from a Chrispin Glover movie — all unchecked, messy id, or exaggerated 70s porn with its middle finger extended towards the shorn and shiny contemporary depictions of sexuality. Visceral and raw, it’s some of the best work here. Brian Jones buffo video piece also stages protest by way of glandular exaggeration. The artist is dressed in a bulging body suit that covers his skinny frame with rings of fake fat rolls as he dances around with a painted clown face, exaggerating the bouncing of his balloon-like breasts. Its Cindy Sherman meets Falstaff, starring in an afterhours 80s public access TV show.
Denise Prince’s photographs also suggest the shadow Sherman’s work casts over efforts to take up the image and identity through dramatized photographical representation. A series lumped into a corner of the CentralTrak gallery shows four woman posing in a restaged commercial photo shoot, only rather than the models one might expect, Prince casts a bare-chested breast cancer survivor, a curiously malformed woman, a frighteningly thin anorexic woman sprawled out in a bikini on a fake beach, and an older lady, her lizard-pruned skin captured front and center in high-resolution. Across the room, Prince’s other contribution is the strongest – and most difficult – of the lot: the face of a model from an eyeglasses ad superimposed on the face of a dead Indian woman like a death mask. There is a gentle, empathetic beauty to the corpse, underscored by the “faceless” beauty of the model. Perhaps we’re dangling on Andrew Serrano-style morbidity here, but the depiction of the woman doesn’t activate or objectify the person, but rather endows the deceased woman with a kind of individual dignity while confronting us with the very mortality the advertisement seeks to hide.
Confrontation is a recurring theme. Heyd Fontenot has curated three shows at CentralTrak. The first was the overloaded Gun and Knife Show, which employed a kind of wunderkammer approach to deconstructing our festishization of firearms. The second was an invitation to a number of artists to explore Old Testament themes. With That Mortal Coil, Fontenot once again displays sensitivity to the North Texas region’s buried, inherited anxieties, this time with a brash snapback at the clash of consumerist and commercial values that dominate Dallas’ cultural identity.
One shortcoming of the exhibition is that, like Gun and Knife, the gallery space is chockfull with work, but unlike Gun and Knife, the abundance of work makes the gallery feel crowded and dampens some of the pop of the individual pieces. The crowdedness is due, in part, to the many sculptures by R.E. Cox, orthopedic compression hoses filled with objects, or cylindrical metal structures that feature other found objects and prop against the wall in a corner like giant legs. I wonder about the decision to hang one of Seth Alverson’s paintings amidst the mess of prosthetic sculptures, except that Alverson also takes up an element of surrealism that feel relevant because it mashes, like Cox, disembodiment with nightmare. Alverson’s paintings show severed limbs, hacked to expose muscles flesh, posed in classical still life; those breasts on the windowsill, which appear from the dark interior of house from an ambiguous, disembodied form; and a creepy inverted man, with a nubby little foot, a ghoulish smile, and a saw running down the center of his abdomen, cutting his body in too. Here the work is a bit too garish — dreamy little freak shows.
Taro-kun’s drawings are also here in abundance, but they are contained within a glass case. With their cartoonish renderings of imagined scenes of embarrassment, mortification, and sexual disgust, they contribute an important, and otherwise absent theme that seems necessary to any show about bodies and body juices: the adolescent and the sudden onslaught of mortal and sexual awareness it ushers in.
The other video piece here is perhaps my favorite work in the show. The young female artist, Nina Schwanse, appears on the screen in a bikini, climbing atop a pedestal and mugging pin-up poses for the camera. Shot against a green screen, when she produces a bottle of green paint and begins squirting the material on her body, the digital effect is to watch her disappear against the fuzzy, monochrome background. There’s a rather overt feminist critique at play, the artist taking aim at the history of portraiture and the objectification of feminine form for masculine pleasure, literally erasing herself with the sexualized application of paint. But the digitalization of the process is what deepens the intrigue of the performance; as she disappears, Schwanse is increasingly pixelated. Perhaps more than any other work in the show, the video gets back to Terranova’s notions of the role of media and technological networks in dispersing the location of individual identity. It is also a piece that finds power without reverting to shock.
Despite the presence of penises and breasts, dead bodies and bikinis, That Mortal Coil’s desire to shock and awe almost feels puritanical. Perhaps that is part of the point. The exhibition called to mind a recent quote from the Guardian’s art critic Jonathan Jones who wrote about an exhibition of ancient Roman pornography. “Modern sexuality,” Jones writes, “owes more to St. Augustine than it does to the painters of Pompeii.” Put more simply: guilt makes sexy. Sex and death are ancient bedfellows, and perhaps the lingering impression That Mortal Coil leaves is that the commodification of the body has left us very uneasy about both subjects, as well as their unshakeable, unspoken relation: reproduction. Pulling, as the exhibition title does, from Hamlet, perhaps alternative title for the show might be: “To screw, or not to screw.” After all, the work here feels more existential than epistemological, as Terranova’s essay frames it. It is less an exhibition about knowing or our perceptive relation to the external world than it is a show that displays a deep uneasiness with the world as we perceive it. It’s the risk of any rebuke; the challenge reveals vulnerability. To strike, the coiled serpent lays itself bare.
If there’s a not-to-be-missed event this weekend, it is the screening of Wael Shawky’s “Cabaret Crusades” at the McKinney Avenue Contempoary on Saturday. Inspired by the essay “The Crusades through Arab Eyes’ by Amin Maalouf (1983), Shawky’s film reconstructs the Medieval religious wars with a cast of ceramic marionettes, turning, as one writer put it “this vast web of intrigue into a Brechtian ‘distanced’ story.” Here’s Shawky talking about his piece:
And here are the weekend’s openings:
A.D.D. at White Space LLC – May 9: 7-9 p.m. 2001 N. Lamar Street, Suite 500, Dallas, Texas 75202.
“Garden of Dreams” by Linda Bourgault, at the La Cima Club – May 9 : 5:30-7 p.m. 5215 North O’Connor Road, The Tower at Williams Square, Suite 2600, Irving, Tx 75039.
“AMEDEO: AN UNUSUAL VISION OF CAMEOS” by Amedeo Scognamiglio, at the Gallerie Noir – May 9 : 5-9 p.m. 1525 Dragon Street, Dallas, Tx 75207
Randall Reid: Resurrected Dreams: Cowboys, Aliens & Espionage by Randall Reid at William Campbell Contemporary Art – May 10: 6-8 p.m. 4935 Byers Avenue, Fort Worth, Texas 76107.
78 On Deck Closing Celebration at W.A.A.S. Gallery – May 10: 7-9 p.m. 2722 Logan Street, Dallas, Texas 75215.
“Associated Creative Artists Annual Awards and Show” at the Artists’ Showplace Gallery – May 10 : 6-9 p.m. 15615 Coit Rd, #230, Dallas, TX
“8″ by Seth Trent, Rani Rautela, Austin R. Deal, Jessie Martinez, Eliana Miranda, Maryssa Moczan, Rachel Anderson, and Michael L. Farmer, at The University of Dallas Beatrice M. Haggerty Gallery – May 10 : 7-9 p.m. 1845 East Northgate Drive, Irving, Tx 75062.
Wael Shawky’s “Cabaret Crusades” at the McKinney Avenue Contempoary – May 11: 6 p.m. 3120 McKinney Avenue, Dallas, Texas 75204.
The Deep Ellum Windows project presented by Apophenia Underground – May 11: 7-11 p.m.
This week the Deep Ellum Windows includes four installations on Main St.:
American Redoubt 11.02.2014: 2633 Main St.
Zimmerplatz 2013: 2650 B Main St.
Rosalind: 2625 Main St.
To Dissolve Space Into Luminosity: 2646 Main St.
That Mortal Coil: Rebuking the Ideal in Figurative Art at CentralTrak – May 11: 8-10 p.m. 800 Exposition Ave, Dallas, Texas 75226.
Book Swap at The Reading Room – May 11: 4-9 p.m. 3715 Parry Ave. Dallas, TX 75226.
“Monster Under the Bed” by Sleepy Dan at Circuit 12 Contemporary – May 11: 6-10 p.m. 1130 Dragon St. Suite 150, Dallas, Texas 75207.
“The Color Black: A Conversation In Three Parts” by L.E. Doughtie, Diane Durant, and Timothy Harding, at the 500X Gallery – May 11: 7-10 p.m. 500 Expositon Avenue, Dallas, Tx 75226.
“Closing Reception” by Brenda McKinney at the Gallery 422 at the Workroom – May 11: 2-4 p.m. 422 Singleton Blvd, Dallas, Tx 75212.
“The Best Of Moldova” by Buev, Sorin and Turchin from Moldova, at SouthWest Gallery – May 11 : 1-5 p.m. 4500 Sigma Road, Dallas, Tx 75244.
“Studio Show for Students” at The Upstairs Gallery – May 11: 2-6 p.m. 1038 West Abram, Arlington, Tx 76013.
“Vanity Fare” by Drew Merritt, at Global Fashion News Gallery – May 11: 7-10 p.m. 3005 A Commerce Street, Dallas, Tx 75226