Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Marcel Dzama’s Marriage of Violence and Sexuality

Marcel Dzama’s world of disturbed characters has expanded into the third dimension and the cinematic realm. For his fifth solo show at David Zwirner, Even the Ghost of the Past, the young Canadian artist departs from his typically quaint drawings in a showy display of dioramas, film, and complex compositions. With the added complexity, the artist probes more deeply into issues surrounding the connection of sexuality to violence, violence to sexuality, and larger themes of gender-related power constructs.

The first room of the exhibition contains several of the artist’s characteristic whimsically demented drawings, where cute animals intermix with a perverted array of carnival-like men and women engaged in lascivious acts in muted colors against a white background. In Poor Sacrifices of our enmity, a cluster of female archers hunch over their drawn bow and arrows, aiming at a central bull figure or randomly into space. The women are desexualized through their plain dress and hidden bodies, representing a threatening female archetype reminiscent of the Amazons.

In the thematically rich drawing The Hidden, the unknowable, and the unthinkable, an oversized naked woman is being stretched from each limb while other naked women with masks, naked men, and a few clothed figures play on her body like a jungle gym. One man is seen lynched from her extended arm. Another naked woman crawls out of the neck of the headless body. Possibly alluding to the mythical story of the Maenads ripping their victims limb from limb, the drawing represents a vicious yet playful destruction of the female body, possibly by the male artist. A fully clothed male is suspended in the air with a paint brush and a half-finished canvas, suggesting that the stretched central figure is a model or muse.

In the drawing The ghost of Picabia will corrupt the souls of the youth, the Dadaist artist Francis Picabia, who was known for having affairs with his dancer models, is referenced through the depiction of a male figure clothed head-to-toe in black and holding a bull-whip that is directed at a line of young girls dancing. Once again investigating the relationship of male artist to female subject, Dzama creates a troubling look at sexual dynamics in relation to positions of power and submission.

The characters from Dzama’s small-scale drawings are inflated into 3-D dioramas in the second room of the exhibition, recessed into the walls and dimly lit. In First Born, a large bear figure stands holding a woman’s legless and armless body in the air while his other arm is outstretched, grasping a club-like object, ready to strike the woman. A man in a suit reaches up to stop the bear from beating the woman, a static and generally expressionless look on his face. A woman (the man’s significant other?) stands cautiously behind him, holding his hat. Strongly suggesting domestic abuse but portrayed with a surrealistic distance, Dzama’s cool depiction of violence against women is intriguing and discomforting in its ambiguity.

In what is the most disturbing piece of the show, the diorama The Underground, three masked terrorists with guns stand over a naked, squatting woman with a tube running out of her vagina and into the mouth of a man in a suit lounging in a stomach-shaped mole hole. Dzama typically leaves his art open for interpretation, but this particular piece has an accompanying artist page in a display case in the first room of the exhibit. The artist notes that there should be a yellow light shining on the tube to represent urine, erasing what could be a less provacative perception of the tube as an umbilical cord and the man as gestating in a womb-like structure. With this information the violent undertones of the scene are centralized, placing the woman in a position of shame, intimidation, and sexual victimization at the hands of the men.

The sound of a piano (live on certain Saturdays) beckons the viewer to sit in one of the two rows of theater seats to watch the silent film, Lotus Eaters (2005), in the final room of the exhibition. The most prevalent female archetype in Dzama’s drawings, the femme fatale, comes to life as the artist’s deceased wife whom he, like Orpheus, frantically searches for in the afterlife. Although the film is ultimately entertaining and enjoyable from a formalist standpoint, the puzzling sexual dynamics between man and woman, artist and subject, linger unanswered.

The suggestion of male dominance and female submission underlies Dzama’s current body of work. While a few examples of sadomasochism are present in the drawings, the overall power dynamics relate mainly to gender constructs. If the general context of the exhibition would have been sadomasochistic, then the submission of the females would have taken on a new (and less negative) connotation, representing sexual play rather than a real inconsistency in power. Aside from the overtly negative portrayal of women, the psychological complexities behind Dzama’s art are ultimately intriguing partially because they represent an innate connection between sex and violence that is often ignored but consistently present throughout human history.

Recycling the Past, Anticipating the Future

Death, sexuality, domesticity, childhood, Life. These are the themes artist Robert Gober has explored since his emergence in the New York art scene in the 1980’s, a decade known for decadence as much as for death and disease, the AIDS epidemic. As an antidote to these issues, the openly gay Gober created hand-made, non-fabricated objects that addressed the confusing connection between the activity of sex and the act of dying. Now, more than twenty years later, the artist uses his own body of work as a source for appropriation, recycling central imagery such as faucets, rifles, apples, bird nests, and isolated body parts to continue a discussion of facing life and sexuality in the face of death.

Following a large-scale solo exhibition at Matthew Marks in 2005 focused on religion and politics, Gober presents a more intimate and personal show at Marks’ two smaller galleries on West 21st and 22nd Street. Each gallery presents untitled sculptures of a partially dismantled chair mounted on the wall, with large breasts protruding outward from the seat and various other Goberian elements included.

One of the cast gypsum polymer chairs has the surreally rendered legs of a female child wrapped flaccidly around its rungs, dark human hair accenting the pale flesh on each limb. The treatment of the seemingly lifeless legs have a violent yet playful quality, provoking thoughts of either a crime scene or a jungle gym on a playground. The stark contrast between innocence and the loss thereof provides an eerie and thought provoking element that continues in surrounding works in the exhibition.

Another of the breasted-chair sculptures features a handcrafted rifle entering the empty space between the legs of the chair and curving (flaccidly, again) around the front so that the barrel is pointed directly between the two breasts. The curvature morphs the gun from threatening and phallic into a faucet-like object, thus emphasizing the non-functionality of both the gun and the faucet.

Of the more gentle pieces present is a chair without any presentation of violence, but of life and birth instead. The tiny, blue eggs of a robin sit in a nest that rests inside the framework of the chair, appearing as though it is delicately balanced on top of the rungs. This piece could address the struggle in becoming a woman, whether it is letting go of childlike qualities or becoming a mother, or simply the act of creation amidst life’s injustices.

Superficially, Gober’s sculptures can seem violent and misogynistic. It would be easy to dismiss Gober as a woman-loathing male due to the violent undercurrents of his representations of women, but within these pieces there also exists a tenderness, and a sense of personal struggle. Deeper investigations need to be forged in order to understand the artist’s use of gender, sexuality, and his allusions to death or violence.

The exhibition at Marks has neither a title nor a press release, even though there are a plethora of essential details in the body of work that necessitate explanation. Luckily, a surprisingly friendly gallery assistant, Jonathan, informed me that the chair featured in the show is a replica of the first piece of furniture that Gober purchased when he arrived in New York City. This little bit of information is instrumental in interpreting the rich iconography present in the sculptures, which are full of possibilities for a Freudian analysis. Sans press release, interesting details about the show such as this or that the frames surrounding small linoleum block prints are handcrafted in apple wood (the same wood as the butt of the rifle), are lost without a thorough interrogation of the gallery staff or an insider’s knowledge of the artist’s work.

After learning about the history of the chairs, a more personal interpretation of the exhibition comes into focus. Being as that the chairs represent the artist’s entrance into the New York art world, one can conclude that when combined with the incorporated symbolism they represent both the birth of his life as an artist, and the death of a child-like naiveté.

Another tidbit I received from my long conversation with Jonathan was that the artist brought his mother and his sister to the gallery the day before to revisit his pieces during an afternoon outing, and that he has a close relationship with them both. This information led me to reevaluate my Freudian analyses and conclude that Gober’s sculptures are based more on an analysis of his own experiences than a meditation on gender specifically.

The artist’s entrance into the New York art world in the 1980’s inevitably included a loss of innocence tied to harsh realities, such as the discovery of the AIDS virus and his position as a gay male in the scheme of these issues. By reusing his own arsenal of images related to death, sexuality, childhood, and rebirth, Gober continues on a path of self-discovery that is directly linked to larger and complex societal concerns.

The World Famous *Bob*'s !BadAss! Birthday Bash

photo by Stacie Joy

In case you’ve been in a cave for the past ten years, the art of burlesque has experienced a vast revival, pervading not only popular culture but the high brow halls of museums. This Neo-Burlesque is not your classic striptease but a theatrical, humorous, dramatic, intelligent, political, and sexy revision that is also a new brand of performance art. A combination of satirical sketches, modern dance, classic striptease, and avant garde theater, the end product is entertaining, thought provoking, and diverse depending on the venue and the performer.

New York City is the center of the burlesque revival, and any given day there is bound to be a performance occurring somewhere in the five boroughs. While many troupes practice a more traditional form of burlesque (stripping+comedy), a few are intent on breaking rules and expanding the definition of the nearly lost art. !BadAss! Burlesque describes itself as the underbelly of the New York burlesque scene, bringing together performers that push boundaries and are often too unusual for mainstream audiences. Producer Velocity Chyaldd has organized a monthly show for the past three years at The Bowery Poetry Club that is dedicated to politically and socially conscious performance art where almost anything goes. If you have a weak stomach, a vanilla outlook, or want to ogle perfectly proportioned bodies, you’d be in the wrong place.

This month was the third annual birthday bash for The World Famous *Bob*, whose name says it all. Perhaps the most well-known burlesque performer in New York City, the blonde bombshell chose fifteen of her favorite performers to wish her well in celebration of her 36th year (which she calls “thirty-sexy”). Hosting in a sheer, black nightgown and displaying her gigantic sense of humor, Bob proved that it is her razor sharp wit that has catapulted her to pastie stardom.

The most prominent member of the line-up was certainly high art sweetheart Julie Atlas Muz, a Whitney Biennial 2004 and Valencia Bienal 2005 artist. For her act at BadAss, Muz performed a parody of the disturbing and now infamous You Tube sensation “two girls and a cup.” First stripping with the cupcakes in front of her and then perching on top of a stool, the nude Muz somehow shat (chocolate pudding) onto the cupcakes. She then turned around, stuck her finger down her throat and puked onto both of the pastries (she had a balloon full of vomit-like material in her mouth throughout the performance which she punctured with a pin). With a big smile on her face, Muz ate the two cupcakes at the dismay of the audience. After applause, one girl in the front shouted “Oh! I get it! One girl, two cupcakes!” Bob then congratulated her for finally catching on.

Another standout was Tigger! (there’s lots of exclamation points in burlesque). Dressed as a Frenchman, the male burlesquer began his act by parading around the stage telling jokes about Americans into the microphone. Keeping in character, he began stripping and dancing in a comical yet highly skilled fashion until he was fully nude, doing what looked like horizontal jumping jacks on the floor. Combining politics, comedy, intellectual banter, modern dance, and striptease, Tigger! proved that while burlesque is traditionally a woman’s game, men can create just as dynamic of a performance.

A disappointment of the night was the usually jaw-dropping Jo Boobs, who runs the NY School of Burlesque. Jo most certainly understands the dynamics of traditional and non-traditional burlesque alike, but her short performance at BadAss did not convey her strengths. A chair was set on stage with a dildo strapped on, facing conveniently upward before Jo pranced out, quickly stripped, lubed up the phallus, and sat on it for about five seconds. Penetration for penetration’s sake is not very artful and today’s desensitized audiences expect a more dynamic act, especially from the anointed high-priestess of burlesque instruction.

The World Famous *Bob* is a practitioner of a more traditional burlesque, so most of the performances at her birthday party were less unorthodox than is typical at a BadAss show. There was plenty of comedic striptease, provided by the fat-positive newcomer Della Dare, the young Kit Cat, and the beautiful Legs Malone. Although the avant garde was pushed to the side by most performers, the night was cohesively light, funny, and fitting for the celebration of the larger than life Bob.

What makes the Neo-Burlesque movement so important is the blurring of lines between high and low art, theater and performance art. Existing somewhere between the poles, the unique art form brings together humor, talent, entertainment, and creativity in a way that can expand to fit mainstream interpretations, underground sensibilities, and high art interest. So, chose your venue according to your expectations, but be assured that BadAss will provide an unusual mixture of all the spheres of burlesque, although it might not be suitable for everyone.