The Twisted Delights of Abject Art
by Patrick Neal on August 5, 2015
During the summer, as Labor Day approaches and people flee the city for vacation, Ferris wheels and circus tents can be seen in the distance announcing the arrival of fairs across the counties. Although fairs bring to mind nostalgic memories of family fun, they also have their seamier side in popular mythology, offering twisted delights, a break from conformity, and a life on the road.
I couldn’t help but think of this while taking in Peep Holes / Private Eyes, a show featuring two painters and two video installation artists at Dorsky Gallery Curatorial Programs in Long Island City that has a bit of a carnivalesque flair about it. The exhibition was organized by SUNY New Paltz, and the artists are all relatively recent graduates of the university’s Fine Arts program. Although the exhibition’s title suggests an examination of voyeurism in an age of excessive surveillance, I kept situating the individual works within the framework of European Surrealism’s André Breton and Georges Bataille and how these figures came to influence the Abject Art of the 1990s. Promulgated by the French philosopher Julia Kristeva, abjection considered “that which is cast-off.” It drew a demarcation line between one’s healthy body and self-identity and that which is impure, diseased, or intolerable. In this vein, the artists at Dorsky Gallery are peering past the respectable in an effort to view the taboo dregs of the sub-conscious.
Several of Erik Schoonebeek’s flat, simple paintings nestle two complementary shapes and colors into a yin-yang configuration in an Ellsworth Kelly-meets-Dr. Seuss manner. He uses thick, black rules to outline images of a pink-curtained window bearing fangs or a green-haired Elvis with a mullet. Sometimes tracing a support’s edge, his works suggest coloring books or the flat sets from a children’s theater production. “Fleer” (2015) looks like a big black turd with tentacles running across the wall as it escapes a little, white frame hovering in the rear ground. The paintings in acrylic and oil on a delicate cotton sheath have been stretched over board, with the paint extending around the sides of the supports in vibrant streaks. The works discombobulate as paintings that are also objects. They have a surprising, sinister whimsy, with source material that regresses to child-like, cartoonish glyphs then back to sophisticated support/surface constructions.
Giorgio de Chirico or the flat, sensual pop reliefs of Tom Wesselman came to mind as a connective thread between Schoonebeek and the painter Christian Little. Little’s compositions of acrylic on wood panel are put together from painterly parts, the grain of the wood support sometimes actively exposed. He sections off areas that are sponged, marbleized, swept, soaked, sprayed, or washed in iridescence. In his series of Exhibitionists the main motif is a broken woman, placed atop a pedestal and straddling a plinth, wild hair flying through the air. Little plays up the artificiality of these constructions by adding drop shadows, flattening out brush strokes, and fragmenting his painterly techniques into collages of sorts. In “Hard Feelings #2” (2015) the wavy smoke from an ashtray mingles with the loopy static of a television screen in a space with shuttered blinds, presumably to obscure the pornography on the tube. The painting has beautiful bleeds of nocturnal color that swim around the glass tiles of a room on a moonlit night.
Moving into the second half of Peep Holes / Private Eyes one comes across the video installations of Ashley Caferro and Sam DeMonte. These two artists employ the sort of “base materials” common to Abject Art while exploring behaviors and psychological conditions tied to the feminine body and identity. The works in this section, with their visceral displays of teeth, skin, orifices, trash, food, wax, fur, and other loaded materials, made it difficult not to think of the horror films of Tobe Hooper — particularly the character Leatherface and his mask of stitched human skin — and The Funhouse, with its dark rides, geek attractions, and burlesque.
Ashley Caferro hangs latex casts of body parts from the ceiling as if they’d been impaled on pitchforks. Visitors can look face-up through peepholes embedded into the latex torsos to watch dreamy, disturbing meditations on body dysmorphia. In doing so, we become drawn into corporeal disturbances and hallucinations. This process of peeping through holes becomes inverted while watching the video “Body Image” (2013), which hangs on a nearby wall. In a room with familiar ambient sounds and blurred double exposures, a woman obsessively brushes her hair. Hazy smears of soft color fade to extreme close-ups of tunnels and moist fissures that eventually envelope the viewer.
If beauty is considered a standard for art, Sam DeMonte’s video installation “Sweet Samantha Jane’s Super Sweet 16” (2015) turns that notion on its head. We stumble across a pile of queasy party favors, chintzy bric-a-brac, and perverse souvenirs in a darkened room, like the leftovers of a demented coming-of-age soirée. A projected image of a clown’s balloon nose floats around the room, leading our eyes to a plaque inscribed with a mother’s message to her daughter on the virtues of finding a good man and settling down. The work’s power comes from its curation of banal, sentimental, and degenerate items rubbing shoulders in a creepy setting. The aural, physical, and spatial components, against a skittering sound track of cheesy music and bursting balloons, builds to a nightmarish crescendo.
After experiencing Peep Holes / Private Eyes I found myself digging up the catalogue of the Whitney Museum’s 1993 exhibition Abject Art, Repulsion and Desire in American Art, with its references to essays on the “The Female Grotesque” and “Monstrous Feminine.” Abjection wasn’t really considered a movement so much as a constituency of artist and writers who happened to be thinking about the same things, daring to go where others feared to tread. But it’s hard to deny its influence on a whole generation of younger artists among whom anti-art processes have become de rigueur.
Peep Holes / Private Eyes continues at Dorsky Gallery Curatorial Programs (11-03 45th Avenue, Long Island City, Queens) through August 28.