Reviewing Our Grotesque

Lyz Nagan, "Putting Grotesque to the Test: Site Santa Fe's Fifth International Biennial," Fnewsmagazine, September 2004.

Plastic rats and muddied baby dolls welcome the audience to the fifth annual SITE Santa Fe biennial held at the newly revamped space of the not-for-profit contemporary art organization. I spent my entire life in the Midwest—teal, purple, and unnaturally orange landscapes come to mind when I envision New Mexico’s art scene. Perhaps I am not the only one who imagines Santa Fe as a regional art center because SITE’s mission is to explicitly bring international art to Santa Fe. Although the exhibiting artists are mostly American, the biennial’s guest curator, Robert Storr, cranked up the Santa Fe art scene by more than a couple of notches with Disparities and Deformations: Our Grotesque.

Storr has long been interested in the subject of the grotesque, evidenced by the precision and clarity of this show. With the lofty goal of reclaiming the concept from abuse by the media, Storr approaches this show as a chance to complicate the term and the images it describes. Rather than simplify and explain the concept, Storr explores the polyvalence and slipperiness.

I wandered through the impressive show with just general knowledge of the history and complexity of the grotesque, and therefore armed mostly with my eyes. The exterior installation, by Kim Jones, is a collage of trashy items—bundles of twigs, used grills, suspended dolls and marching rats. The clever result embodies the uneasiness and whimsicality of the theme, but also misleads the audience as to the range of work inside.
Jones’s contribution continues in the entryway of the building, and though his drawings are intriguingly detailed and well crafted, they are not nearly as ambiguous and exploratory as other works in the show.

Once inside, it is apparent that Storr is a skilled curator—the exhibition flow and attuned placement of the works is staggering. Apart from the difficulty of viewing drawings through reflective glass in the sunny foyer, the drawings feel like adolescent sketches gone too far—with none of the innocence and all of the darkness.

Hung on the adjacent wall is a thematically relevant Jeff Wall photograph. Intimately scaled, the photo portrays a common nightmarish scene of being caught naked in public. In this case, a nude, older woman towers over the central staircase of a library completely oblivious to the comings and goings of the library visitors. The serenity of the scene combined with the woman’s shameless disposition makes the piece a perfect introduction to the rest of the show.

Connecting the entryway to the meat of the exhibition was Ricci Albenda’s “Tesseract,” a quirky take on the white-walled spaces to which modern art audiences are accustomed. The organically styled reliefs and engravings make glaringly apparent the flat, stark walls that support our once (and maybe still) radical art. The architectural possibilities, he seems to be saying, are endless, and yet look how, we repeatedly use the space. Beyond this installation, six large galleries (and one old railroad car) housed the remaining 50 artists.

Historically, the concept of the grotesque relied on fantastic imagery to challenge and critique mainstream values and sensibilities. Many of the works continue this tradition. Issues of race, gender, sexuality and religion abound, making the show a feast for the mind as well as the senses.
The discomfort that some may attribute to grotesque images stems directly from the confronting quality in images that twist and contort our preconceived notions of beauty and nature. As Storr brilliantly observed in the introduction to the catalog, the artists in the show extract the unnatural from the natural.

Among the notable inclusions in the show are Lamar Peterson’s stoic scenes of homicidal sock-monkeys and a mother gleefully smiling while her son’s face melts to the floor; Lisa Yuskavage’s soft portraits of oddly proportioned women; Adriana Varejão’s tile sculpture reminiscent of excavated ruins with decorative motifs and bloodied innards; Kara Walker’s first video, made specifically for this show, portraying a racist society turned upside down in raw, puppet show fashion; Louise Bourgeois’s psychological cell with three suspended heads evoking the trinity of the id, ego and superego; and occupying the always hazy boundary between high art and low art, R. Crumb’s expertly executed cartoons of morphing faces and boyish daydreams scribbled on café placemats.

But anchoring the constellation of meanings and possibilities of the grotesque are works by Jenny Saville and Tony Oursler. Saville’s immense “Rueben’s Flap” exaggerates the common female nude into ripples of flesh; rather than splayed daintily on a daybed, the woman is upright and in your face. And though the piece reeks of sensuality, the woman’s body also resists instantaneous sexualization by the viewer, for the overweight, domineering lover isn’t easy to admit into our fantasies. The three bodies meet and diverge, moving and flirting with the viewer, while the faces exude pain, pleasure and obvious sexual agency. The work at once captivates the viewer with its beauty and its horror, inciting the ultimate grotesque experience. Saville’s canvas is monumentally hung in the most prominent location in the space—Storr clearly thought of her work as emblematic of the power of the grotesque.

Tony Oursler’s warped projection character “Softy” was captivating, almost charming, its doll-like quality juxtaposed with a creepy, baby-talk babble soundtrack. An almost circular blob, “Softy,” has a neon yellow face with droopy eyes, a pink mouth, and a hijacked nose. Awkward and yet lovable, Oursler’s piece plays with our standards of cuteness. The nursery colors begin to look psychedelic on the oversized face, and the nonsensical phrases sound almost maniacal when uttered in mostly monotonous tones and on a looped track. “Softy” throws into question the innocence and naiveté of children’s toys, or perhaps more accurately, the “projected” innocence and naiveté of children’s toys.

We are bombarded with beauty everyday, from supermodels to Monet’s haystacks, and it is about time we start reflecting on what and why we consider an image beautiful. The grotesque is the perfect remedy to complacent taste, occupying both good and bad territories simultaneously.

The inherent ambiguity and tension in the works makes it impossible to walk through the exhibition with only a half-awakened eye; juxtapositions of unlikely pairings, unintelligible, yet life-like figures and imaginative reworkings of images we take for granted in our daily life make us aware of the sensibilities we carry with us everywhere we go. Storr successfully stirs up the meaning of the grotesque but also the meanings of beauty, horror, ugliness, and humor.

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