Pretty Grotesque

(Beatrice Malsky)

“To dignify life is an underpinning of my work. You see a hare dead on the road, remember it had life to it once,” says Joan Goldin brightly from behind her thick blue spectacles. “Myself, I have a very normal life–a husband, three children. I’ve been fortunate not to have too many problems. So I think sometimes you create problems to wake yourself up.”

Goldin and fellow Chicago-based artist Susannah Papish are the focus of Slow gallery’s “Escape Into the Briar Patch,” an exhibit that actively seeks to antagonize its viewers. The Pilsen exhibition is no show for the faint-hearted: food is deformed, plants are decayed, and colors signal a lurking danger, a sinister force that threatens to jump off the canvas and wring your neck.

A synthesis of Goldin’s studies in medicine, philosophy, and culinary arts  has created a real violence in the way she paints food. Her skinned watermelons and glistening black potatoes appear strikingly anatomical as they slump against walls and weigh heavily on pedestals. There is life in Goldin’s work, but it is organic through contradiction–the mundane quality of the materials makes their viscerally grotesque appearance all the more unsettling.

Papish works in the opposite direction. Her gentle watercolors of flowers and abstractly aquatic forms have a strangely menacing undertone. “There’s an aspect of decay that I like, and this idea of decaying beauty,” she says. Her work is delicate, vaguely scientific, and utterly without scale. It could just as easily be a depiction of cells as it could be an image of octopi or landforms. This ambiguity comes across as nebulously sinister. “Nature isn’t all beauty and color; there needs to be death and depth,” she says.

The show and its gallery are inseparable endeavors. Paul Hopkin–curator, director, and self-proclaimed “lead antagonist”–runs Slow out of his apartment, but maintains austere white walls and a deliberate separation between gallery and home. Some domestic touches do tend to seep through; wine is served in well-loved jam jars at opening receptions­ and visitors are likely to meet Yesterday, Slow’s canine mascot. (Shrugs Hopkin: “the idea that I’m ‘walking with Yesterday,’ I know it’s really romantic and gross, but I think it’s funny.”)

Both artists are quick to attest to Hopkin’s role in the exhibit, particularly his ability to pick out absurdity and humor from traditionally serious subject matter. “Escape Into the Briar Patch” is a deliberate juxtaposition of dark and light, life and death, pretty and grotesque. Goldin’s heavy, dark tones lend gravity to Papish’s watercolors. Papish allows viewers to laugh with Goldin. As Hopkin says, “You start seeing this great sense of humor, you start seeing this lightness in work that is otherwise very dark.”

The “briar patch” of the show’s title is an idea that only arises through these oppositions. Goldin incorporates one specific hare, Brer Rabbit associations and all, into much of her work. Lifeless and somewhat ravaged, it is the  recurring representation of a failed foray into taxidermy by her brother. “There’s something intriguing about the hare. We don’t know where he’s from, and he moves very quickly,” she says.

The bright colors in Papish’s work have a hint of danger in their vibrancy. As Hopkin explains, “Color is often a sign that something is venomous or threatening. In nature, really vibrant colors mean something. Even though her work doesn’t have rabbits, there’s a sense that there’s a predator and a prey.”

Perhaps the tension of “Escape Into the Briar Patch” lies in the fact that violence and danger are necessary foils for beauty. Contrast makes the soft softer and the grotesque more sickening.

Living in a world of intensity entails giving up the inoffensive and learning to appreciate some entrails (and a dead hare) every now and again. “You’re hiding out in the scary things,” says Hopkins. “When you escape into the thorn bush, there’s a reason that you’re escaping into the thorn bush. It ends up being the safest place to be.”

Slow, 2153 W. 21st St. Through April 21. Saturday, noon-5pm; also by appointment. Free. (773)645-8803.