Uncomfortable Intimacy

courtesy of Charlotte Woolf

courtesy of Charlotte Woolf

Last weekend at the Co-Prosperity Sphere, “Trying to be cute bc the abyss” briefly turned the commodious white-walled gallery into an intimate space. But this intimacy was not synonymous with comfort. The works were unified by their recasting of everyday objects and relationships into thought-provoking, at times disquieting, commentaries on identity, gender, and sexuality.

Items usually confined to the home stimulated questions on the quotidian when they were incorporated into the work of the exhibition’s five Chicago-area artists, all of whom recently participated in the ACRE artistic residency program in Wisconsin. In Ellen Nielsen’s “Wuthering Heights,” for example, cotton printed with delicate floral patterns was stretched to form exaggerated leaves on a barren tree branch, drawing attention to the artificiality of the concept of a feminine “Mother Nature.”

Across from Nielsen’s tree, the adjacent wall was lined with brightly-colored photographs from artist Oli Rodriguez’s “Marking Project.” The clean lines in the photographs formed quite a contrast with the natural contours of the branches in “Wuthering Heights,” while the series confronted viewers with contortions of the human body and conventional sexuality. Many of the photographed subjects’ props and postures–the pose of a couple on a couch, seated like characters in a sitcom; the high heels of a woman–played on ubiquitous and sexualized images of consumption, routine, and ritual. It was a provocative attempt to probe the connections between the mundane, the absurd, and the sexualized.

“S and M culture is often pathologized,” Rodriguez said, explaining the rationale behind the series’ conception. “I wanted to do a pretty series. A pretty, sexual series at that. There are times when that can be so heavy.”

The works themselves were none too serious; one, shot on an average-looking porch, depicted a man’s head sticking out above a suitcase, the rest of his body twisted and concealed inside it. The photographs did, however, raise penetrating questions about the unnaturalness of what is normalized in a culture of sexualized mass media, and the normalcy of what is widely characterized as queer. Some of the photographs resonated as explorations of sadomasochistic and fetish culture–one portrait displayed a tattooed man, face covered in plastic wrap that would have suffocated him were it not for the short straws protruding from his nose. In others, however, the connection to fetishism was less apparent, as in an image of two men turned toward each other on a well-worn couch, staring outward and appearing skeptical of all who did not share their special bond. The series succeeded in provoking its viewers to contemplate normalcy, comfort, the human body, and queer identity, but if it was meant to proffer any specific conclusions, those remained ambiguous.

courtesy of Charlotte Woolf

courtesy of Charlotte Woolf

The relationship between attraction and horror, central to sadomasochistic culture, was more broadly conceived of in the work of Kate Hampel. “I am interested in that oddly sexual aspect of a murder that people love to watch,” Hampel said. That interest is clear in one of the exhibition’s most eye-catching pieces, a white shower curtain–blooded with hand prints–that Hampel hung on a wall dividing “Marking Project” and the rest of the gallery space.

While Hampel’s shower curtain was a nod to Hitchock’s “Psycho,” at the front of the gallery a very different kind of movie was playing. In front of a psychedelic, orange vinyl couch, a small TV showed River Phoenix movies for hours on end. The eerie catch was in the historical context, not in the aesthetics of this piece: the teen idol died at age twenty-three. The work showed the breadth of ways that Hampel has reappropriated pop culture to communicate some of the uncanny aspects of the adolescent crush. “It can’t be all about bubble gum sexuality when it’s about someone who is no longer with us,” she said.

Two other films, with an ambiance antithetical to that of the Hollywood blockbusters, were playing in other corners of the gallery. Both were shot at the Wisconsin farm where all of the artists spent twelve days at the ACRE residency for emerging artists. But that was perhaps their only common ground. The screen on the wall behind the bar played Buñuelesque scenes of couples shaving each other in a field of tall plants. Meanwhile on the back wall a slow-paced montage of silent video portraiture by Alicia Chester played out, the only action coming from subjects’ facial micro-gestures.

The three film installations highlighted the disparate styles of the artists showing in “Trying to be cute bc the abyss.” While at times the thread of a cohesive dialogue was lost, as a whole the show created an environment that provoked intense questioning of gender identity and its repercussions and expressions in acts of daily life. Conceptually if not aesthetically, the show was unified: the pieces seemed to lean off the walls and toward each other in energetic, if not entirely melodious, conversation.