What’s The Big Idea? “Body of Art” at Prairie Gallery

July 25th, 2011  |  Published in On View, Summer 2011

“Body of Art,” the exhibit currently at Prairie Gallery (on display through August 20, 2011), is a group show in which the weirdness and greatness of the individual works often outshine the reason they were pulled together in the first place. The show is a grab-bag of video, photography, sculpture, painting and drawing, and while the “body” might be the source of curatorial inspiration your mind as you take it all in goes other places, which is somehow both a testament to the curatorial process and a sort of nullification of it.

On Prairie’s website, the show is described as “exploring innovative methods developed by contemporary artists to use the human body (theirs or someone else’s) in the production of their work.” That’s pretty general, of course. The body has always been used to produce art, innovative or otherwise, and centralizing that fact as a way to provide entry into a concept really is like taking a wall away instead of opening a door. But once you are inside, it turns out you don’t need a big concept for all this work to come alive together. In fact if you do use the concept as your visual and philosophical GPS you might end up at a couple of dead ends.

Evan Hand’s photos have a ferocious intensity that never veers toward the storybook or the twee, thank God – it’s more like he is trying to recapture a moment from a silly but somehow devastating dream. The body here is the foundation, and Hand positions little figurines all across that corporeal wonderland, providing a way to remember your own version of similar dreaminess. I thought about David Wojnarowicz’s paintings and photographs peering into Hand’s shiny little worlds: there’s a glamorized Eros in each picture without being pornographic or even erotic really. His work is playfully epic and archly aesthetic, like an arrangement of action figures overseen by Francis Ford Coppola.

Mark Smith’s “Mask” series analyzes the simplistic: ink-pen and magic marker investigations of an evocative barrage of brutal, ominous masks. Like Satanic snowflakes, Smith’s renditions become overtly what they are and also melt into doorways of understanding what they aren’t. Each “mask” acts as a scrawled symbol for emotions that haven’t actually been felt, or even named, yet. There’s an ominous charge in the way Smith finds mystery in that sameness, and how the repetition produces a sense of not knowing what you’re looking at after a while.

Kate Gilmore’s “So Much it Hurts” has a woman’s floral-dress-wearing body at the center of a video piece in which the camera lurches back and forth like a porch-swing given a point of view. The piece comes off like what might have been a really great music video for the Go-Gos back in the day: feminine, playful and a little bit askew, but completely approachable. It was just plain fun to watch for a little while. The hypnosis involved in Gilmore’s shtick is a joke about hypnosis, and yet the trance you’re in as you watch it becomes completely sweet, allowing you to abandon the constraints of “video art,” and enjoy the nothingness of the whole enterprise.

Karl Baden’s “Every Day” is a series of photographs he’s taken of his own face since 1987. The photos flash in chronological order, showing both how eerie and kind of uninteresting almost every day can be. In creating a photographic document of what he probably sees in his mirror every day, Baden has created a precise catalog of self-portraits that reminds you of Warhol’s penchant for the banal without his other penchant for the absurd. Baden’s interest seems to be in finding a way to re-inhabit his own universe by beating himself at a staring contest, and in doing so he has created a glum document of what all of us probably already know: aging sucks.

Like Baden’s work, Tiffany Dawn Nicholson’s photographs of weight-lifting women also seem to be telling us what we already know: the bodies of weight-lifting women, like those of weight-lifting men, are shiny and bulbous and oddly shaped in places. These pictures fit too snugly into “Body of Art’s” conceit; the theme becomes the primary reason for looking at the photos, decreasing the mystery of what those bodies might actually mean if you had something completely different beside them.

“Body of Art” is a meticulously installed show with many works that exude a playfulness that helps them to evade thematic confines. In fact my favorite piece in the show, Ramondo Love’s “New Age Key to Life,” is a plain old abstract painting created with a sumptuousness and swagger that reminded me of a Julian Schnabel sans broken-plates and all the other BS. It’s a vivid, decorative, lush picture, like an imploded birthday cake transformed into a planet. Of course it took a body to make this art, and you might even be able to spy a body-shape within Love’s picture-plane. But all that does not matter really at the end of the day: the bold shapes and the muted, mottled neon colors are just simply what they need to be.

-Keith Banner

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