April 20, 2010

What A Bunch of HAMS

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The History of Art Majors’ Society is a group of eight undergraduate majors that each year curate an exhibition at the Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art — selecting works  from the permanent collection, writing and editing a full exhibition catalog and wall text and inviting an artist as a featured speaker. This year, the Society also organized a day-long symposium, wherein undergraduates presented papers and a professor gave a keynote address, to further explore themes of the show.

This year’s exhibit, Bodies Unbound: The Classical and Grotesque, wonderfully collapses the distinction between classical representations of the idealized body and the grotesque body’s materiality, openness, fragmentation and distortion. The proportion, boundaries and symmetry of the classical body’s form, the curators suggest, can only arise by means of a cultural fantasy that remolds, plugs up and contorts actual corporeal excess and excrescence.

Images of so-called “classical” bodies begin to resemble a terroristic phantasm of social control, lending them grotesque overtones of calcified hardness and sterility. Ostensibly grotesque bodies, on the other hand, often reveal their fleshy protuberances and erotic openings, spilling over with fluids, making them appear sexy and attractive. The categories of the grotesque and the classical therefore mutually inform each other, blending or bleeding into each other while also remaining poles along a single continuum.

William Hogarth’s “Analysis of Beauty” (1753) presents an array of classical statuary littering the foreground, such as the Belvedere torso, the Capitoline Venus, a Socratic bust, the Farnese Hercules, Laocoön and a sphinx. These classical bodies are rendered as replicas in a cultural junk-shop, kitschy fragments that become equivalent to the prosthetic peg-leg that ironically protrudes out from the frame. Near the center, an 18th century connoisseur fondles the broken arm of a classical male nude, pointing out both how his erect genteel stance looks preposterously “unnatural” by contrast, but also how corrupt and precarious these idealizations are — without his hand holding up the statue’s unbalanced contraposto pose, it might collapse. The anatomy books in the scene, which supposedly instruct artists in modeling a “natural” body, literally undo the body either in ribbons of grotesque flesh or geometrical reductions.

The cornucopia of measurement and partitioning tools involved in Hogarth’s picture of the marketplace of art-making cause the figures cut by these statues to become emblems of the disciplinary procedures enacted upon the body politic. Furthermore, the whole scene is literally contained in a frame that displays a representational vertigo of anatomized and cataloged images of faces that proceed by gradations from well-modeled cross-hatches of an Italianate bust to an ugly scarecrow of a stick-figure; this cartoon-stripping of different diegetic schemes projects back onto the diversity of classical forms within the frame, from the ephebic to the muscle-bound, revealing how their mythological statuary are gross distortions and phantasmagoric amalgamations that confine actual bodies like legal statutes.

Unlike the more overt satiric social commentary of Hogarth, the backside of a slim yet curvy model in Horst P. Horst’s “Mainbocher Corset” (1939) at first seems to present an elegant and erotic vision of a classical female body’s hourglass torso. Nonetheless, as one realizes that she has been straightjacketed into a corset, one sees the tortured and contorted figure as attempting to reconcile the impossibly of being both svelte yet voluptuous. Her face is turned away and hidden in her hands, her hair tightly coiffed and locked into place instead flowing long and free and the deep shadows along her back dissolve her individual identity while they render her musculature more pronounced: The sacrifice she has had to pay for idealization is a loss of her corporeal specificity. The tangle of ribbon that drapes off her corset in the foreground reinvests the picture with a more sinister eroticism however, because it is poised between suggesting the further undoing of her corset and an invitation to tighten the braid in an asphyxiating grip, becoming S&M binding or a displacement for the disheveled hair we are not allowed to witness.

The exhibit also includes representations from popular culture, including a Mr. Potato Head and a Barbie, which convincingly participate in the dialogue about fragmenting, distorting and reconfiguring the body: Mr. Potato Head ironically becomes a literalized version of a Renaissance sonneteers’ blazon while Barbie’s hairpin curves become the archetype constructed by a popular imaginary where taste tends toward anorexics with plasticine boob-jobs. Similarly, Martha Rosler’s photomontage “Bowl of Fruit” (1943) collages the parts of a nude, wasp-waisted, pear-shaped blonde in a domestic scene with a bowl of pears next to a set of kitchen knives that could be used to cut the fruit or cut away and pierce together the figure of the woman herself.

Likewise interrogating the interaction between pop culture and art images, an animated film still of Eeyore from “Eeyore and the Snake” (1966), with his prominent but oft-lost tail pinned to his rump is paired with Don Doe’s “To The Bottom We Go” (2005), a sleazy high-art knock-off of ’50s soft-core pinups cross-pollinated with the fleshy excess of Fragonard. A lesbian pirate with pierced nipples, surrounded by an orgy of discarded phallic bottles, splays across a blank treasure map while exposing her own X-rated “buried treasure” as her panties coquettishly tumble off. Two other lesbians regale the viewer, one with a “bottom’s up” cheers that is probably more a Bronx cheer to its presumably male viewer, another seductively posing as she fondles thickly knotted rigging she’s entangled in, a possible allusion to bondage gear or anal beads. Against this context, we are invited to read Eeyore’s tale as a narrative representing the dialectic between a castration complex and a repressed anal eroticism.

The relatively small exhibit, culled from the Johnson’s extensive archives, includes a wealth of images that includes everything from old masters such as Dürer, Goltzius and Goya to modern masters such as Dalí, Picasso and Scheile up through work by postmodern doyenne Cindy Sherman. Rubbing shoulders with these acknowledged greats, are equally intriguing works by lesser known artists like Jan Harmensz Muller and Les Krims. The real brilliance of this exhibit is that it manages to select a group of images — itself composed of both iconic classics and ironic one-off quirks — that can help define the classic and grotesque while simultaneously deconstructing these very categories.

Original Author: Will Cordeiro