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Art People: Jo Hormuth's funny farm


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Strange bulbous creatures appear to creep across the floor in Jo Hormuth's new installation Frozen Turkey Dinners. Based on balloons folded into various shapes, each looks like it's ready to pop. Unmistakably sexual, the sculptures seem "to be bursting and throbbing," according to Hormuth. She also says they're "democratic"--they seem to have "breasts and penises at the same time." Arrayed on the floor and on small crates, a few are alone but most are in groups. Creatures atop crates form two semicircles facing two more figures in the center. Some of the creatures resemble actual animals; there's a cat and mouse and two adorable pigs.

These creatures look happy, confident; they don't recognize "the futility of their situation," Hormuth says, recalling the characters in Woody Allen's Broadway Danny Rose, one inspiration for the piece. In the movie, Allen's a theatrical agent who represents a coterie of oddball performers, and he serves them turkey TV dinners on Thanksgiving. One client specializes in the art of making animal shapes by creatively twisting inflated balloons. Hormuth began to read up on the subject and followed the directions in several books. She used her tied balloons to make molds out of dental alginate, and the final works were then cast in white plaster.

Wildly diverse influences shape Hormuth's work. She grew up on a Michigan farm, with "horses and cows and ducks and geese. Mostly we had sheep. The ewes would all give birth in January; we would have at least 12 lambs in the kitchen, and we'd feed them out of soda bottles." While her mother didn't butcher the kids' favorite animals, sometimes after dinner she "would tell us we'd just eaten "Frisky."' Summers were spent at her grandmother's home in Chicago, which was full of "beautiful things"--objects of porcelain and glass. A great uncle had carved a Bacchus out of ebony; it was "naked, and there were grapes all over him. I grew up with that thing outside my bedroom door." Even at a young age, she knew "there was something extremely sexual about it."

Hormuth recalls seeing humorous drawings by her father and grandfather; during World War II her father and his army buddies decorated their planes, painting a nose with shark's teeth and drawing a picture of Hitler on the toilet. She later studied traditional figure drawing in London and landscape architecture. She now works as a restorer of architectural interiors--lobbies, house museums, churches--and the practice has encouraged her to look more at whole rooms, "the way that an interior functions in time and the way that an ornament functions" in an overall design. But, Hormuth says, "the thing that had the most profound influence on my work is my husband's record collection . . . postwar blues, rhythm and blues, doo-wop, black rock and roll, rockabilly; everything has wit and humor. These things are completely exaggerated, but there's an innocence, an honesty." She refers to a "totally ridiculous but completely wonderful" R & B number by Andre Williams: "A few people go to the record studio and spontaneously decide to do a song about biscuits--and that's all it is, "Pass the biscuits please."'

Humor has become key to Hormuth's work. She quotes Man Ray--"humor is the best communicator"--and finds it helps keep her work accessible without having to abandon meaning. "You can be profoundly funny, and I just think it's much, much better than being profoundly dismal." It's also a "coping strategy. A lot of recurrent themes in my work are life, death, sexuality, issues of gender--uncomfortable things." In our culture breasts and penises are often objects of anxiety as to appearance and size. Her creatures' confidence plays off of our uneasiness; some have their heads cocked toward the door, acknowledging the viewer's entrance. "They function as mirrors," she says, reflecting back "what the viewer wants to see and what the viewer doesn't want to see--fears or pretenses. They can be very uncomfortable plus being really, really cute." They're also rather goofy. But then, Hormuth says, "sometimes you must aim to pop the cork out of art's rear end."

Frozen Turkey Dinners is at Tough Gallery, 415 N. Sangamon, through November 25. Hours are noon to 5 PM Thursday through Saturday; call 733-7881.

Another Hormuth installation, Clepsydras (Waterclocks), is at the Gahlberg Gallery at the College of DuPage Arts Center, 22nd and Park in Glen Ellen, through November 18. Hormuth will talk about her work in room 264 of the arts center at 7 PM this Monday; call 708-942-2321.

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