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Beasts Within



Louise Bourgeois

at the Arts Club of Chicago, through January 3
Louise Bourgeois: Drawings 1947-1997
at Rhona Hoffman, through December 31
D'Nell Larson
at TBA Exhibition Space, through January 17

When young artists complain about their lack of recognition I think of Louise Bourgeois, who despite a few gallery shows achieved real fame and commercial success only in the early 80s--after she'd been making art for, oh, 40 or 50 years. In hindsight, it seems it took that long for the art world to catch up with her, obsessed as it was with a modernist perfection that sought to exclude the details of an individual's life up until feminist art emerged in the 70s. Yet despite retrospectives throughout the world in the 80s, Bourgeois' work is rarely seen in Chicago; these two shows provide a rare chance to see an artist whose raw power and emotional authenticity actually measure up to her fame.

An air of psychic trauma hangs about Bourgeois' eight recent sculptures at the Arts Club. The imagery suggests a household, perhaps a family, but her extraordinary way of combining ordinary objects suggests that something's awry. In Pink Days and Blue Days (1997) old clothing--some of it worn by Bourgeois herself years ago--hangs on what looks like a hat rack or department-store display rack, with several metal arms on a pole. A pink jacket hangs from one arm and a pink dress with matching purse from another, the dress given shape by a wire frame within. The jacket is hung on an ordinary hanger, but the dress and two pieces of white underwear are hung from animal bones. A little blue cloth, supported by a platform, adds a display of costume jewelry. The cloth is as old as the dress; indeed, the whole piece exudes an air of decay and death.

Bourgeois has been called a modernist by critics such as Robert Pincus-Witten, who wrote in a 1982 catalog essay about Bourgeois, "Modernism's essential feature is difficulty itself... perverse indigestibility, at least at first." Certainly it's hard to imagine readily "digesting" Bourgeois' strange mixtures, but her aim is fundamentally opposed to the purist-abstractionist vein of modernist art represented by Mondrian and Brancusi--or LeWitt and Tony Smith. Instead of offering idealized essential forms, Bourgeois plunges us into an almost chaotic maze of associations.

Pink Days and Blue Days evokes a complex variety of emotions, some doubtless not consciously intended by the artist. Still, it's hard to believe Bourgeois wasn't thinking at all about the way that women's fashions make women into objects of display, especially since the title suggests the kind of chatter that advertisers aim at women and the blue cloth beneath the jewelry is printed with fashion drawings labeled "Fall 1932," "Spring 1946," and the like. But Bourgeois' work isn't really about clothing, or even primarily about women's roles. Instead, partly because she fills out some garments with frames or pillows, every dress, every blouse, seems to represent a human figure. The bones then become really creepy, suggesting puns such as "bonehead" and conferring on the human a hint of mindless savagery, or at least an animal nature. These dresses are the products of civilization, but they also hold--or once held, since the empty dresses also imply corpses--the beast within.

An untitled 1996 sculpture is even creepier. A negligee hangs from a bone; a dress on a hanger is filled out with a pillow. A small doll-like figure has a black, featureless head. Even though each "figure" hangs from a single attachment at the top, I began to think of public hangings, of corpses with ropes around their necks on display. There's certainly a corpselike quality to the headless figures in Couple III (1997). Displayed in a glass case like specimens in a natural history museum, these "bodies"--stuffed black long johns--are copulating; viewed from the rear at eye level, the act can be seen in all its anatomical correctness. The man is on top; the woman's arms are around his back, but one of her arms is replaced by a prosthetic hook. I took this as a double suggestion: that the man has fucked her into a helpless state of near oblivion, and that the woman has sunk her "tentacles" into him so that he can't escape. Bourgeois' figures may be mindless beasts, but they're also all victims.

These feelings would probably be readily apparent without knowing anything about Bourgeois' life, but the stories she's told about her past have become so well-known that it's hard to view her work innocently. Born in Paris in 1911 to parents who worked as textile restorers, Bourgeois began doing sketches of limbs as a girl to help her parents reconstruct lost portions of textiles. Studying art in Paris in the 30s--she knew Breton and Leger, among other art-world figures--she soon moved to New York, where she lives today. Until recently her work rarely sold; the Museum of Modern Art bought one piece in the 50s and then nothing for years. A 1982 Museum of Modern Art retrospective finally secured her reputation; other museum shows followed.

The best-known Bourgeois story concerns her father, a petty tyrant who had a number of mistresses, one of whom--also Bourgeois' tutor--he installed in the household for a decade. Bourgeois' mother put up with this supposedly as a way of keeping an eye on the woman. Pincus-Witten begins his essay with an allusion to this story and the suggestion that Bourgeois' art reveals a wish for "murder or suicide," that its meaning is "the murder by the artist of the father's mistress."

The memory of or recovery from a traumatic childhood has become a staple of work by younger artists. At its worst, such art is purely confessional, no more interesting--which can be very interesting, however--than a magazine article about child abuse. What distinguishes the best work in this genre, and Bourgeois' in particular, is attention to form. But the vitality in Bourgeois' work comes from the tension between form and the chaotic emotions her beasts and corpses call up. The geometrical clarity of her pole pieces, for example, only calls attention to the imperfections of the old dresses and the antiformalist bumps of the bones.

The two arms of another untitled 1996 pole piece hold a red smock with a long feline tail and a bronze coil resembling the spirals kids make out of clay. There are fine aesthetic oppositions here: between the soft red dress and the impermeable bronze, between the matte cloth surface and the reflective metal one, between lightness and weight (though this also calls attention to the real weight of the hanging dress). But on purely aesthetic terms the forms don't work well together, even as opposites; the disparities in size and shape are too great. Instead I found myself thinking of the bronze as a coiled snake, and of the piece's diptych form as a reference to the many Renaissance diptych paintings of Adam and Eve. Bourgeois' "Adam" articulates the phallic reference many have found in the biblical Satan--and Eve's tail might refer to snakes too. Our bestial nature goes back to the original biblical beast: none of us is free and pure.

A ninth Bourgeois work at the Arts Club is Insomnia Series (1994-'95)--220 drawings, the product of Bourgeois' insomnia. Like an artist's sketchbook, they're a fascinating record of Bourgeois' thoughts and obsessions: a couple rubbing noses, a map of France, handwritten jottings, abstract patterns. But the drawings don't really function as a sequence; I couldn't discern any strong relationships between one page and the pages next to it. Each of the 26 Bourgeois drawings at Rhona Hoffman, on the other hand, helped me see the others in the group more clearly.

Uncontrollable Torrent (1997) is a drawing of a bed covered with a band of curvy red lines suggesting a bedspread that also spills over a bed to the edges of the paper. Here again a household object--a bed, associated with sex--becomes the locus of an "uncontrollable torrent" of emotion, though this drawing is a wonderfully lyrical alternative to Bourgeois' darker works, like Couple III. Adjacent to Uncontrollable Torrent is an untitled 1997 drawing of irregular concentric red circles like tree rings that might seem little more than an elaborate doodle if it weren't that it produces a similar vertiginous feeling.

I was initially puzzled by the lined music paper on which the nude pinkish girl of Look: Nothing to Hide (1997) is drawn. But an untitled 1996-'97 drawing next to it helps to illuminate Bourgeois' view of the figure. It shows a little girl standing between the legs of a woman; both are nude and both are cut off just above the breasts, so that as in Bourgeois' sculptures these figures are headless. The woman appears to have two extra breasts in place of her stomach, suggesting a monstrous bestiality, perhaps the now nearly mythical mistress. In another artist's show, this drawing might seem to hint at childhood sexual abuse. But in the context of Bourgeois' other work, her less specific suggestion of the vulnerability of a child in the presence of an adult is perhaps even more powerful than an explicit, detailed narrative. Suddenly the girl in Look: Nothing to Hide, placed over music staffs, becomes a score, the raw outline of a human being who comes to life only when executed by adults who, in effect, "perform" her.

Bourgeois often comes close to depicting victimhood, but she never descends into bathos. Visually the girl in Look: Nothing to Hide dominates the staffs, as if she were bursting out of the score. Hanging next to her is a larger 1986 drawing in almost the same shade of red showing a variety of household implements, mostly cutting tools like scissors and shears. These evoke not only victimhood but its murderous response: they both threaten the viewer and enable a defense from attack.

All these chaotic feelings about the dangers of everyday life ultimately enriched my perception of one of my favorite works in either show, an untitled abstract 1950 drawing that's a dark mesh of contrasting groups of curved lines, colliding with one another, obliterating one another, overlapping. What could have been an idle design here becomes a drama of aggression and annihilation, of pride and fear.

A lot of what's powerful in Bourgeois' work is the way formal elegance falls apart in the face of wildly powerful emotions. Even though Chicagoan D'Nell Larson's installation at TBA has no obvious psychological dimension or autobiographical reference, it reminded me of this aspect of Bourgeois' work. Minimalist in appearance, it also conveys a gentle humor.

Almost Paradise is a long, curvy pale blue green ridge about a foot high, divided into five identical sections, running parallel to the gallery's east wall. Clearly the artist thought about her work's relation to the space; one of the section breaks, for example, occurs exactly where a diagonal floorboard meets the piece. Carved in wood, covered with Bondo, spray painted, and seamless except for the four gaps between sections, the piece both echoes and mocks the gallery wall: its pale color and smooth curve seem to soften the gallery's stark white linearity.

Seen in cross section, however, the piece is something else: it resembles a cartoon drawing of a wave just about to break. It seems the gallery's geometrical modernism is being attacked not only by curves but by the very referentiality modernist abstract artists have generally sought to exclude. And the incongruity of a wave in this third-floor space reinforces the joke about the gallery's isolation from nature. Then one remembers that the wave seems to be rolling in from--or bouncing back toward--the Lake Michigan wall, in a mother-of-all-seiches fantasy. And the thought of waves coursing through the gallery is at least as wild as any of Bourgeois' childhood traumas.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Untitled piece by Louise Bourgeois/ "Uncrontrollable Torrent" by Louise Bourgeois/ "Almost Paradise" by D'Nell Larson.

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