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Behind the Mask


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David L. Page: Compulsive Obsessions

at ARC Gallery, through June 29

L.L. Balmuth: Tin Goddess

at Artemisia, through June 29

By Fred Camper

At first I thought David Page's ten recent sculptures and four prints at ARC were paraphernalia from some bondage and discipline club: each sculpture, whether a mask or full-body outfit, looks like clothing for the well-dressed bottom. Then, noticing a certain playfulness in the designs, I thought they might be costumes for some weird theater troupe. The ensemble in Brace, for example, consists of a leather bikinilike piece that covers the rear and genitals but is open below, leather knee pads, and, on the floor, high-ankled brown shoes. Mounted on a metal frame rather than on a mannequin, Brace seems to invite the viewer to step into it, to try it on for size--but something about it suggests that it will be easier to get into than out of, a feeling encouraged by nearby pieces, including straitjackets.

Closet of Fears and Desires is made of brown leather and light tan canvas fastened with metal grommets; its arms are in the "restrained" position in front, resting inside a leather loop. Once one gets over the feeling of restraint imparted merely by looking at it, the viewer notices its almost incongruous elegance. The stitching is careful, leather stripes alternate with patches of canvas down the front, and the leather loop is perfectly aligned with a stripe underneath it. The bottom comes to a kind of curved peak in the center echoed by various other elements, including the slightly peaked collar. Page's work suggests not only S-M and theater but the world of high fashion.

All these getups actually fit the artist, and in fact Page recently wore others in a performance piece: three hours in one outfit at a time over two days. Still, the masks look especially constraining. Grill Eyes is a pair of goggles with narrow slits for the eyes; Prosthetic Face is a leather mask with holes for eyes and a tiny slit for the mouth. Like his clothing, Page's masks are not mounted on mannequins, and so one naturally imagines oneself inside them. And this imagining leads to what I found most interesting about the show: though individual pieces are engaging, it's the process of looking at the entire show--jumping through the mental hoops Page has devised--that makes one feel, on a gut emotional level, the artist's theme.

This is an exhibit about a protean self, a person who moves from one mask to another as a way of abjuring a centered identity. And the viewer who imagines himself wearing these items experiences this feeling with a particular intensity: one moment one is inside a weirdly asexual leather bikini, the next one's hiding behind a facial prosthesis. Looking at Porcubird IV, which has a metal beaklike nose and four quills on top, one becomes a combined porcupine/bird. Next to it is Forklift, a mask with multiple overlapping pieces of leather on top and two metal prongs jutting from its front: the viewer imagines his head as a forklift. There's a real creepiness in losing one's identity first to an imaginary beast, and next to a machine.

Some of this exhibit's oddness comes from Page's responses to his youth in South Africa, where he was born in 1962. He "had this knowledge," he says, "that at some point everything was going to change," that the country was a "fool's paradise, a myth." Growing up without television--South Africa had no television then--he read comics, which he sees as one root of his present work: "A lot of what's in comics, gets by adults. They are wonderful pieces of fetish literature--the superheroes get to wear skintight clothes, high boots, big cuffs. When you disguise yourself, you immediately feel more powerful." Drafted into the army at 18, Page "understood it was part of an oppressive regime" but was also fascinated by the uniforms and equipment, an interest that "made military service a little more palatable. Fascism was partly about fashion anyway, sort of like the last feather in the peacock's tail for men. The more decorative the uniform, the more power you have. I thought that was wonderfully primitive." Called up again after art school for riot-control duty, he left for the United States and now lives in Baltimore.

The two largest pieces suggest little narratives. Safety at Sea places a yellow suit with black diagonal stripes within a doughnut-shaped life buoy; the contrasting colors repeat throughout, making for an appealing image. So far so good, but the suit comes equipped with a gas mask; combined with the title, this hints at an ecological theme: has the ocean become so noxious that the air above it is poisonous? I imagined a fiery shipwreck, the suit protecting the survivor from dangerous fumes, but also recalled a designer collection years ago that mimicked surgical garments. The fashions were a bust, but they showed how close the industry has come to theater. Certainly an S-M interpretation of Safety at Sea would be too limiting, just as the severity of the forklift mask is belied by its playfulness. As Page says, "The practice of S and M seems to be rigid and hierarchical--I don't want that rigidity. I'm trying to find that desire which is common to a lot of people, without it being part of the structured role-playing that seems to go on in S and M."

Page's work is also interesting for its personalized eccentricity: each piece is handmade. He assembles these objects himself, doing much of the stitching of cloth and fashioning and attaching of metal parts. He built the wheels of Fetish Trike--the other large piece in the exhibit--by hand out of rims and spokes, and he also made its shoes. Evoking various vehicles, from a recumbent bicycle to an oversize baby carriage to a dune buggy, it's nonetheless not quite like anything seen before. The vehicle is accompanied by a sleek black helmet that would cover the wearer's entire face, with no openings for eyes, nose, or mouth. If bicycling is liberating--you're higher up than a car, out in the air, free to move--Fetish Trike is as imprisoning as a straitjacket. Page might not be into S and M, but his work does suggest a fascination with constraint.

Page's work, though strong, can also be a little suffocating; L.L. Balmuth's room-sized Tin Goddess at Artemisia, one flight up in the same building as ARC, offers some relief. This installation is fully as odd as Page's work and similarly challenges the idea of an autonomous human identity, but it's freer. Balmuth has mounted 90 lids from washing machines and dryers--purchased from a junk dealer in Portland, Oregon, where she lives--in grids on all four walls. On one wall the lids are mounted with their underside showing, displaying the instructions, while on the other three we see their outer sides. Of varied color and shape, many of the rectangles are also relieved by beveled edges, and some of the lids--generally one per column of four--have paintings on them, usually of a woman's torso, breast, face, or clothing.

Balmuth took the designs of her paintings from works by Ingres, she says, because "his bodies are so idealized--they look like porcelain. With their slick surfaces and oversimplified forms, Ingres's bodies are like precursors to the way machinery is designed." Silk-screening reproductions of Ingres fragments onto the lids, she then colored them in oil, not necessarily in the shades of the originals. To the familiar feminist critique of male representations of women, Balmuth adds several new levels, some feminist. Her coloring makes the images pretty, celebrating the decorative, though they retain some of their objectlike power. The colors she uses are rich and sensuous, neither glaringly bright nor monochromatic, and meld nicely with the original lid colors. Placing the images on washer and dryer lids not only makes a point about "women's work" but also suggests the way we've lost some of our selves in the machines we use. You sometimes wonder today, Balmuth told me, where your identity stops "and where your car begins. Princess phones look like body parts, the surfaces are so smooth." Part of Tin Goddess is a video, played on a monitor, that pairs footage of an Ingres painting with songs like "I Sold My Heart to the Junkman," suggesting that, if the body is like a machine, the human heart can now be "junk."

Balmuth's video is rather ineptly put together, but the rest of the installation has a certain elegance. Balmuth, 50, used the grid design in part to refer to minimalism, whose grids she feels have been partially inspired by the machine age. Her inspiration also comes from her years as a "back-to-the-land hippie" in rural Maine. "In Maine there are all these tremendously old artifacts, there's all this junk--dead farm machinery in the yards, dead appliances on the porches. You reflect about where this disposable society is going."

Perhaps years of looking at junk inspired Balmuth to include blank lids with the painted ones, but it's that inclusion that makes the installation really sing. These random products of time--some have markings or chipped-away paint while others are clean--in the context of the whole piece seem finished works themselves. I thought of recent Rauschenberg sculptures in which some faces are blank, providing room to breathe for the imagery printed on others. In Tin Goddess the unpainted lids prevent Balmuth's thematic points from becoming doctrinaire. Yet by juxtaposing images of women's bodies with "blank" machine covers, Balmuth defuses the power of the traditional artist's gaze, suggesting that pleasurable looking doesn't require an object of desire. Viewing becomes less a matter of needing an image organized by the artist and more a question of finding visual pleasure everywhere, even in junk.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photo of "Closet of Fears and Desires" by David L. Page, photo of "Tin Goddess" (detail) by L.L. Balmuth.

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