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Beyond Objectification

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Patricia Buckley

at Gary Marks, through September 5

Matthew Schultz: Purveyors of Human Parts Since 1463

at Oskar Friedl, through September 30

By Fred Camper

Patricia Buckley and Matthew Schultz have been making visual art seriously for only the last several years, creating assemblages, including found objects, that are edgy and disturbing. On occasion their incomplete mastery of the materials results in ideas and emotions that seem discordant or incompletely expressed. But that partial control also creates a disquieting openness, as if each piece were exposing a skein of chaotic feeling or primal urges that the artist knows cannot be neatly encompassed in a single image. Though the two artists have different obsessions, both skirt the border between loss of control and the intentionality, even overdeterminism, of much modern art.

A fictional character underlies Buckley's 15 works--one photo, one room-size installation, and 13 small boxes containing objects and images--at Gary Marks. Buckley imagined a woman circa 1950 living in a New York City rooming house. The installation, which includes a bed and clothing, represents the woman's room, and the photo "depicts" this somewhat autobiographical character, whom Buckley herself portrays in various photographic forms. The boxes symbolize the woman's "late-night thoughts," Buckley told me; she also said that she herself is an insomniac (as are the three other artists she's exhibiting with, whom she selected). And the "thoughts" contained in these boxes do suggest the disconnected, barely coherent products of a racing, overactive mind.

The containers for the assemblages are safe-deposit boxes, which Buckley mounts on the wall with their lids hanging open. On each lid she's printed a text in black letters so small they're barely noticeable on the splotchy metal surface. Yet the texts are important to the works, adding a thread of associative logic to these loose collections. "What do you think about kissing?" accompanies a tiny color photo of the woman in Kissing; she's flanked on either side by artificial vines bearing tiny fruits. I took these as a reference to mistletoe, as if the woman wanted to be kissed; the red background heightens the piece's sensuality. On the other hand, a small mirror above the woman's head suggests the trap of self-involvement, a theme in other boxes too.

In Daisies and Buttercups a black-and-white negative image of the woman occupies the center; the text refers to "a nice unspoilt child." Above the image is a mirrored compact, one side of which contains a picture of a handsome but cross-looking young man, perhaps a former boyfriend, his face locked in a confrontational frown. He also forms a harsh contrast with the matchbook below the figure, imprinted with the image of a woman and an ad for the bras of "Renee of Hollywood." The background for this assemblage is a musical score, disrupted by the mark of lips in black--suggesting someone out of control depositing kisses everywhere.

Buckley, born in Rochester, New York, in 1959, describes a youth largely devoted to alcohol, drugs, and men. Sober since her mid-20s, she "got serious" about art in 1994, when her daughter was born and she moved to Chicago; she's currently an MFA student in Columbia College's book and paper program. Coming from a large family with an alcoholic father who died when she was nine, she names as a major influence her parents' "lack of interest in me. It's pretty hard to give eight children all the attention they need. I had to sustain myself somehow." So she developed a rich, romantic fantasy life.

I saw another theme besides the sensual one in many of these works, however: the tenuous identity of Buckley's persona. Depicted most often in black-and-white negatives, the woman floats amid objects that seem at once to threaten and define her. Hovering above her in The Ragged End ("She looked like the ragged end of nowhere") are a square pincushion like a giant die and a cutout jack from a playing card, suggesting gambling. But in any case these objects are more vivid than the washed-out black-and-white image of the woman.

The relationship between text and image is especially suggestive in A Dark Hand. Above a pale gray cutout of the woman is the back of a preserved bird, its feathers a plush mix of blue and gray. The text reads "A cloud hovered an instant like a dark hand before a face." Suddenly the bird seems to be the cloud and the hand at once, a cognitive leap that plunges one into a world of almost surreal free association as sensual objects--feathers, the color red, a picture of an old boyfriend--threaten to overwhelm the rational mind.

Matthew Schultz's exhibit of 12 sculptures at Oskar Friedl is also unified by a single conceit. A sign outside the gallery reads "Purveyors of human parts since 1463" (the year is also the gallery's address), and the storefront window contains a gynecological examining table and hanging sculptures of organs. (Reproductions from the show can be viewed on-line at www.labreport.com.) Schultz, born in Oklahoma in 1966 and raised in Springfield, Illinois, told me that he dislikes many aspects of Western medicine--curiously, so does Buckley-- and that he thinks "studying the body in scientific terms is an oxymoron." Taking the theme of his show and the titles of some pieces from John Fowles's novel The Collector, in which a man collects butterflies--and a woman--Schultz comments that medical professionals and serial killers have similar attitudes toward the body: "Both are their own kinds of perversion, but one is a respected profession and the other a crime."

Schultz studied film at Southern Illinois University and, after moving to Chicago in 1989, started the musical group Lab Report; he's been making visual art seriously for about six years. Though he condemns medicine's objectification of the body, he's obviously fascinated by anatomy--especially female anatomy. The show includes several casts of pudenda, though when Schultz casts himself we see only a relatively heroic looking head. 40 Regular consists of a female mannequin in a latex jacket festooned with pudenda in relief, perhaps the artist's joke on the mannequin's sterility. That joke could have been made with one vulva, however; dozens are discomfortingly obsessive. Collection #2, a three-by-three grid of dark wax casts of female genitalia, is even more disturbing: the way the wax splays out in little bands at the edges suggests spiders. But Schultz also occasionally subjects his own body to objectification. He uses his skin as a tissue sample in Box #456, which also includes a rat skeleton and an X ray, interweaving medicine with the collection of animal specimens.

In his best works, Schultz turns his interests into a kind of poetry, going beyond the limited point of view of works like Collection #2. In Suspension he seems at once the doctor who would objectify, the collector who would reduce humans to their physical parts, and the artist who's both fascinated and repulsed by all of it. Here he hangs several objects--an envelope containing tiny suture needles, a wax body part, tubes, an X ray, and a sheet of skinlike latex--in a row by small threads from a frame. Suspending the objects in space suspends them metaphorically as well; the array feels like art partly because it would make little sense in a medical lab or a collector's home. Effectively equating tubes, X rays, and body parts through this spatially precise arrangement, Schultz successfully makes the point that such equations are wrong.

Bible--with its small open book cast in lead, the pages bolted together--is even more evocative. Above the Bible a wax head lies on its side, black branches growing out of it; a small magnifying lens is focused not on the icon of civilization but on one of the branches. I thought of the way human knowledge and history are eventually eradicated by decay, the way that a corpse returns to the organic matter from which all living things have sprung. Offering a glimpse into the infinity of time beyond a human life, Bible reminded me of what is omitted in the narrow view of humans as objects.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): "The Ragged End" by Patricia Buckley; "Collection #2" (detail) by Matthew Schultz.

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