Emotional Signposts | Art Review | Chicago Reader

Arts & Culture » Art Review

Emotional Signposts

by

comment

Last Name First: New Work by Stephanie Brooks

at Ten in One, through February 14

John Carmichael: Slumpy in the Clover

at Bodybuilder and Sportsman, through February 21

By Fred Camper

A sign apparently bolted to the sidewalk outside Ten in One Gallery does not deliver the tourist information it appears to. Though the top line reads "Information," the second reads "Thirty Minutes to a Better You." Under that, on a street map headed "Historic Wicker Park," a dotted line connects five numbers. On a normal sign these might represent attractions to visit, but here the numbers are next to phrases like "Ease Your Fears," "Conquer Shyness," "Fall in Love." Next to the map, the numbers head up lists of instructions on behavior. To conquer shyness, for example, one is told to "Ask 25 people what time it is / Start a conversation with each person / Talk about your likes and dislikes."

This is INFORMATION--You Are Here, one of 12 new works by Stephanie Brooks now at Ten in One. (The others are inside.) Many take the form of generic objects--a ruler, a grid of snapshots, an award plaque. Directory looks exactly like the lit-from-behind directories in building lobbies but instead of listing businesses it lists activities: "apologies," "compliments," "confrontation." Under each item are directions: "consolation" is followed by "State the person's name / Empathize / Offer help in some way / Do not feign optimism." In lieu of a floor or room number, each act is assigned a "level" corresponding to its difficulty. "State the person's name" is a "one," but "Empathize" is a "six."

Both these works substitute an emotional topography for the objective geographic information one expects from such signs. Whereas the viewer of a building directory or sign mapping a historic neighborhood is being defined only as a receptacle for information, Brooks immediately invokes the viewer's emotional life. "How did she know I was shy?" I thought--though I didn't go on to ask anyone for the time. Most of her instructions are also appropriate, showing real understanding of the walled-off bundles of nerves so many of us are. Under "Apologies," "Begin with 'I'" rates a "one," but "Ask for a hug" is a "ten."

Implicitly Brooks critiques society's institutions as cold, unemotional, dehumanizing; her work also reflects the feminist emphasis on individual emotions. But Brooks herself doesn't see her pieces that way. A Chicagoan with an MFA from the University of Illinois at Chicago, Brooks, 27, told me her work is "about resignifying forms--about information, and how fluid it can be." While she acknowledges that some of her work addresses depersonalization within large organizations, she expresses no particular alienation from our culture. "I'd love to do advertising," she says. "I think it would be really exciting to come up with a Coke jingle." Growing up in Zanesville, Ohio, she went to Catholic schools for 12 years, then discovered art making as an undergraduate at Ohio University. There she did "a lot of bad paintings in several genres," she says, but also enjoyed graphic design; what helped initiate her present direction was the discovery of a book of international icons--the kind used on signs--along with readings about postmodernism.

Though Brooks speaks of her life and our culture with equanimity, I can't help but see almost every one of her works as a critique. Twelve color photos of men standing in front of cars parked on the street seem to follow the form of the amateur snapshot of a person proudly displaying a possession. But the cars are all uncool station wagons, a few of them rather battered, and the title for this grid-- Boys Who Drive Their Mothers' Station Wagons--makes the work much more than a collection of funky snapshots. Brooks replaces the man-and-car macho pose with a kind of gender fuck: in our culture, boys proud to drive their mothers' station wagons are hardly "real men."

Brooks substitutes an imagined utopia for existing social realities: men abandon the cool-car ideal, and people explore their feelings rather than go on walking tours or visit offices. She also takes an implicit stand against generalization: reading the text in Directory is an individuating experience, since each viewer will respond to the suggested actions differently. Taking the importance of individual reactions further, Brooks scrutinizes even so objective a form of knowledge as measurement.

Girlhole, Boyhole, Cornhole is made up of three boxes in which a tiny hole in the shape of a woman, man, or ear of corn has been cut. That all three holes are a fraction of an inch produces an ironic contrast with the sexualizing title: a mostly male preoccupation--an interest in "holes"--has been replaced by these elegant, desexualized forms too small to enter. Hot Dog! hints at another male obsession. It's a ten-foot-high metal ruler with two scales, the one on the left based on the length of a hot dog, the one on the right on a cocktail wiener. I was reminded of how arbitrary measurement systems can be: since the foot was originally the length of a ruling potentate's foot, why not establish this quintessential American product as a unit of measurement too? That hot dogs are only about five inches long connected in my mind with the ruler's absurd size and with the slang meaning of "wiener" to suggest a joking comment on male insecurities.

Last Name First and D.O.B. are among Brooks's most biting pieces, though she doesn't see them that way. Both are horizontal metal constructions, seamless in appearance, with vertical bars that reproduce in greatly enlarged form those toothy fill-in-the-blank spaces where you're supposed to write in your name or date of birth. Loving the appearance of those forms, Brooks wanted to make a "beautiful and simple" work based on them. But I saw them as a variation on pieces like Directory: these oversize renderings in metal heighten awareness of the way such forms reduce the individual to a name and a number. The large blank slots, almost begging to be filled in, entice the viewer not to "ask for a hug" but to repeat the same mind-numbing task each of us has done a thousand times.

Brooks mentions having won undergraduate awards for the paintings she finds embarrassing today, and in this show she gives herself a few more awards, each with its own ironies. Self Portrait reproduces the form of an "employee of the month" plaque: at the center is Brooks's photograph, and on either side are six small laudatory metal labels: "Achieves bottom-line results," "Asks penetrating questions," "Sees the big picture." These praises, with their frequent references to scale, present in relatively straight form the kind of thinking Brooks parodies in Hot Dog! But one wonders about the excess: Can any employee be this good? Or do these accomplishments represent not real achievement but a corporate fantasy employee, an impossible ideal? Brooks's photograph provides a clue: she looks happy--too happy. Her smile is toothy, and her eyes are open a little too wide. Brooks says that she took a lot of photos of herself, seeking that "deer in the headlights look," to get this one. And in fact she looks zombielike, even a little crazed. But then the attempt to win or live up to such an award would drive almost anyone mad.

Brooks's comments notwithstanding, her work seems unmistakably oppositional. The smooth, seamless surface of her pieces gives them their edge: the strong resemblance between each work and the conventional form on which it's modeled makes the differences loom large. But beneath these surfaces lies a concern for the emotional self, as the viewer is reminded of the way that social structures sometimes seek to deny the wholeness of a person, confronting us with forms to fill out, arbitrary systems of measurement, rigid gender expectations, and the impossible demands of the workplace. Some pieces, like Directory, may encourage one's emotional side, but others, like Self Portrait, reveal how society can quash it. Brooks offers a witty, moving commentary on the way the self can be fragmented by a society that denies each individual's authentic, sensate core.

John Carmichael's 19 handcrafted works at Bodybuilder and Sportsman are the opposite of Brooks's in several ways. They have none of her anonymous slickness or classy humor, and they're incomplete looking, even a bit random: some have the air of the doodle or the junk store. A bit unsure of themselves, they're arguably less accomplished than Brooks's. Yet the two shows have a common theme: Carmichael, like Brooks, envisions the self as challenged and divided. Where she sees the social reasons for this situation, however, Carmichael doesn't so much seek explanations as try to turn human fragmentation and incompleteness into poetry.

In the small sculpture Oh No, Oh Well a roughly carved wooden head sits on top of a block of wood. The head has a rudimentary face--two pinholes in broad eye sockets--while a single wooden "arm," hinged in the middle, stretches out from the side of the block. The word "oh" is handwritten on the head, and on the arm "well." The work's roughness is a bit deceptive, as is often the case in this show: stand back and there's a certain elegant relationship between the figure's three elements. But the handwritten words declare a kind of pathos: this rough, incomplete figure knows how little it is able to feel. It could be any of us as we read a mundane building directory.

Portrait is a shelf supporting a variety of objects--several small wooden pieces like bowling pins with faces painted on them; a flat board with a painted face; a thick board cut in the shape of a human profile; a metal ring; a long, thin stick with a tiny chess piece at its end. Carmichael told me that he meant this to be "the idea of a portrait" rather than an individual portrait itself. Nevertheless the title suggests a single person, and the different faces and figures would then imply a divided self. Similarly, Carmichael's playful use of different representational systems--a flat painting, a cutout silhouette, figurelike shapes with painted faces--makes it seem that no system of representation is more realistic than any other. This is more a piece about the failure of representation than it is an example of successful portraiture.

Carmichael, 32, a Chicagoan who grew up mostly in Michigan, has an MFA from the School of the Art Institute. Like Brooks, he found his voice only when he rejected various art-school influences: in college he made Sol LeWitt-like formal constructions and geometrical paintings influenced by modernist rhetoric. "I got very confused," he says, "and I decided I should make something that's more about me than about the art world." So he began to incorporate the cartoons he's been drawing since childhood. The bright, clownlike, divided man in the painting Guy Poking Thing With Stick has one bare leg and one clad in stripes, one bare arm and one covered by a blue sleeve. His long stick arcs down to the giant red blob he's poking. With its various protrusions, the blob itself is rather odd, at once a symbolic monster and a bit of a joke on imagined monsters. The curving stick is obviously ineffectual as a weapon or a probe: it's quite limp.

Raised in an Episcopal family, Carmichael has a grandfather who was a minister. Adhering to no regular faith today, he still finds religion important, calling it "a response to being humble and in awe of the world. I think it's important to step back from yourself and see the world as something greater than yourself." Indeed, there's a hint of mysticism to many of these works: sketchy figures that are in fact rather carefully crafted seem on the brink of dissolution, adrift on an indistinct sea, suggesting a self about to be overwhelmed or engulfed.

This point of view is clearest in Infinity: a man standing on a rock holds his outstretched hands through a figure eight--the sign of infinity in mathematics--in turn contained within a white disk. He's facing a strange tree, its pinkish trunk separating into branches within a greenish orb. The orb is surrounded by a kind of aura, just slightly off-gray against the gray background, perhaps with a hint of green. As a vision of infinity, the tree falls way short of views of the heavens or mountains found in religious or romantic paintings; its charm is that it's at once a cartoony joke on transcendence and a strangely compelling vision. Rising out of a bare rock, it almost seems to glow.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): "Self Portrait" by Stephanie Brooks photo courtesy Ten in One; "Guy Poking Thing with Stick" by John Carmichael.

Add a comment