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Illusions of Permanence


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Todd Slaughter: Protected Comforts

at the Chicago Cultural Center, through June 16

One hears it from television commercials and high-end art galleries, from art dealers and fashion snobs: ownership of objects enhances one's worth. Identification with our possessions is even part of our language. "I'm parked around the corner," a car owner says. "It's you," a clothing salesperson tells a customer. It seems our identities are so uncertain and fleeting that we must acquire objects to establish our stability and purpose. But even handsome cemetery monuments eventually turn to dust.

Todd Slaughter addresses our futile hope for permanence in many of his 25 mordantly witty sculptures and installations at the Chicago Cultural Center. Four accordion files mounted on the same wall are cast of such substances as salt and paprika; the drooping slots of Salt Archive, October 1993 heighten the impression of dissolution over time. Comfort Zone, April 1993 consists of a sofa and chair cast in salt from actual objects and enclosed in a large glass box. Their faint blue color comes from the binding agent Slaughter used, and the casting is precise enough to preserve tiny wrinkles in the pillows and the pattern in the fabric of the chair. Vaporizers in the box hasten the sculpture's decay--a few chunks have fallen off the sofa's edge.

Slaughter, who was born in Memphis in 1942 and now teaches at Ohio State in Columbus, got a graduate degree in industrial design from the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn. He's always made fine art but also worked as an industrial designer until about 1978. ("I was going to save the world--fill it with beautiful objects," he told me.) His graduate thesis concerned the design of playground equipment, for which he did readings in "child psychology and the psychology of play"; he says he "wanted to do things that were meaningful and not just stylizing." Slaughter's current work similarly critiques our fetishization of objects based on their appearance. One untitled work (2002) is a gold casting of a piece of popcorn, brightly lit and mounted behind glass like jewelry in a store.

Other works are more complex. Slipping Hands, One R.P.M., February 1993 consists of three cylinders that appear to be rusted metal but are actually cast paprika. Jutting out from the wall, they rotate once a minute; a pair of cast-salt hands grasps at two of them from below, following the cylinders for a bit, then slipping back. On the floor under the third is another set of hands that appears to have fallen off and shattered. The hands suggest possessive urges, but the two pairs still on the wall grasp vainly at apparently decaying objects while the broken third hints at the eventual ruin of the others.

The one-rpm rate, which is used in nine of the works here, is slow enough that the viewer must pause to see the whole revolution, offering an implied critique of those who walk through an exhibit without breaking stride, seeking to grasp each work in an objectifying single glance. In Two Theories of Revolution, November 1991, two turntables sit on a shelf; the left rotates clockwise at one revolution per minute under a stationary group of leaves Slaughter cast in aluminum. The right one is stationary, but a similar group of leaves attached to a metal armature rotates counterclockwise above it. Though the rotations are in opposite directions, the relative movement between turntable and leaves looks the same because in both cases the stems of the leaves point "forward" and the turntable seems to pass under them--a paradox that destabilizes the viewer's perception of the objects.

To create Pet Chewed Objects (2002), a large installation made for this exhibit, Slaughter sent out a press release asking for loans of "objects not intended to be chewed by pets" and requesting notes relating the objects' "interesting history or other information." Occupying portions of five walls, the work includes a partly destroyed chair, volleyball, newspaper, and film canister as well as a photo of a boy displaying dog bites. In addition to recalling objects' decay, Slaughter suggests that one attachment (to a pet, for example) can often damage another beloved possession, reminding us of life's compromises and trade-offs--things that advertising, which tells you that the right beer will get you the right girl, systematically effaces.

In his exhibition, Slaughter expresses dissatisfaction with the materialism of our culture. Describing housing developments as "excessively self-protective...perfectly imagined and constructed fantasies" that "produce a home without vitality," he says that "possessing things in order to provide oneself a feeling of security has reached new levels." Two large installations also express this view. The Upstate Dream Home: Domestic Fortress (2002) sets seven reduced-scale buildings, including a luxurious house and a large barn, on a raised stand--Slaughter calls it a cake stand--nine feet in diameter that rotates once every four minutes, then reverses direction. Constructed of translucent magenta plastic, this homestead is guarded by three large taxidermic birds, swans' heads attached to the bodies of very large ducks. Recalling store displays of food, the stand reminds us that architecture too is a product to be consumed. Extravagant, almost surreal, this nightmare vision of an affluent compound repels more than it attracts.

Protected Comforts (2002), which references horror movies, is even creepier. The viewer enters a small square enclosure to sit in a tall chair under a peaked plastic roof. On one of its faces a video is projected of silhouetted figures apparently walking on the roof, accompanied by loud thumping noises that resemble thunder, which Slaughter created by magnifying, distorting, and layering the sounds of tapping on a cardboard box. The image is similarly layered: Slaughter shot a video of people walking one at a time across a Plexiglas floor he built for the purpose, then superimposed the images to show multiple figures clustered together. Here, instead of the individual grasping possessively, the viewer is trapped, beset, almost victimized by the object he desired, and the protection a home supposedly offers becomes as illusory as the stability of possessions.

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