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The Young and the Messy


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at Thorne Gallery and Performance Space, through August 14

Commercial art galleries come in all shapes and sizes. At one extreme is a gallery like Gagosian in New York. Located on Madison Avenue near the Frick and Metropolitan museums, in a building with a guard who asks your business, it's reached by an elevator that goes only to its floor. Though it appears to occupy a large space, only one or two rooms are open for viewing; one wonders a bit uneasily about the business that goes on behind the many closed doors. Gagosian mounts museum-quality shows; I once saw an exhibit of Jackson Pollock works from the early 50s, almost none of which were for sale. When works are for sale, the prices are not posted but have to be inquired after--and something about the place discourages all but the most serious collector from inquiring. I've been deeply moved by the art I've seen there, but one can't ignore the haute aura that hangs about the place.

Then there are galleries like Thorne, a just-opened Wicker Park storefront space named after founder, owner, and manager Ronda L. Thorne, an artist herself who also lives in her gallery--mixed in with the art are a couch, a loft bed, and a small kitchen, and some of her own works in progress are scattered about in the rear. The works are hung salon style, and the ones high up are not always easy to see; the lighting is less than perfect; the place is not air-conditioned; her inaugural show had nothing that moved me as much as a great Pollock. But I did feel comfortable and welcome, and the gallery's decor suits the often rough edges of the art in the show.

Thorne's opening exhibit, "Salon des Refuses," was advertised as open to any artist who'd ever been rejected in any way--by an art jury, by a lover. While some of the work (and some of the best work) came from friends who are fellow students or recent graduates of the School of the Art Institute, some was submitted by people who wandered in off the street.

What excited me about this exhibit, which included about 80 works by some 40 artists, was the inventive playfulness, the boundary-crossing transgressions, the oddball quirkiness of many of them--qualities largely absent from high-modernist masterpieces. These young artists--like many in their generation--try to rupture modernism's smooth surface by including utterly incongruous elements, mixing high art and kitsch. Some works are inexplicable even by the hermetic standards of recent art. Given the open nature of the show, it isn't surprising that a lot of the work is poor, but even among the strong works few are "perfect"--many of these artists don't seem to aspire to self-enclosed formal perfection. This art is messy, often highly personal, open to the unevenness and complexities of life itself. Yoko Pono (no, it's not her real name) presents four untitled pencil and watercolor drawings that combine graffitilike words with patches of color. In one, enigmatic phrases ("PLO Chairman," "Kung Fu") appear above and amidst a forest of colored blobs. Kurt Fondriest's Nostalgia on Constant State of Religion combines a Last Supper reproduction with abstract patterns of paint and toy figurines, some from The Wizard of Oz. Amphay Oudomsouk places together four tall rectangular towers, each made of a different material--tar paper, metal rods--which seem mysterious monuments from some distant civilization.

Thorne herself is represented by four works that combine dense collage with abstract painted patterns. The subject matter is abstracted because the pieces are so small or because the fragment is upside-down. In the largest of her untitled works, she combines grids and gridlike patterns--pictures of a glass building with rectilinear black lines; jagged ice floes; parched, cracked earth. There are also patterns of repeating objects, such as barrels of fruit. The result is a powerful tension: an overall abstract pattern contains fragments of "reality" on the edge of losing their identifiability. In another collage variously colored squares dominate one area while another area features a fragment of upside-down people wearing similar pants; there are also flower and leaf patterns. Added to the contrast between abstraction and recognizability is a tension between the geometrical and the organic. I thought of Ad Reinhardt's great collages of the 1940s (which Thorne has not seen), which reduce newspaper fragments to total abstraction, the colliding forms all becoming pure shapes. Thorne's works have some of this intensity, but they retain recognizability: these are more lyrical works. They're also messier--every time an object is identifiable, one's own associations are called into play. No modernist abstract purity here.

Abstract purity isn't even an issue for six other strong artists who deal with currently fashionable issues like voyeurism, the body, and identity. Each of Dawn Collopy's four untitled works, placed on a wall at waist level, consists of a doorknob and keyhole mounted on wood. Bending over or kneeling to look through the keyhole, one sees a tannish, grainy, sexually suggestive photo illuminated by a light behind--though in most it's hard to identify exactly what's what, they appear to consist of parts of intertwined bodies. In fact they were taken from soft-porn videos; Collopy fragmented them, she says, because she "wanted the images to be like the fragmentary images you see through a keyhole." While these pieces are one-liners in a sense, their strength lies in the way they incriminate the viewer: bending over and pressing his eye to the hole, he's "rewarded" with a borrowed, fuzzy image.

Matt Hampton's The Barbie and Ken Wanna-Bes' Valentine's Day Suicide is also a bit of a one-liner. This illusionistic painting of a room, viewed as if from the center of the fourth wall, shows a table with a vase of flowers on the back wall, under a picture of Barbie in a wedding dress. But the viewer's attention will probably be drawn first to the part of the picture that resembles a bad B-movie: two blood-spattered three-dimensional dolls lie "dead" at the bottom of the picture, and blood stains the walls. The dolls are not Barbie and Ken but manufacturing rejects--mistakes from the doll factory. The male has an androgynous body and a woman's hairdo; the female has a woman's blond hair on the head of a man. A printed text hanging from a string in a heart below the painting reads: "We realize now we will never be as perfect as our role models Barbie & Ken. We hope we can find perfection in heaven. Buffy & Ben." What gives this work, an odd mixture of movies, comic strips, and puppet theater, its strength is the way the mass-culture images are transcended. Not only are the corpses real, 3-D dolls, the flowers on the table are tiny 3-D fake flowers. The scene is not only a borrowed image but has some of the solidity of a real event--the fake murder has an undercurrent of real murder, of society's destruction of anyone who deviates from the norm.

Identity is also a central issue in Jason Greenberg's When I Grow Up, an installation whose pieces are scattered like "visitors throughout the gallery," in Greenberg's words. The largest portion, however, is displayed against one wall: spread out on the floor are a mass of toys with several rows of stuffed animals behind ending at the wall. On the wall hang two rows of T-shirts and sweaters--a few even hang from the ceiling. Sewn onto the clothing are what seem to be children's nicknames--"Bundle of Joy," "Late Bloomer," "Thumb Sucker." Littler T-shirts with stuffed animals emerging from the neck openings are also sewn onto the front of these garments. "I'm interested in looking at the relationship . . . between who we were as a kid and what we became as an adult," Greenberg told me.

Clothes make the man, Greenberg seems to be saying, but also that our identities are constructed for us by the words of our elders and the cultural products of our time. While the passivity of this not-uncommon view is disturbing, I liked the playfulness with which the piece is arranged. Though in a way Greenberg recalls Mike Kelley, who places rows of dolls morguelike on folding tables, that artist's minimalist, formalist aesthetic is nowhere to be seen. Instead Greenberg, who has worked as a counselor for emotionally disturbed children, tries to recapture some of childhood's imaginative freedom: below the second row of large garments he's hung a few tiny toys, such as a soldier and a set of plastic keys, arguing as a child might that importance has nothing to do with size, that all things can be made equal if the eye is free enough.

Identity is a matter of pride for James Romeo, whose large untitled painting immediately struck me as a "gay Gauguin": bright reds and greens form the background for a group of bronzed, nude young men; one figure has his eyes closed and is adorned with flowers. Romeo's intent, he says, was to paint a funeral scene that also comments on AIDS, a comment that would have to be metaphoric because the picture is clearly set in olden, even ancient times, perhaps classical Rome or some other Mediterranean culture. Though its technique is not that of, well, a master, there is something provocatively transgressive about it: its recycling of Gauguin colors for a gay image; the apparent sexiness of the nudes at the funeral. Taken as a comment on AIDS, its argument must be that life, and sex, continue even in the face of death.

The show's best works are, not surprisingly, the hardest to discuss. Susan Rosenberg and Patricia Maloney, who both deal with the body, create work that's hard to translate into words: their seemingly sui generis images, while referring to our daily world, also make a new one.

That was my reaction, at least, to Rosenberg's strange paintings of bras. In three of them one or two whitish bras are set in a yellow field; in two of these the color of the bra and the pale yellow are close enough to blend. The paint is applied in broad, sensual swaths. I found myself thinking, rather improbably, of Byzantine and Russian icon paintings, in which the solid gold background around a saint places him in a sacred, infinite space. Here the blending of bra and background makes it seem that reality has been reduced to an undergarment, or a bra has expanded to consume all sight.

Similarly enigmatic is Maloney's Scrutiny. A black wood frame contains a grid of bars resembling a window guard. Behind it, close to the bars, is an irregular surface of pink wax with black threads streaking over it, the wax and thread clearly suggesting flesh and hair. Here the issues of voyeurism, the body, and identity explored elsewhere in the show are presented more complexly and paradoxically. The wax is shiny and luminous in parts, and unabashedly sensuous throughout. Though the black thread looks like body hair, the hills and valleys of the wax are irregular, asymmetrical; this does not resemble any known part of the human anatomy. Anyone looking for a sexy body will be thwarted by this surface, just behind bars: some weird giant butts up against them, a wall of flesh that has become a world.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jason Greenberg.

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