There's lots of fire. Everywhere. Chutes of flame explode erratically from a guy's mouth with some assistance from a handy can of lighter fluid. Flaming torches twitch and fly, St. Elmo's balls whoof skyward.
This is neither a voodoo fertility ritual nor the set of Dances Sacred and Profane III. It's the band/spectacle Crash Worship at the Icehouse, fraying the ends of Primal Stew, a chaotic, eight-hour rave-esque gathering of music and art performance.
The evening actually began much earlier. At about 10 p.m., I climbed to the third-floor Ice Chambers to watch Rose Johnson's powerful performance piece "Creation--Creation" (also performed at the May 12 "Milk" exhibition). In the piece, Johnson examines the tension of the female artist who must choose between a loudly ticking biological clock and the need to save emotional and creative resources for artwork.
Johnson, lighted only by a couple of yellowish spotlights, went back and forth between a white utility table where she mixed and poured plaster-cast "babies" and a silverish school chair centered in a circle of plaster "eggs." Each time she entered the egg circle, Johnson stripped down to her increasingly plaster-caked naked self, revealing a belly sketched with female reproductive organs.
Visibly freaked by this part of the performance, a few audience members left. Some hung on for a few minutes and then left. A brooding hipster in the corner involuntarily clutched his rubber chicken tightly to his chest.
The deliberate pace of the piece combined with the spareness of the room was at times hypnotic, punctuated by moments of wrenching physicality. At the finale, Johnson took a hammer and chisel and calmly halved each of the eggs, wiped her belly free of gynecology and washed her hands.
The piece was beautiful, well-executed, but, at two hours, perhaps too long. Though Johnson's sculpture babies are not alive and kicking, the political statement about the rights of women who choose not to bear children, but to channel their energies elsewhere, certainly is. Besides, plaster babies are a great idea. No fuss. No muss.
Threading my way through the ravers, past the leather-chapped satyr with his exposed hindquarters (lots of nakedness going on that night), past the flame-haired sorceress presiding at an "Altar of Love," I caught Institute for Studies in the Arts' denizen Steve Gompf's distinctive videos projected onto gauzy white swags draped around the first floor. I liked his Art Detour installation of videos comprising manipulated imagery from American photographer Eadweard Muybridge's motion studies and surrealist film experiments.
I liked these more. The abstract or geometrical backgrounds for the Art Detour videos have become dark and winding gothic interiors, peopled with semiabstract humans in pixilated motion and twirling cruciform female figures. I caught Gompf coming off the Icehouse loading dock and asked what was up with those vids.
"I'm getting into interiors now, trying to create a Boschy hell," he explained, referring to the 15th-century Dutch painter of the bizarre, Hieronymous Bosch. Then Gompf said something about satyrs and spherical steel paint vessels and wandered off in search of water.
Speaking of water, there is lots of it in Venice. And it is toward that city of canals that the Arizona State University Art Museum is looking with its current show, "Americans in Venice: The Biennale Legacy." The exhibition celebrates the tremendous honor the ASU Art Museum received this year when director Marilyn A. Zeitlin's entry, a video installation by Bill Viola, was accepted into the prestigious Venice Biennale, regarded by many over the last 50 years as the taste barometer of contemporary art.
ASU's involvement in the Biennale should also increase the visibility of the museum and result in more funding from major sources and bigger and better art exhibits. We may be seeing some really good shows next year.
"Americans in Venice," curated by senior curator Linda McAllister, comprises works by American artists who have shown in past Biennales and is something of a panoramic view of trends that influenced art in the 1970s and '80s.
The 13 pieces, from the Eli Broad Family Foundation and private collections, showcase mostly painted works produced between 1969 and 1989 by Neil Jenney, Richard Bosman, Jedd Garet, Julian Schnabel, Jonathan Borofsky, David Salle, Barbara Kruger, Mike Kelley, Keith Haring, Kenny Scharf, Ashley Bickerton, Annette Lemieux and Cheryl Laemmie.
Heavy hitters. A few, namely Salle, Schnabel and Haring (who died in 1990), chiseled out superstar names and styles for themselves with the help of clever marketing. They broke lots of postmodern and neoexpressionist ground, and, in Schnabel's case, a lot of plates, which he incorporated into his paintings.
But with the exception of a couple of knockout pieces, the show doesn't rise to the challenge of the prestigious names. It's work that is less than the best from a lot of superstars. One of the standouts, however, is Richard Bosman's "Overboard," which radiates with energy. The painting shows a black-suited man being ejected from his ineffectual rowboat, hanging precariously over an ocean of churning aquas and midnight blue.
The disturbing subject matter, added to Bosman's style of direct painting, strong color and heavy impasto, recalls Austrian expressionist Oskar Kokoschka and German expressionist Max Beckman, both masters of the ability to convey brutal emotions and psychological intensity through the method of applying their paint. Bosman's symbolic "overboard" portrayal of helplessness and alienation is one he has used before in his print work, and it always terrifies me.
Cheryl Laemmie's "August," from 1985, is also striking. An enormous, richly textured duck decoy, decorated with bull's eyes and trussed game birds, seems to nudge at the idea of baiting to kill. Laemmie humorously borrows imagery and painterly devices from 17th-century Flemish "abundance" still lifes and the trompe l'oeil paintings of the late 1800s, which sometimes celebrated the gentleman's love of hunting in highly detailed arrangements of hunting prizes, firearms, heaping plates of edibles and other sensual symbols of plenty. Laemmie's punch line comes in the form of a trompe l'oeil niche along the upper edge of the work scattered with nest-makings and an expired fowl.
Unfortunately, some of the other paintings in the show don't really reflect the star status of their creators. Salle's paintings can be exciting in their cold-blooded appropriation of images and styles from Watteau to Picasso, but "Savagery and Misrepresentation," which is located in the lower lobby, is so sketchy it seems unfinished. "The Moon in My Mind," a psychological landscape by Jonathan Borofsky, is ho-hum compared to the artist's usually aggressive and perverse style. And Ashley Bickerton's (a.k.a. Susie Culturelux's) "Wall Wall #8" has humorous intentions--prepackaged, ready-to-carry commercial art--but it's pulled off with a slick '80s sensibility that tends to age poorly.
Wandering the streets last week, I happened onto Ethnic Artifacts and saw an amazing collection of "milagro boxes" and larger assemblages by Janet de Berge Lange. Mexican-influenced art is common in Phoenix, but there is a modern and somewhat devious twist that de Berge Lange has taken with the Madonnas, prayer-card imagery and found objects often used in Mexican religious art. One piece titled "Inner Beauty" looks like a slot machine for the pious and features a weathered makeup dispenser loaded with assorted religious figurines, mounted on a mirrored suitcase. Peering through a scratched-away hole in the mirror's silvering, the viewer sees a Victorian pop-up of human innards, lighted by an amber Christmas light. Ethnic Artifacts is located in Scottsdale at 4200 North Marshall Way.
Let it be known that I have just donated my prized possession to the permanent collection of the Gay and Lesbian Archives at the New York Public Library. My dear "Gay Bob" doll no longer sleeps alone in his box of tissue paper, but hangs now with a much hipper crowd.
"Gay Bob," for the unfamiliar, is a bizarre gift item from the late '70s. He's a Kenlike doll with limp-jointed wrists who carried a purse and arrived packaged in a closet. Turns out "Bob" is quite a collector's item now.