Walking into Contorted, an exhibition curated by Jessica Frelinghuysen, a professor at the Penny W. Stamps School of Art and Design at the University of Michigan, the sedate, ladylike surfaces of the work on display initially struck me. In a show featuring women artists exploring the body, one thinks of gooey viscera and different sensory data madly cross-referencing female virility asserting itself in a dark, troubled place à la Kiki Smith or Janine Antoni. Conversely, the women in Contorted remain reasonably composed, tidy and nearly fully, clothed. There is barely a sliver of nudity and no bodily fluids in sight, except a video installation by Alice V. Schneider in the gallery’s bathroom.
An ever-increasing need to pee while waiting for bathroom video viewers to clear out gave me the greatest awareness of my female self in the show. Schneider’s piece, Through the Looking Glass, is a weird thing to watch while you pee. An outdated tube TV set next to the toilet plays a loop of a naked woman covered in ambiguous fluids of different textures. She shifts her limbs with languorous heaviness, as if in great pain or great pleasure. As a woman seated on the toilet, you notice the TV set’s placement affords easier viewing by a man standing upright before the bowl, making you feel like a bit of an interloper, trespassing on both the male gaze and male bladder evacuation.
Having peeked at what I guessed I was not meant to see, I realized all the work in Contorted keeps the inner workings under wraps. Experiencing women retreating into mystery with a humorous wink, demands that the viewer look closer for the kernel of conflict. In Nicola Kuperus’ photographs, all titled Fools, uncomfortably tight cropping cutting off portions of extremities, and nightmarish crimson bags covering the figures’ heads quickly counter the somewhat clownish poses of the unitard-wearing ballerinas. The work echoes documentary photographs of prisoners of war, as well as Picasso’s eyeless woman husks.
The digital prints of Melanie Manos read at first like zippy, colorful, geometric wallpaper. On closer examination, infinitesimal reproductions of Manos’ own contorted body compose patterns, a microcosmic projection of herself into each cell and microbe, energetically claiming her own viscera in one clean, pleasing swoop.
My favorite piece in the show is Low-rider Builder and Child by Liz Cohen, a monumental C-print of a reclining woman in biker chick garb, robust baby at her breast, massive low-rider truck aglimmer with chrome spread out like a big cat behind her, all set into a gorgeously lit desert landscape. The woman gazes impassively out of this bizarre setting, nailing the viewer with a look that challenges and invites, both on her terms entirely. The image offers all the trappings that serve the male gaze, yet this image is clearly not meant only for men or women. The low-rider builder takes the final gaze, mysteriously assuming the position of power in the viewer/work of art dynamic.
Melanie Manos gave a performance at the end of the opening reception, grabbing bits of furniture from around the gallery space, stacking them against a wall, and climbing precariously higher and higher up her makeshift ladder to retrieve a key hanging from the ceiling, all under the knowing eyes of Low-rider Builder. What does that key unlock? Keeping with the rest of Contorted the artist does not offer a definitive answer. combining postmodern abjection with a free mix of tricks old and new, this new generation of women artists feels free to lay themselves bare without getting dirty.
Contorted: Humor and the Body in Recent Art opened on January 12 and runs through February 9, 2013.
Public Pool, located at 3309 Caniff Street in Hamtramck, Michigan, opens every Saturday from 1 – 6 p.m.
Clara DeGalan is an artist and writer working on an MFA at Wayne State University in Detroit. View more articles by Clara DeGalan.