Perhaps I pay too much attention to the news. Somewhere between the NSA eavesdropping revelations and the bombing of the Al-Askari Mosque I began to think that an alternate ending to the reality-based show we call life is becoming more and more desirable.
So I approached the group show Hedonistic Imperative at Deborah Colton Gallery with anticipation. It is not every day, after all, where I get to see a show that claims to envision what the “profoundly altered consciousness and bodies of our 'super well' descendants” might look like.
Many of the artists in this show are young (late twenties-early thirties) and from elsewhere (mostly New York), but Hedonistic Imperative includes several mid-career artists whose work anticipated many of the same concerns now being expressed by their younger colleagues. I first saw Robert Yarber's paintings 20-odd years ago in California, when his luridly colored figures hovered midair over exotic nighttime cityscapes, floating in solitary limbo or lusting after an airborne partner. Yarber's current preoccupation is with bizarro apparitions who stride the earth enveloped in cosmic energy fields. The Encosmic Healer has sprouted ears all over his body, like someone with a bad case of the aural mumps. Sortie depicts a slice of mythic history I have never heard of: a Cyclops and maiden carry out an outdoor tryst atop a wagon drawn by three roosters. One of Yarber's contemporaries, New York veteran Jerry Kearns, has also changed his painterly concerns dramatically, with pop-inflected figuration giving way to heavily Photoshopped photographic collages machine-sprayed onto canvas. Jack and Jill are reconfigured by Kearns into Transformer-like flesh bots. Jack is stripped of his skin in places to reveal his buff inner musculature; Jill's enormous breasts retain their skin, but her stomach is open to the core. The aggressive figures are definitely not metrosexual in their assets. As if to underscore that his imagined couple of the future is simultaneously predatory and techno-sexual, Jack and Jill both flourish giant pistols, leading me to think that Kearns should have titled his work GI Joe and GI Jane .
Both of these artists have developed a bad case of the grotesque, and as I spent time with the show I began to see this condition as a common theme. One of my favorite artists here is photographer Kim Keever, who uses a 100-gallon aquarium, color dyes and paints, and our penchant to read landscape narrative into just about anything to make vividly colored fantasy extravaganzas. Expressionistically lit, San Andreas Fault and Best of Blue make something grand out of nothing in particular; in the best tradition of sci-fi film set making, they spark the imagination by making the familiar strange. Norm Paris transforms similarly banal subject matter using nothing more than colored pencils. Three Body-builders-Back Double Biceps and The Artist vs. Arnold Schwarzenegger are frankly beautiful drawings that shade illustration toward conceptualism by aestheticizing the more ridiculous aspects of fetishistic body culture. Carl D"Alvia indulges a penchant for the pastoral weird, making painted resin sculptures of small animals (dogs, monkeys, rabbits) that replace distinguishing characteristics with an overall coat of hair and a unified chroma. Only one of D"Alvia's forms is even remotely human in its figuration — a greenish hairball clearly patterned after The Addams Family's Cousin Itt.
Since utopias are supposed to be places we have never seen before, the artists I had the most trouble with were those with the most traceable styles. Like Lisa Yuskavage, Suzanne Walters constructs small sculptures that she uses as models for her paintings. Two untitled examples show fawnlike, four-legged creatures that are painted with endearing if slightly clunky descriptiveness. Shorn of details such as eyes or hoofs, they sport with each other against the brightly colored indeterminancy of a studio setup. Paul Jacobsen has worked as an atelier painter for Jeff Koons, and the cool influence of Koons" calculated citationalism can be seen in The Burden of Memory , a vertical landscape dominated by a “sky phenomenon” that could either be a hallucination or a sun flare from a camera lens. In the foreground a naked woman eats a strawberry while regarding a hummingbird, and other equally naked women embrace or bathe in the middle distance, and birds carry a tattered flag sporting a rainbow-hued infinity sign into the sky. But the real outlier in this show is James Adams, whose figures-in-interiors scenarios are both overly roseate in hue and Currin-esque in technique. Like Currin's work, they seem more nostalgic than forward-looking.
Two of the most vivid pieces in Hedonistic Imperative are videos. Michael Joaquin Grey's Between Two Milk Bars is digital “sculpting” via a sampling of scenes from Stanley Kubrick's Clockwork Orange , so that sounds from the movie and other sources infect, reshape, fragment, and deconstruct the images. Michael Rees" Putto 4 x 4 presents an eerie hybrid — two headless and stomachless bundles of arms and legs. Linked by a flexible tube or spine, they walk, flip, and struggle for dominance. If the title suggests a merger between a cherub and an off-road vehicle, the movements of Rees" creations confirm these both angelic and mechanical attributes without providing a clue as to the sentience of his animated being.
New York artist Graham Guerra originally organized Hedonistic Imperative for the Brooklyn gallery Jack the Pelican Presents. Colton's exhibition press release cites futurist David Pearce's utopian manifesto as one of Guerra's inspirations, but the images that many of the works in this show conjure are anything but idealized or bucolic. So many works in Hedonistic Imperative portray identity giving way to anonymity or type that “future imperfect” seems an equally plausible title. But this show does not outline conclusions so much provoke, and in this sense it is an efficient sparkplug, getting us to think in terms that are oriented toward future rather than past or present tenses while proving once again that utopias, like aesthetics, are often in the eye of the beholder. As it turned out I didn't want to escape the bad-news present so much as argue with it, and Hedonistic Imperative provided the perfect forum. Utopian/distopian? You decide.
Images courtesy Deborah Colton Gallery
Christopher French is an artist and writer living in Houston.