Sunday, November 8, 2009

Portraiture of the psyche

“It’s so much more palatable to formulate an art historical response than a psychological response. Who wants to purposefully relate to turmoil and anguish?”

Even though I make sculpture about female sexuality, I was eager to see Antony Crossfield’s photographs of male nudes at Thursday’s opening of Foreign Body at Klompching Gallery in Brooklyn. Our work may have little in common on the surface, but we both address the relationship between the body and identity, although my focus is on the clothed body. Crossfield’s eerie portraits feature overlapping bodies thanks to the trickery of digital photography (for images, see Some are subtle juxtapositions with convincing transitions between forms, and others are obvious and jarring, but all of them appear inseparable in a tragic, Kafka-esque manner. They seem to allude to an alter ego or a beast within that is trying to escape, with neither figure necessarily dominant. Therein lies my fascination, as I use the cocoon metaphor repeatedly in my own work. In the cocoon sculptures, the sensation of escape is helped along by a transparent layer torn and gouged to allow portions of the underlying bodily form to poke through. The main reason I wanted to see Crossfield’s work was to take in his luscious transparency firsthand, to find inspiration for the see-through organza I’ve been using as a stand-in for skin. Seeing the works in person, I was also affected by the dilapidated setting for the figures. I felt an affinity with the grubby wallpaper and rusty radiators, since I aim to capture a sense of disrepair in the cocoons to offset their seeming perfection and prettiness.

Each of Crossfield’s staged scenes are in a domestic setting. Some are more intimate than others, like a bathtub or a bed with rumpled sheets, but all of the household interiors frame the figures as representations of the private self, as revelations of the psyche. The press release is clear about positioning the works as psychological statements about the lack of fixity of the self. In spite of having access to this background information, I found myself continually returning to art history to make sense of the works, with a secondary impulse to interpret them sexually. Perhaps simplistically, I saw the jigsaw-puzzle-like figural formations as modern-day riffs on cubism, and the promotional image of a limp, languished figure on the lap of a stern-looking man as a photographic version of Michelangelo’s Pièta. It’s so much more palatable to formulate an art historical response than a psychological response. Who wants to purposefully relate to turmoil and anguish? To bring this back to my own work, in approaching a controversial topic like gender identity, can I expect viewers to eagerly face the disturbing prospect that their identity is to some degree beyond their control or that they are unconsciously shaping the gender of others in a potentially damaging way? Do I want to make the kind of work that makes people so uncomfortable that they do not to want to engage with it at all?

While making my way through the exhibition, I was reminded of how difficult it is to avoid bringing your own thematic interests to bear when looking at someone else’s work. Although my mind did go to the concept of the Split Self, entertaining the psychological reading of Crossfield’s work, I was more inclined to see the animated, scrambling figures as engaged in the awkward throes of passion. Even the melded figures that appear perfectly still strike me as powerfully sexual with limbs that overlap as if embracing. Sometimes I really wish that I could enter a gallery and leave my art history training and my studio art practice at the door.

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