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Everything in excess: the expressive possibilities of extreme imagery are explored in the works selected by Robert Storr for "Disparities and Deformations: Our Grotesque," the latest SITE Santa Fe Biennial
Art in America, Nov, 2004 by Charles Dee Mitchell

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Storr writes that Saul has "no positive social agenda," and we are invited to laugh at this blubbery loser. God forbid we feel any pang of self-recognition. In other paintings that deal with political and art-world themes, the artist can go into furious attack mode with scattershot effect. But with these, he seems to love every over-the-top detail and has an especially good time finessing the suds and stubble. Saul is an artist critics and curators have difficulty placing, but here he has taken--and deserves--center stage.

In three small portraits, Nutt brings old-master technique into play with his own odd approach to stylizing the human body. The women appear to be the victims of Cubism gone wrong. Noses like moutain peaks divide their faces into disparate areas framed by hair in flips, braids or buns. When they look alarmed or slightly pissed off, you can't blame them. But there is nothing mean-spirited in Nutt's paintings. He seems to have real affection for these creatures, which he expresses by placing them in these lovely, ultra-refined paintings.

Cindy Sherman's Untitled #190 (1989) has lost none of its visceral charge over the past 15 years. Working on a rubber mask rather than her own body, as in previous work, Sherman created this baroque horror by ladling on the chocolate sauce, some popcorn, M&M's and God knows what else. Chocolate sprinkles have never looked more like mouse droppings than they do in this picture, and the scoop of what I hope is chocolate ice cream in the mouth is a particularly repellent touch. Sherman is known to be a fan of horror movies, and what she offers here with the 98 by 72-inch photo graph is a wild ride for those with strong stomachs, I remember seeing works from this series when they were first exhibited and wondering, Is this trip necessary? Here, in the context, of Storr's exhibition. the spirit in which Sherman's photograph was made becomes clear, and its resemblance to the Uffizi fresco Storr uses as a historical referent is uncanny.

It could also be that this series of images from Sherman is benefiting from what Storr spoke of as "the grandfather clause on taboo breaking": the tendency of people to express dismay at the shocking, violent or sexual content of contemporary art, but to look calmly at like-themed paintings by Bosch or Goya, or at anything else that has acquired the patina of history. I wouldn't say that I was initially shocked by Sherman's image, but I tended to discount it as a misstep and trivial--both classic responses of someone who has been disturbed by something. By invoking that grandfather clause, Storr was anticipating negative responses to the exhibition, but I was struck by how unshocking "Disparities and Deformations" really was, and certainly for the crowd that is likely to attend it. (Although I have heard of several children who were led away in tears after encountering Tony Oursler's blobby talking head.) Storr talks about the subversive and confrontational aspects of grotesque imagery, but the work selected is so thoroughly ensconced within a fine-art context that subversiveness is out of the question. Every weekly episode of "South Park" is more likely to offend and twist an audience resistant to its anarchic spirit than Paul McCarthy's cheerfully offensive, gigantic drawing Penis Hat (2001).

Having said that, I must now commend the one artist on view who dares the most unflappable of art-world cognoscenti not to be shocked or offended by her work. Kara Walker is showing her first video, a variation on a Javanese shadow puppet show placed in the phantasmagoric antebellum South that is her usual milieu. The 2004 piece--film and video animation transferred to DVD--is called Testimony: Narrative of a Negress Burdened by Good Fortune, a title that could go on either a moralizing 19th-century text or a work of 18th-century pornography. Walker's animation has elements of both. As shadowy figures move across the screen, we are informed by a text frame that "the whites, longing for fulfillment, have sold their bodies to us." Not surprisingly, in this world turned upside down, things do not work out. The whites come to resent their condition despite the good treatment they receive. Some try to escape and must be hunted down and punished. The imagery becomes increasingly frenzied. A man is sodomized with a broom handle, and in the final moments, a woman foliates a hanged corpse. The conclusion is a stylized but undeniable money shot. Walker transforms history into a nightmare that nevertheless plays for broad comic effects. With this move to video, she has found a new medium to make her narratives even more unsettling.

Narrative, after portraiture, is the second main thread running through the biennial. Two other videos in the exhibition, Bruce Nauman's hour-long series of instructions to a mime, Shit in Your Hat--Head on the Chair (1990), and Jennifer and Kevin McCoy's Horror Chase (2002), a frantic loop of a man fleeing an unseen attacker, set moods rather than tell stories. But several painters invite us to tease narrative out of their imagery. The most fully developed story painting is Inka Essenhigh's Chainlink Fence (2004). This painting is a departure for her. Gone are the high-keyed colors and slick enamel surfaces, and her new figures, while stylized, have more in common with those of Thomas Hart Benton than the near abstractions of her earlier work. In a gray, dreamlike space, a group of men and women struggle to get over or through a chainlink fence. Although they help one another, once across they zoom into the distance leaving what looks like a vapor trail behind them. The urgency of their struggle is convincing, and I found myself pulling for them. The fact that they will always be frozen in this moment lends the painting an unexpected poignancy.

Poignancy is not to be found, however, in John Wesley's contributions to "Disparities and Deformations." Displaying his signature flat drawing style with broad areas of bright color, the pink vacationers in QE2 (1994-95) are up to their chests in wavy black water. The background is green, their hair is white, their sunglasses are blue and their mouths, rimmed with even white teeth, open onto a blackness that is surely a part of their stuffs. The man and his twin female companions are caught up in some horrible variation on the concept of fun, and they seem like the types to fully deserve it.

Satire takes a gentler turn in Lamar Peterson's acrylic-and-gouache works on paper. His affluent African-American families determinedly enjoy the good life despite the fact that in one ease they literally have monkeys albeit sock monkeys--on their backs. A stylish woman in a fur jacket has a Yorkie on a leash and smiles with delight, despite what looks like a trail of dog poop on the floor. It turns out, however, not to be the dog's fault: her son's head is melting and leaving the mess. Peterson's drawings depict a world where appearances must be maintained an any cost.

Although many of the artists here are inspired by popular culture, and a pair of old MAD magazine covers lend their imprimatur to the proceedings by hanging unattributed just inside the gallery door, most evidence of pop culture has been fully transformed into high art by those who use it. Its rawest manifestation is in Mike Kelley's Missing Time Color Exercise (Reversed) No. 3 and 4 (Resonating Gray Rectangles), 2002. That title, with its pitch-perfect inflection of 1970s Conceptualism, sets us up for Kelley's variation on a modernist grid painting. He has created two panels, each divided into 40 rectangles. Most of the rectangles display a copy of Sex to Sexty, a lewd comic from the 1960s and '70s. Where Kelley is missing an issue in his chronology, he fills in with an acrylic monochrome painting, and, true to his title, in each panel there is one gray rectangle. Whether it is truly "resonating" is open to debate. The monochromes cannot really hold their own against all the horny hillbillies, philandering husbands and stacked nurses pictured around them. The images are the unruly id that cavorts beneath what for Kelley is always the thin veneer of civilization and art.

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