2.22 / Review

From Chicago: Mouthing (The Sentient Limb)

By Randall Miller August 1, 2011

Mouthing (The Sentient Limb), a group show at Chicago’s Hyde Park Art Center, strives to utilize the phenomenological potential of art, the place where knowledge and awareness are experienced through sensory perception rather than objective inquiry. Organized around the idea of the “phantom limb,” a phrase used to describe lingering sensation from an amputated appendage, curator Kelly Kaczynski’s attempt to create a high-minded, sensually rich investigation into the mysterious corners of psychic dissonance is grossly underserved by the art presented. From piece to piece, I found it difficult to meet the artists on their terms and experience the work as it was intended.

What could possibly be an older debate within the history of art than the contest between reason and emotion? If Mouthing is meant as a polemical statement for the cause of sensation, or even as a milder testimonial to the peculiar power of human feeling, then certain pieces by the exhibition’s thirteen artists verge on self-parody through weak or dull execution.

Cameron Crawford’s installation in /blind /stand. (2009) artificially heats a small private gallery within the otherwise air-conditioned halls of the Art Center. Crawford’s warm room may have seemed like an unusual feat were it not for the curiously decorated twenty-eight-by-thirty-six-by-eight-inch white aluminum box with an extension cord streaming out of it that is placed against the room’s interior wall. It’s difficult to parse Crawford’s intentions here. Is the climate of the room meant to have an uncanny effect upon those experiencing it? If so, why make the heat source so conspicuous? Though I don’t know what is in the mystery box, I would hazard a guess that it is some sort of small appliance that uses electricity and generates heat. Adorned with prominent rivets and stylized radiation panels, the box itself is hardly interesting enough to command its position as the primary focal point within the installation. The obviousness of the piece could, perhaps, be interpreted as an ironic statement in which in /blind /stand. challenges the experiential promise of illusory art. But given the thesis of the show, this interpretation is likely to be unintentional.

Crawford is not the only artist plagued by dubious objectives. Julia Klein’s fragmented limb sculptures teeter between rudimentary ritualistic objects and failed assignments from

Cameron Crawford. in /blind /stand., 2009; primed, painted and smudged aluminum, electrical parts, extension cord; 28 x 36 x 10 in. Courtesy of the Artist and the Hyde Park Art Center, Chicago.

Mouthing (The Sentient Limb), installation view, Hyde Park Art Center, 2011. Front: Yun Jeong Hong, AntiOedipus, 2010. Back: Julia Klein, Legs (Good Old P.A.), 2010. On wall: Melanie Schiff, Ghost, 2010. Courtesy of the Hyde Park Art Center, Chicago.

Sculpture 101. Nose (2011) is a crude blue and brown nose pyramid made of clay and glue, while Legs (Good Old P.A.) (2010), made from two-by-fours, resembles two splayed legs resting against the wall. Here, ubiquitous materials like painted clay, tape, and wood are incapable of transcending themselves.

Negligible material use also detracts from Dani Leventhal’s Untitled (Beaver) (2010). Waxy blood and other viscera splashed across a piece of art store–quality drawing paper are the gruesome remnants of a violent act—the skinning of a beaver. Again, the use of materials here subverts the potential for a broader reading. The paper and the small beaver drawing rendered over the bloodstain betray hints of anxiety in the conception of the piece. Of all the things that could have been used as a substrate, why drawing paper? A drop cloth, butcher paper, or any number of other surfaces could have given the piece the quality of a ready-made object. Regardless of the material, the final result would have been understood as a drawing and also as something more than a gallery-ready art piece. On the paper, it is only a drawing. Leventhal seems concerned that without traditional materials, the piece might not be accepted as art. Perhaps he is also hopeful that his choice of materials will grant him artistic license to dull the ethical controversy behind the act of skinning an animal. With greater conviction, the artist’s work could have become something more than a half-hearted provocation.

Thankfully, a small handful of pieces offer some hope. Melanie Schiff’s Ghost (2010) is easily one of the best works in the show. Her melancholy black-and-white image of a slightly blurred wind chime suggests the relationship between sound and memory. To view Schiff’s picture is to be transported beyond the gallery walls to a windy back porch, or some other place from a viewer’s past where a distinct emotional experience was accompanied by softly clinking metal. David Gracie’s photorealistic oil painting Ice Cube (2011) also bridges the gap between sensory perception and cognitive awareness. Similar to sixteenth-century still-life paintings of flower arrangements, Gracie’s unmelted ice cube is a portrait of temporality. Erin O’Brien’s drawing Mountain (head) (2010) has an unassuming, whimsical quality capable of marrying states of mind to features within the landscape or dreamscape. At the very least, these three pieces illustrate the potential of art driven by sensory perception.

But a couple of well-executed pieces cannot save an entire show. I left the gallery with many questions. Unfortunately, they were more about the reasoning behind ill-conceived art pieces than the nature of human experience.



Mouthing (The Sentient Limb) is on view at the Hyde Park Art Center, in Chicago, through October 16, 2011.

Comments ShowHide