This is the eighth issue of Breakout Artists, our annual selection of Chicago’s best emerging visual artists. This year is the first time that the Breakout Artists cover story includes an exhibition component, and since the issue always coincides with Art Chicago, it fits that our artists are showing in the fair. In years past we’ve easily showcased artists with performative and community-based projects. This year, the exhibition gives us the opportunity to focus solely on artists who are strong image and object makers, and who are committed to representing our contemporary moment through a visual idiom.
Post-nature, we’ll have pictures—pictures to commemorate nature, its gutted woods and faded flowers, the sinking sea and ashen leaves. Stephen Eichhorn is working well ahead of this endpoint, and has been stockpiling images of nature for several years. His collages of nature, made from printed representations of nature, recombine plants, flowers and leaves into lush bushels and arrangements. Each collage is carefully presented against a white or black background. These memoriams are not bleak or cautionary, but celebratory, even formal, as if tended by a bonsai expert. Eichhorn’s orchid wreaths may be tinged with a little melancholy, but the language of flowers permits this. Besides, beauty is all the more powerful when gilded with longing, and what flower isn’t weighed down by the danger of its own demise?
Stephen Eichhorn’s work has been shown in nature-themed exhibitions (“The Leaf and the Page,” Illinois State Museum, 2009; “Fool’s Paradise,” Betty Rymer Gallery, 2006) and solo exhibitions (“House Plants,” Cairo Gallery, 2008; “Tristes Tropiques,” Bucket Rider Gallery, 2008).
Montgomery Perry Smith invites viewers to peer inside the secret cavities that pock his sculptural objects. Once inside, you may find that your eye is reflected by a mirror from the back of a toothy mouth hole, or you may discover a desiccated insect pinned to a flower’s nucleus. That’s narcissism and mating, respectively. Unlike Lee Bontecou’s malicious gaping holes made fifty years ago, Smith’s forms welcome entry. Those curious about exploring interstitial spaces are rewarded, with buried treasure, for diving in. Kink addicted and constructed from lace or leather, felt and fake daisies, the works’ titles are explicit: “Like a Virgin” is a wreath of frilly lace beneath a plastic dome. Then there’s “Bottom Feeder,” “Creamy,” “Brown Eye,” and “Pearl Necklace.” Many of Smith’s sculptures hang on the wall. They are trophies for desire conquered.
Ryan Travis Christian describes his graphite drawings as Ub Iwerks—the iconic 1930s Disney animator—“post bong session,” although post bomb is more like it. Christian shreds cartoonish bodily forms through an apocalyptic haze, and the effect is beautiful and dark and creepy as hell. Like any good animator, he presents his characters as everyman, or no one, or the fool, or the bleakness that gathers in the muck of our souls, fingering the goo of wrecked memories. These figures reveal themselves piecemeal, behind explosions, grinning stupidly within columns of ash, and splattered across eternity’s windshield.
Christian’s outlook isn’t always bleak, even though the work benefits from such doomsday mongering. In “I Am Tree,” the fool-faced clown is a millisecond away from crashing his car into a tree. This clown is Jackson Pollock, who famously declared, “I am nature.” Upon impact, he will be dead from meeting nature, the tree, head on. It’s nature vs. nature. Irony comes like a blow to the head, with stars shooting out the other side.
Ryan Travis Christian is a curator as well as an artist. He interviews artists on the website Fecal Face, and provokes unique responses when asking his subjects, for instance, to spontaneously invent something.
“Once the figures are present,” writes Rachel Niffenegger of her sculptural busts, “many are brutally beaten.” All her sculpture heads are bandaged with masking tape, like mummies or burn victims, but all the figures in her drawings have their flesh bared, and their horror revealed. These faces are pulled from a muck of material, a soup of watercolor and gouache on paper. Then, features such as eyes and teeth are divined from the mess, but that’s where the artist stops. Skin, eyelids and lips are not added. Coverless teeth and eyes peer out from raw red faces. Later, Niffenegger heightens the phantasmagoric effect with smoke and candle ash.
The shocking beauty of these undead figures—their gorgeous shimmery surfaces and iridescent colors—belies their ghastliness. Flesh-eating diseases, burn traumas, zombies and torture are familiar death fantasies in contemporary culture—despite our youth obsession. Rachel Niffenegger’s victims do not suffer such specific tragedies, but by inheriting the romantic gloom of Marlene Dumas and Wangechi Mutu, she gives us an incentive to look at horror in the face. The reward is complicit satisfaction with our own demise.
“I had these baguettes,” said Jessica Labatte, pointing to the loaves in her photograph, “and then I realized oh, I need a carrot.” Such tangential streams of consciousness are common in her photographs. The leap from baguette to carrot reflects her taste for visual puns as a constructive element. Combined, the puns produce a thematic narrative in each work. In “The Internet,” googly eyes and absurdly warty gourds peer out from a web of detritus, electrical cords and silly string. In another work, a celebration has been gutted, and party paraphernalia stains a mattress and multicolored ribbons drip like gore. The picture is titled “The Economy.” The destructed still-lifes recall Laura Letinsky’s photographic vanitas, but with titles like “The Internet” and “The Economy,” Labatte is teasing out some of the larger, more encompassing mysteries of life.
“We are wastrels,” wrote Jessica Stockholder, in 2005, of her own artistic practice. Like Stockholder, Labatte frees alleyway objects and garish Dollar Store junk from their common associations. She uses color to animate and extend their edges. “Can you transcend the junk?” asked Labatte. Unlike Stockholder, though, Labatte’s finished objects are photographs, not sculptural installations. Her temporary studio set-ups are carted away after the photo is shot. She makes use of illusionistic techniques—all produced in the studio, not the computer—to subtly jar a viewer’s eye beyond the junk, and into the realm of heightened looking, if not to enjoy these brief pleasures, then to dwell on their, and our, brevity.
Elijah Burgher rubs subversion against subversion—that is, his pictures celebrate the tiny subculture of homoerotic witchcraft cults. Burgher draws imagery from covert historical and contemporary men’s clubs where rituals have been performed in the woods, sometimes nakedly, sometimes fantastically, sometimes real, like the recent ceremonies headed by queer art hero AA Bronson. There, participants invoked the spirits of the gay dead. These small communities thrive on the power of their ability to organize myths through a sense of group identity. They emerged in Weimar Germany, and in punk clubs, and in forest clearings. Burgher pushes the ritual connotations to some extreme ends, like sacrifice and bloodletting, not to shock viewers but to gain newly energized queer symbols. He calls this an “ecstatic fraternity.”
Another tool in Burgher’s kit are sigils. These appear as straightforward geometric abstractions, but they are also magical insignia or charms. They are crafted from specific desires, expressed as sentences. The artist removes the vowels and then arranges the consonants into a pictorial form, and formalizes the composition with color. The desire is hidden in the abstraction, accessible to viewers only as a formal construction. But for the sigil’s maker, the desire contained within can be activated by intense gazing during an orgasm or other climactic experience. “Whenever I look at an artwork,” says Burgher, “I like to ask what kind of spell is it casting.”
Betsy Odom recently competed on a woman’s softball team, partly undercover to research her latest series of sports-themed objects. “It was a strange good time,” says Odom. Despite being “untalented and terribly unathletic,” she confessed, the fruit of her play is wonderfully fresh, and could usher in a new dawn of sports couture. Her leather mitt is hand-tooled with delicate filigree designs. A crumpled hoodie is carved from cork. A footballer’s shoulder pads are adorned with ribbon and stamped leather. Mouth guards, tube socks, wristbands and leather, summer camp secrets and Girl Scout pride, sausages and Coors—these are the manifest objects of lesbian culture, accentuated with Betsy’s detailed handiwork and flair for Middle American craft. In Chicago, where sports fetishism hits a fever pitch, Odom’s objects are perfectly situated.
Much of Betsy Odom’s art reflects how subcultures appropriate symbols from the procession of mainstream culture. For subcultures, subversion is key, but it exists in our world even without radical intervention. Take Caster Semenya, the South African runner whose hermaphroditism was publicly revealed last year. Semenya is the subject of a heroic drawing by Odom. In another new body of work, Odom pushes lesbian subculture accoutrement into the realm of marriage registry loot, where female desire is perfectly situated. “I’m trying to use the rainbow in the straightest way I know,” says Odom.
Matt Davis begins with a horrible sort of image, like fetal skulls, the wrecked teeth of a meth addict, and soldier obituary headshots, which are found on the Internet—that “flea market of availability,” he calls it—and then pulls out and warps the image’s material and associative toxins until they are crowded on the surface. He scratches the image, burns it, peels it chemically, and adorns it with bright and shiny enamel pustules, candy, cat litter, varnish, toilet paper and more. These deformations compound whatever abjectness was present before his intervention, and yet Davis has a way of cultivating a secret, shameful prettiness in such base imagery. In Umberto Eco’s picture book, “On Ugliness,” most artistic depictions of the vile and the disgusting throughout art history can’t help but to make ugliness visually attractive. So, too, does Davis stimulate the visual pleasure gag reflex.
Matt Davis often imbues horror with a dose of humor. Rotted meth addicts’ teeth are collaged into the shape of a soaring eagle so that two Middle American icons are married. In his latest series, the faces of deceased soldiers are appropriated, but their identities are not distinguishable. They peer out from the ink drips and splotches that Davis has bled with chemicals and a brush. They are destroyed, again, but now blaze like sunlight through a rose window.
Published in Newcity (April 28, 2010)