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Sex, Death and Nuance

This weekend I found myself in a hot tub with a handful of musicians and artists. The conversation turned to art theory.

“Art can be reduced to three things,” posited A. “Sex, death and color.”

“What about texture?” B countered.

“No, texture is still about sex.” General agreement on this point.

“But sex and death are arguably the same thing," A retorts. "So it’s just sex and color.”

Maybe my brain was overheated, but this seemed reasonable.

“My favorite art is sex with a good pun,” A said.
 
Later, I checked to make sure I recalled our conclusions correctly.

“I’d actually amend it to be sex, death and nuance,” A said. “Color is a subcategory of nuance.”

So are puns, I suppose.

I decided this formula was good enough a template as any for reviewing some of the work I saw this week.

SEX
Right out the gate, Izzie Klingels’ solo show Playing Games at M.I.A. Gallery unequivocally tackles the glittering, sublimated aspects of sex.

Klingels has filled the gallery with every kind of the work she does: video, prints, paintings, drawings. And wallpaper: One long wall is lacquered in eye-popping red. It pulses with jewel-crusted snakes coming and going out of slits—perfect for any boudoir or little girl's room.

Throughout the gallery, ink drawings made of thousands of miniscule pen pricks scintillate darkly. Sexy, spike-heeled stilettos are a recurring mantra. A drawing called Make Your Own Luck offers the prettiest noose made of creeping flowers and coiling tendrils; it dangles over a pile of stardust. In a watercolor painting, a pair of sparkling rock candy shoes look like they've melted onto the paper.

The shoe doesn’t always fit. In one drawing, a ruby red heel is too spacious for a small, arched foot, its girlish ankles defined by two crescent slivers.

A vague sense of feminine anxiety cuts through Klingels' chilly glamor. For instance, Portrait of Wendy Bevan with Snake. In it, the eponymous photographer Wendy Bevan is as dulcet and doe-eyed as a silent film star with pin curled hair and glossy, kohl-rimmed eyes. She cups her cheek with one scarab-jeweled hand while gazing into the snake’s unlocked jaws. A white thread tethers her slender wrist to the serpent’s equally slender neck. The bracelet is a noose, the big, writhing mass a Gordian ouroboros. You can’t tell where the snake ends and the woman begins.

The technical rigor of Klingels’ work, built of layers of microscopic pointillism and dense hatching, is breathtaking. It calls to mind the compact pen and ink drawings of Austrian artist Alfred Kubin, who with similar gusto and painstaking execution delved headlong into Freudian nightmares and psychosexual phantasmagoria. But while Kubin was exorcising the nightmares, Klingels welcomes them with a wink and smile. She is, after all, playing games.

DEATH
At Gallery 4Culture, Robin Crookall’s large scale photographs of very tiny things evoke a curious, other-worldly whiff of death. In Crookall's microcosm, giant squids battle giant whales to the death. The body of a swan and a fawn are splayed over a dining room table, a cornucopia of fuzzy little fruit and gourds and flowers strewn recklessly around. One image captures a taxidermied red fox crouching in a doorway. He peers into an abandoned room dappled with melancholy, slatted light.

All of Crookall’s microscopic tableaux are made using cardboard, Sculpey and other humble materials. When she blows them up to big prints, the scale is deliciously confused. Amid otherwise convincing trompe l'oeil, the oversize, ribbed corrugation of cardboard looks funny. Delicate blinds shade the windows, but they’re warped and curvy, as though they’ve melted in the sun.

If you ever go to the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, you can view a handful of elaborate, monster dollhouses (six or so feet high) that were maintained by wealthy, Dutch women in the 17th century. They weren’t playthings; they were a very serious hobby.

Manipulating dollhouses and miniature worlds is something most little girls do. It conditions little girls to manage big-girl household affairs. Constructing miniature simulacra as adults—like the Dutch housewives or Crookall—is something different. Gone is the innocence of the plaything. Construction is about meticulous control of environment and spectacle, and the worker in miniature becomes a demiurge (not quite God, but close). She makes and maintains a finite, physical world. Crookall’s finite world happens to be a menagerie of stuffed specimins engaged with absurd and bleak domestic and institutional dioramas.

If her world waxes a little gloomy and mysterious, it's also eerily cute.

COLOR (AND A LITTLE DEATH)
At SOIL there’s a show about wizards in the main gallery. Or at least ostensibly about the relationship between mysticism and art. WIZARD BUSINESS presents a smattering of mostly mixed-media work by Denton Crawford, Elizabeth Kleene and Justin Plakas. The paintings are bright and bursting with color (hot pink and robust greens and supernova violets!) and what may or may not be actual sacred geometries. Wizardry and cheery esoterica are pretty much on par with witches and pop satanism when it comes to painful topicality. But this show doesn't seem to take itself too seriously. It’s all fun and games—until someone loses an eye with an errant magic wand.

In the backspace at SOIL, Iole Alessandrini’s Error 404: Site not Found is a study in futility, and it tackles Steve Jobs, God, creation, failed beauty and scientific error all at once with Alessandrini’s convivial, geeky wit.

A shiny, male dummy made from white duct tape rests in a seat. He’s got an off-putting pony tail and toes that are a little too puffy. The figure is listlessly transfixed in front of a computer screen that unfolds an anticlimactic drama: a wobbling, hand-shaped cursor that jiggles between the near-touching hands of Michelangelo’s Creation of Adam. Nothing happens. Nothing’s there. The moment of creation is a dud. An error. A pun.

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