CHICAGO — Curator Danny Orendorff’s 19-artist exhibition All Good Things Become Wild and Free at Carthage College’s H.F. Johnson Gallery of Art located in Kenosha, Wisconsin, is a textually rich, difficult-to-describe arrangement. It is a forest plucked from the sewage system of Candyland-meets-Edward-Gorey’s-subconscious, populated by wild, overgrown glitter flowers, anus-like ruptures from neon-spray-painted, inflated, amorphous objects that look like inverted couch cushions from a giant’s living room. Also occupying this crazy world are claymation figures that continuously morph into each other. They make Tim Burton’s Nightmare Before Christmas look like Blue’s Clues.
This hodgepodge exhibition is loosely based on the idea of exploring pretty much anything that could be labeled non-normative and unconventional. Its other purpose is to send a not-so-subtle and completely awesome “f-you” to the elitist, capital-”A” art world by exploring work that would probably be considered “lesser than” by art purists. For some examples of these neglected investigations, see the crafted object, any type of ambiguously political art, and the relationship between craft and affect.
And to be clear, “political” does not mean work by Barbara Kruger or Martha Rosler. In the lengthy catalogue that accompanies this meaty exhibition, Orendorff explains that “political” refers to “determined by gender, sexuality, race, nationality, class position, and location.” All these aspects are politicized because “each facet of our identity determines fundamental, inequitably distributed rights, like access to resources, education, and opportunity.”
Spanning two gallery spaces, All Good Things Become Wild and Free is so sprawling that it needs to be organized into three themes: Criminal Nature, Indescribable Arrangements, and The ‘Ick’ Factor. Or could it be the other way around — that these themes need to coalesce around these works, which are quite literally spilling out of themselves? All Good Things takes after the need for structure found in its fellow giant, queer exhibition The Great Refusal: Taking on New Queer Aesthetics. All Good Things crosses conceptually into The Great Refusal — both exhibitions consider contemporary work that represents an aesthetics-in-flux with roots in feminist and queer art histories.
The first gallery room is packed to excess. Canadian artist Jesse Harrod’s “Frosted Pink Lipstick Smeared All Over His Face” (2010) alludes to queer relationships through the use of one ubiquitous object: the flower. A giant, 20-foot-by-12-foot array of flowers handmade from sequins, fringe, clay, rhinestones, and various fabrics wraps its way around two walls like an overgrown shrubbery. Of course, a flower is more than a flower — it is an offering to the drag queen for which this piece was named, and the Baroque visual display is a form of artificial ornamentation gone berserk. These flowers will never be potted. Watering them would not yield growth; rather, it would kill them, much like water applied to the face of a heavily made-up drag queen.
Chicago-based artists Rebecca Mir, Aay Preston-Myint, and Charlie Vinz’s “ZONE” (2011) presents another sculptural work, but it takes inspiration from theories of postmodern architecture rather than queer culture. The piece is made up of a geometric organization of wooden shapes that can be arranged in as many positions as a Rubik’s cube rotates. The interactive piece suggests new modes of existing in the spatial world.
“ZONE” helps bring a flow into the show, and also serves as a literal seating zone for viewing Claire Arctander’s disgusting-yet-entrancing video work “Everything She Wants” (2011). The looped video shows the artist pouring various liquids into her mouth, including Elmer’s glue (no, it’s not semen), Campbell’s tomato soup (yes, it might be a Warhol reference) and thick, viscous honey (pussy juice, anyone?). She takes as much in her mouth as she can and then allows the liquid to flow out like a geyser slowly bubbling over. Viewers find themselves both engrossed and grossed out.
In the second gallery of this exhibition, Tanya Aguiñiga’s “Soft Rocks and Soft Rock Minis” (2012) and “Donkeys and Chihuahuas” (2012) form a centerpiece installation island in the middle of the room. It gives viewers soft felt rocks covered in multi-colored strings to sit on, perfect for viewing Allison Schulnik’s ghostly claymation video “Mound” (2011) which is projected onto the adjacent wall. Aguiñiga’s second arrangement removes animals traditionally associated with Mexican culture from their natural symbolic habitat, turning them into mass-produced plaster objects.
On the opposite wall, Allison Wade’s oddly poetic array of sculptures explore the marriage of natural and artificial. In “Eventualities” (2012), a branch mounted to the wall juts out, clad in a yellow cuff that looks like it could have been a sock without toes in some past life. A U-shaped ceramic piece forms the bridge between the wooden end of the stick and the purple string attached to the other side. It buckles back onto the wooden branch through a silver carabiner. An obscure cycle is completed, however awkwardly.
All Good Things Become Wild and Free is all about overabundance. It is mired in its own excess, which is reasonable considering that the work alludes to overflowing bodies and individuals who must forge their own identities, niches, and cultures. Despite the three overarching themes, any viewer entering this exhibition is bound to feel overwhelmed, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Seeing the exhibition is at times like emerging into a wild and free world. It is an aesthetic-in-flux, an island Christopher Columbus left untouched. This is uncharted territory.
All Good Things Become Wild and Free runs at the H.F. Johnson Gallery (2001 Alford Drive, Kenosha, Wisconsin) through November 17.