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A Performance Artist Draws with His Teeth

Tony Orrico performing "Prepare the Plane" (2012) at Polyforum Siqueiros, Mexico City (photo by Juan Cano, courtesy Marso Gallery)
Tony Orrico performing “Prepare the Plane” (2012) at Polyforum Siqueiros, Mexico City (photo by Juan Cano, courtesy Marso Gallery)

Tomorrow at noon, visual and performing artist Tony Orrico will sit down at an eight-by-eight-foot sheet of paper and begin to chew. He’ll keep chewing, slowly treating the entire paper with his teeth, for eight and a half hours. The endurance effort — taking place Saturday at Defibrillator in Chicago — is a performance of one of Orrico’s signature pieces, “Prepare the Plane” (2012).

While many artists have made work dealing with the body, it’s safe to say that few share Orrico’s interest in the specific articulation of the human jaw.

“Well, there’s personal backstory in my curiosity about the jaw,” explains Orrico. It started six months into Orrico’s undergraduate dance studies at Illinois State University, when his jaw started dislocating several times a week. “The first time it happened it really shocked me and landed me in the hospital. I couldn’t close my mouth. My chin was against my chest and I was stuck — wide open — for hours.”

The problem, which Orrico attributes to an underlying alignment problem, continued into his graduate work in dance and his first job dancing for choreographer Shen Wei. “My first weekend in New York my jaw locked open for three days,” Orrico says. “I hid in this apartment that I was renting. I had to show up to rehearsal on Monday so I went to the ER on Sunday night.” An ER doctor had to straddle Orrico on a hospital bed and throw his entire body weight into Orrico’s face in order to reset the jaw, a procedure Orrico had to explain to the doctor. It worked. “I went for rehearsal on Monday and I didn’t tell a soul. That was my first day of work in New York.”

Dance had been a creative revelation for Orrico. “I was painting a lot [in college] and instead of working just two-dimensionally I was really excited about a third dimension and addressing the body experientially.” Additionally, he was drawn to the work of postmodern, Judson Church-era dance artists. Says Orrico, “My passion inside of dance is this idea of physics and the body. Postmodernists have worked with [everything from] pedestrian movement to full-on codified technique, but were always working conceptually first, placing the body through systems and structures. And that’s everything that informs my work.” After his time with Shen Wei Dance Arts, Orrico went on to work for Trisha Brown.

To meet the demands of his professional dance career Orrico dove into the relationship between his own mind and body. He overcame his jaw dislocation problem with a series of exercises, or a body “logic” he created, a logic that relied heavily on resetting the body through awareness and symmetry, and using feelings of levitation and suspension. “I’ve seen a lot of doctors, I went to physical therapists,” he says. “Nothing was working for me except these early fundamentals I was discovering in my practice.”

Indeed, symmetry acts a kind of dual muse and processor for Orrico. One of Orrico’s recent films turns an improvised hand dance by Yvonne Rainer into a choreography. Called “Accelerated Image” (2014), the short film features Orrico dancing opposite his wife, Melinda Jean Myers, to an original score by John McGrew. Orrico learned the movement on one hand, then taught it to his other, and had Myers perform the same movements opposite him and in unison.

Tony Orrico performing "Penwald: 2: 8 circles: 8 gestures" at CCCB, Barcelona in 2011 (photo by David Ruano, courtesy the artist)
Tony Orrico performing “Penwald: 2: 8 circles: 8 gestures” at CCCB, Barcelona in 2011. (photo by David Ruano, courtesy the artist)

The body logic practice is something Orrico has developed into a workshop, which he offered at Defibrillator this week ahead of his performance on Saturday. It is deeply rational, he explains, and it informs all of his paintings and drawings. His Penwald series, which began in 2009, marked Orrico’s arrival on the scene as a conceptual artist. Remarking on a Penwald drawing Orrico performed at Dance Theater Workshop in 2010, Wall Street Journal dance critic Robert Greskovic described Orrico as “Leonardo da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man in contemporary, casual clothing, seen from the back, extending his arms in the act of conjuring a vaporous circle out of continuously scrawling black lines.” Watching him perform these drawings and watching the drawings take shape, slowly — and in the movement arts, the power of slowness is harnessed all too rarely — was like witnessing an act of meditation. This is an effect, Orrico says, that comes from the physical practice he uses to prepare and maintain himself during a performance.

Humanism aside, the precision and endurance of the Penwald performances evoke a kind of organic machine. Orrico is no longer dancing professionally and he has what he describes as an “increasingly untrained body.” He says that where his Penwald drawings are about limitation, his Carbon series is about imagination. “It’s like walking from room to room wherever the imagination wants to wander,” he says. And a lot of the work concerns preparing the body as a material and as a tool. It all starts, he says, with “Prepare the Plane.”

Tony Orrico, "Prepare the Plane" (2014) at PPOW Gallery in New York (image courtesy of PPOW Gallery)
Tony Orrico, “Prepare the Plane” (2014) at PPOW Gallery in New York (image courtesy of PPOW Gallery) (click to enlarge)

He has performed this piece twice before. The first time was in Mexico City in 2012. Orrico expected the effort to last about two hours. It took four times that long. The second time he sat down to the piece, in 2014, he said he was “terrified.” “There’s publicity around it. There’s a date, a time, there’s a blank spot on the wall to hang the work when it’s finished. And I have a lot of distractions in my life and I’ve lost touch with my body in a lot of ways. I feel pretty average when I sit down in front of a concept I created three years ago. I feel an on-pouring of fear. And then I go.” (In the end it took him almost exactly as long to complete the piece the second time around.)

He says that if the need to get up — for water, to go to the bathroom, or just for a break — becomes overwhelming, that’s when the piece will end. “I want to take a body, a piece of paper, and a task and just see how long it can go and what the visual effects of that are.”

Tony Orrico performs “Prepare the Plane” at Defibrillator (1453 West Chicago Avenue, Chicago, Illinois) on Saturday, October 3, from noon to 8pm. The performance will be followed by a talk and reception.

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