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Doreen Garner‘s sculptures vividly evoke the violence done to black women’s bodies in the name of science and beauty. In concurrent exhibitions at the Lower East Side gallery Essex Flowers and the Bronx public garden and art center Wave Hill, she has set uncomfortably visceral bits of bodies — flaps of skin, layers of fat, braids, parts of faces, unidentifiable bits of hairy tissue — in installations that alternatively evoke a surgeon’s operating room, an anthropological museum’s display case, and a meatpacking facility. By drawing comparisons between white scientists’ experiments on black men and women throughout modern medical history, the persistent devaluing of all but Western European standards of beauty, and racist pseudo-scientific systems like eugenics and phrenology, Garner invests these fragments of bodies with enormous symbolic power. By crafting her sculptures from uncomfortably lifelike materials — including a type of silicone used in special effects makeup, prosthetics, and sex toys — she gives visceral force to these weighty works. Her art is not for the squeamish.
Garner’s exhibition at Essex Flowers, Removing the Veil: Vanity as Material for Incision, is especially affecting. True to the exhibition’s title, cutting and collaging are the dominant modes of making on view here, from the two portraits of sorts assembled from sliced-up beauty magazines and anatomy books set in dissection trays, to the gory silicone sculptures of slashed and punctured faces. The installation is incredibly sparse, and all the more powerful for it; gone are the maximalist elements of Garner’s past installations and sculptures, which tended to provoke a mix of revulsion and sensual allure. Here, the verisimilitude of the fleshy textures and tones can make the works almost painful to look at. The stitched, stapled, and hooked together bits of skin will get under yours and make it crawl. The exhibition’s centerpiece — a hanging sculpture in which a grotesque hybrid of a dozen cut-up and bejeweled silicone faces is suspended from meat hooks inside a steel cube — pushes the discomfort to an extreme. As with the figures in the dissection tray collages, which gaze out at us from their shallow pools of silicone, the difficult act of looking at the sculpture (“Suspension,” 2016) underlines the privileged position of the (historically white and male) viewer. The exhibition at Essex Flowers makes you acutely aware of the act of looking and the power dynamics that are embedded in it.
The effects of institutionalized racism and violence, which explode off the wall in Removing the Veil, are articulated in a much quieter form in Garner’s Wave Hill project, Flora: Viscera. The installation consists of a display case containing over a dozen small silicone sculptures that resemble the leftovers of extreme cosmetic surgery interventions. Laid out on light blue cloth and punctuated with medical tools, these approximations of fat, flesh, hair, and skin occasionally sprout leaves or mimic the shapes of branches; a few are embedded with shiny pearls. In Wave Hill’s airy sun room gallery, the installation reads as less extremely grotesque than the pieces at Essex Flowers. To the casual viewer, Flora: Viscera — despite the strong hint in its title — could be read as a gooey formal exploration of the strange middle ground where human and botanic textures and forms become difficult to distinguish. But for anyone taking the time to examine the sinewy, scarred, flayed, bloodied, and torn forms of the glistening sculptures, it will be clear that Garner is digging into very deep-rooted systems of violence and trauma.
Doreen Garner’s Removing the Veil: Vanity as Material for Incision continues at Essex Flowers (19 Monroe Street, Lower East Side, Manhattan) through October 16. Flora: Viscera continues in the Sunroom Project Space at Wave Hill (West 249th Street and Independence Avenue, Riverdale, Bronx) through October 23.
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