Monica Cook is part alchemist, part Dr. Frankenstein. Her coral-hued sculptures of creatures, vehicles, and objects that make up an alternate world populated by furry, silicone critters with gooey skins and disco ball innards are made from the basest of materials: traffic cones, telephone cords, a shattered car windshield, plastic bottles, rubber nipples, fake vegetables, animal fur. But in her hands, they become precious artifacts rich with alluring details and thrum with inner life. Not only does she turn the discarded flotsam of contemporary existence into superb objects, but Cook then brings those vivid assemblages to life through stop-motion animation.
Her latest video, the nine-minute-long “Milk Tooth” (2016), is the centerpiece of her small but fulsome exhibition at Postmasters Gallery, Milk. Most of the objects that appear in the short are sculptures from Cook’s previous solo show at the gallery, Milk Fruit (2013). The narrative of “Milk Tooth” unfolds on split screens, with one side chronicling the efforts of a male humanoid (Valentino) to reach and revive the object of his affections, the female figure (Tish) on the other screen. She has gone into a deep slumber after sacrificing a pig-like creature in order to retrieve from one of the ears of corn in its belly a new silver tooth for Valentino. To repay the gesture, he washes Tish’s feet in a basin of milk extracted from the udders of a cow corpse that she brings back to life. A half-maternal, half-sexual exchange of milky fluids between Tish and Valentino results in the laying of a fertilized egg.
I am ascribing causation and intent to the events in the video because I’ve read the synopsis on the exhibition’s web page, but as I sat in the gallery watching and re-watching “Milk Tooth,” the inner logic of its narrative often escaped me. I picked up some details, like that Tish and Valentino sometimes occupy the same spaces but in different dimensions, sort of like the ‘upside-down‘ in Stranger Things. And that the lifeblood of this alternate reality is milk, which bubbles up repeatedly from the bodies of animals or spurts out of seemingly lifeless objects. But I missed the piece’s generally optimistic tone — possibly because of its dystopian, sci-fi aesthetic and gloomy lighting. Neither was it clear to me that Valentino’s detachable, remote-controlled, snake-meets-earthworm-meets-Chestbuster phallus, which passes between dimensions to bite Tish, was a force of good and not a reference to the countless paintings of Cleopatra’s death by snake.
The video’s ambiguity and inscrutability never struck me as a problem, but rather more of a challenge to viewers to see past the strangeness of the world Cook has constructed and understand the complexities of her characters. It reminded me of the work of Allison Schulnik, who also makes superb objects (quasi-sculptural paintings) that depict strange characters inhabiting alternate worlds; both artists are at their strongest when they use stop-motion animation to bring their lively figures to enigmatic life.
In addition to the video, Milk includes a spectacular sculpture that, one can only hope, will appear in a future video. (There is also a so-so painting and a shelf full of barnacle-encrusted bottle sculptures and other small props from “Milk Tooth,” which look like something Haim Steinbach might have made if he were a merman.) “The Receiver” (2016) is a Zodiac dinghy sheathed in mirror tiles and sprouting coral formations. It’s installed tilted slightly upward, as if it’s going over a wave, revealing an underside of rubber nipples and mirrored stalactites. On either side of the small watercraft, an embedded traffic cone offers a glimpse of the sculpture’s dim innards. As is, it’s an instantly engaging and visually awesome sculpture. With a pair of Cook’s humanoid characters steering it through a flock of post-apocalyptic birds, it would be unstoppable.
Monica Cook: Milk continues at Postmasters Gallery (54 Franklin Street, Tribeca, Manhattan) through January 28.
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