Art

Art that Evokes the Uncanny Body

The works in Stranger Things at Outpost Artists Resources highlight the high stakes of our attitudes toward human bodies.

Jes Fan, "Disposed to Add" (2017), silicone (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)
Jes Fan, “(discarded objects) for Disposed to Add” (2017), silicone (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)

Visitors entering Outpost Artists Resources in Ridgewood will first come across a ceramic bathtub placed atop a wooden dolly. Inside, a tangle of ribbed, flesh-toned silicone tubes steeps in a bath of clear liquid. The work “(discarded objects) for Disposed to Add” (2017) — by turns evocative of umbilical cords, industrial hoses, intestinal canals, and a den of snakes — is by Jes Fan, one of eight artists featured in a group exhibition curated by artist Doreen Garner. Titled Stranger Things, the show is loosely predicated on notions of the uncanny, asserting that the pieces on view (like Fan’s synthetic coils) ground familiar references to the body in foreign and unsettling contexts. The 19 works included — which range from sculpture and painting to video and photography — harmonize in this register, but isolated readings reveal distinct anxieties that also operate independently of the overarching theme.

On wall: Kenya (Robinson), "Circassian Gothic" (2016), synthetic hair, plastic, metal, cut aquarium tubing and cultivator; on floor: Kenya (Robinson), "Reclining Blue" (2016), synthetic hair, plastic, metal, cut cocktail straws
On wall: Kenya (Robinson), “Circassian Gothic” (2016), synthetic hair, plastic, metal, cut aquarium tubing and cultivator; on floor: Kenya (Robinson), “Reclining Blue” (2016), synthetic hair, plastic, metal, cut cocktail straws

The de facto centerpiece of the exhibition is Erik Ferguson’s video piece, “Untitled Video Compilation” (2017), which stars an animated cast of fleshy orifices expelling lumps of delicate tissue, skinned phalluses dangling aloft, and unidentifiable creatures swelling and squirming. Stripped of their integumentary systems (skin, hair, and various other external organs), these amorphous subjects indiscriminately repel, endear, or both, depending on the viewer’s disposition. Connecting with these characters becomes a matter of looking past the surface to see interior markers of subjectivity — a prompt that carries over to the surrounding works. Tamara Santibañez’s grisaille landscapes, two of which flank Ferguson’s video piece, support this reading. Both paintings depict the artist’s leather jacket in sensuous detail, and belong to a series that Santibañez describes in her artist statement as “a form of self-portraiture.” Here, the artist considers the object, and her intimate relationship with it, as a viable surrogate for representing herself.

Tamara Santibañez, "Landscape III (Isthmus)" (2016), oil on canvas, 71 x 36 in
Tamara Santibañez, “Landscape III (Isthmus)” (2016), oil on canvas, 71 x 36 in

Though many of the works in Stranger Things appeal to the universal, they aren’t entirely deprived of the specific. Several of the artists clearly reflect on and react to the constraints imposed on their bodies. Kenya (Robinson), for instance, rejects the devaluing of black hair by staging sculptures that present its diametrical opposite. For instance, “Circassian Gothic” (2016) is a humorous, two-part work that features a basic hoe mounted on the gallery wall beside a mop made with straight blonde hair (or what the artist describes in the exhibition catalogue as the “hair of caucasia”). Nakeya Brown and Elliott Jerome Brown Jr., meanwhile, expand representations of subjectivity through photography. Brown’s series, If Nostalgia Were Colored Brown, captures still lifes of objects — pastel-hued hairdryers, vintage album covers — that are charged with cultural significance. Brown Jr.’s photographs, like “Devin in Red Socks” (2016) — which depicts a person turned away from the camera who is further obscured by a white towel held up as a kind of screen — create a calculated distance between the viewer’s gaze and the subjects pictured.

Doreen Garner, "Untitled: Bureau" (2017), hair weave, bureau
Doreen Garner, “Untitled: Bureau” (2017), hair weave, bureau

The exhibition is bookended by Fan’s sculpture and one of Garner’s own, completing its continuum of works grappling with the dissonance between internal and external manifestations of identity — and, perhaps more importantly, the systemic perceptions of people who look or dress certain ways. Where Fan’s piece evokes an internal apparatus made visible, Garner’s “Untitled Bureau” (2017), a wooden dresser containing hair weaves cascading from five open drawers, imagines the inverse: a specific physical characteristic, black hair, tucked away, trapped, and repressed. These two works, and the pieces between them, are united by a shared impetus to convey individuated takes on inner experience. But, taken together, the works in the show converge on the painful conclusion that some bodies are made to endure far stranger horrors than others.

Stranger Things continues at Outpost Artists Resources (1665 Norman Street, Ridgewood, Queens) through July 9.

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