CHICAGO — I’ve been thinking about growing up as a first-generation Taiwanese American in suburban San Diego. I left for school and came back smug, telling my family the places I’d been, the people I’d met, the art I’d seen — and became frustrated when they didn’t care or couldn’t understand. I always wanted to forget that San Diego suburb, and forget those Asian American traditions that I thought stifled one’s inability to comprehend the culture and politics of art. But SEX, an exhibition in one of those places I’ve been since I left San Diego — Chicago’s Lawrence & Clark gallery — features works that struck me as laughably brash before they slowly revealed their intimacy, pulling the rug out from under my feet. It showed me that the Taiwanese American bubble of an upbringing I had tried so hard to leave behind actually gave me the ground to think about art, that art only means as much as you can bring to it, and that I shouldn’t be so quick to dismiss my identity.
SEX is an exhibition that doesn’t follow the structure of one, but that’s because Lawrence & Clark is a gallery that doesn’t adhere to the conventional model either. The art exhibited is all from the collection of Chicago-based graphic designer and gallerist Jason Pickleman, who has been collecting the work of emerging and established artists, most with ties to Chicago, for the last 30 years. SEX changed frequently during my visits over the summer — pieces were moved, added, and taken out; and walls were repainted different colors. Pickleman hangs works salon-style and lets them spill off the walls onto the floor, giving the space an instinctive, stimulating, but snug atmosphere that encourages visitors to get closer and gradually notice the details and connections in and between works.
SEX came together when Pickleman decided to re-create the titular bold, hot pink sign that hung above Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood’s King’s Road boutique in the mid 1970s, which he first saw in a magazine as a teenager in suburban Chicago. In the gallery, the letters look like they might fall at any minute; vinyl is wrapped tight around beckoning bulges and curves sculpted out of MDF. “SEX” shows how text, simply read or uttered, is sounded out and thus becomes physical and sensual. But the piece isn’t sordid or gratuitous; instead, it boldly proclaims and subverts taboo with punk flair.
The same audacity is present in Puppies Puppies’s “Spaghetti and Condoms” (2015), a sculpture made up of a narrow, rectangular, mirrored pedestal on which a can of Chef Boyardee canned spaghetti and two boxes of Trojan condoms sit. The work is based on an image of a spaghetti-filled condom that strangely went viral on Tumblr in 2014. To write critically or poetically about a mesmerizingly disgusting internet trend seems absurd, but maybe Puppies Puppies appears to have made this piece specifically for this reason: to make art criticism and art history look just a little contrived. The mirrored stand almost disappears as it pulls you in and reflects the space and objects immediately around it. It’s incredibly hard to take a photo of the sculpture without catching a reflection of yourself in it. Normally, by the standards of today’s selfie-focused art, that would be a big plus. But Puppies Puppies wryly satirizes selfie culture by highlighting a viral image too gross, embarrassing, and fetishized to want to be in a photo with.
Ultimately, “Spaghetti and Condoms” is smart in its subversion. The sculpture slowly reveals itself to be visually simple and beautiful. The royal blue in the Chef Boyardee logo matches the blue on the boxes of Trojans, and the stacked forms appear minimal and confident. I visited on the day Pickleman decided to “finish” the piece by spooning the spaghetti into a condom, and the resulting curved, bloated shape was oddly elegant and restrained. Puppies Puppies asks viewers to suspend their initial disbelief, and questions why we might be so quick to discount the sometimes irrational allure of low or popular culture, while giving art more credibility because it is labeled as such.
Across the gallery, Sam Lipp’s painting “Free Hospitals” (2015) quietly but assertively balances out “Spaghetti and Condoms” with an equal but opposite reaction. It’s a medium-sized painting with red, green, blue, and black rectangular forms that waver in each corner, with the words “Free Hospitals” placed between them. “Free Hospitals” isn’t even proclaimed — the painting doesn’t read “We should have,” or “There need to be” free hospitals; rather, the text is stated plainly. Each rectangle is mottled with the three other colors in the work; little specks of paint stand up ever so slightly, like the polyester on a paint roller left out to dry. The shapes and words hover beneath this thin, gauzy sheen of paint that appears rough and abrasive — like you’d skin your knee on the surface if you fell on it. “Free Hospitals” appears sad and gentle at first, but is actually quite cutting, especially when the simple idea of “Free Hospitals” — ie. basic health care — seems so far out of reach.
“Free Hospitals” works in layers, first eliciting a gentle appreciation that builds into a devastating, melancholic wash. It resonates with the rest of the work in SEX, which seems to focus on the subtle intimacy that can be drawn out of art. In this regard, Cameron Clayborn’s sculpture “Coagulate 1” (2017) is patient, proud, and sensual, but never vulgar. “Coagulate 1” features 10 dark brown, tan, and gray leather and felt sacks in varying heights in front of a mint green wall. Some forms stand erect, some fall limply, some are rolled over and scrunched into each other, but they all touch, the wrinkled leather and soft felt rubbing up against each other. Visible stitching crawls up the sides of these carefully handmade forms, and some are sealed at their tops with sharp, rusted, threatening metal clamps.
The rest of the works in SEX likewise mix humor and thoughtful critique. If much of modernism has been about macho male bravado, Matt Stole dismantles its ego with “Modernist Phallus” (2005), a drawing of just those words, austerely inscribed in pencil on an Art Institute of Chicago letterhead, ultimately erasable. Sterling Lawrence’s “Casting Elbows” (2015) features an abstract, awkwardly-shaped, and flesh-colored body part — is it a sex toy? — protruding from a small, burnished metal square. Out of any clear context, the elbow looks curiously uncomfortable and unsexy.
Several years ago, I would have ignored SEX. I would have been annoyed by the work, likely because of my Asian upbringing, which championed a serious, reticent, and demure work ethic above all else. There was no time for brashness, or silliness — my dad certainly didn’t see the point 35 years ago when he moved to San Diego alone to go to school, nor does he see it now, waking up at 6am six days a week to open up the family print shop. Though my parents did not and still do not understand the work I’m interested in, they support me the best they can. Indeed, if growing up Taiwanese American has taught me anything, it’s to do your job, but still be respectful of difference; to be silently and individually proud of identity, and never to engage in negative, aggressive arguments.
To be sure, there are problems with the conservative submissiveness that is part of my cultural inheritance, but it has also encouraged me to strive for patience in the face of difference. And so, even though SEX initially made me uncomfortable with its flagrant absurdity, it challenged me to take my time. SEX pulls you in with an awkward recklessness that eventually gives way to a woozy intimacy, reminding you how raw and personal art can get.
SEX continues at Lawrence & Clark (4755 North Clark Street, Chicago, Illinois) through October 1.