GalleriesWeekend

Paper People and Rude Shocks

Detail of "Dancing Girls" (2011). Wood, metal wire, newspaper, glue, tape, matte medium and rhinestone belt buckles.64 x 88 x 58 inches. (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)

Some shows are designed to shock, and you’d expect that one sporting the title Extra Fucking Ordinary would be among them. And you’d be right.

But in a departure from a great many New York art exhibitions gleefully trafficking in frontloaded indecorum (Steve Gianakos’ black-and-white inversions of children’s book illustrations, at nearby Fredericks & Freiser, being a current example), this one actually manages to succeed in its goal.

"Artie Taking a Poop" (2011). Wood, metal wire, newspaper, glue, screws, tape, matte medium and dog leash. 45 x 15 x 25 inches.

Not, however, due to the usual forms of effrontery, which have become, by and large, pretty old hat. Defecation ain’t what it used to be, what with an aesthetic lineage harking back to the 1960s and ‘70s (Piero Manzoni covertly, Paul McCarthy overtly) and certainly beyond. (Last year at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, I spotted a shitting dog huddled directly beneath the outstretched arm of Moses in Titian’s monumental, multi-sheet woodcut “The Submersion of Pharaoh’s Army in the Red Sea,” 1514-15, printed 1549.)

And so the shitting dog that greets you at the entrance of Mike Weiss Gallery, straining over a curled paper turd — along with its doppelganger in the rearmost room, sniffing the nether regions of a crouching semi-nude yanking up her pantyhose — may be bracing in their rawness, but shocking? Yes and no.

To regroup: Extra Fucking Ordinary is the solo debut of an artist named Will Kurtz, whose story has been recounted in The New York Daily News, and so there is no need to go into it here. Suffice it to say that he’s one of a rare breed who labored in the fields — in his case, as a landscape architect — for decades before embarking on the fever dream we call an artist’s life.

Kurtz makes life-size figurative sculptures out of newspaper by wrapping it around wood and wire armatures, allowing the paper’s bold graphics and color photographs to variegate and mottle the skin and clothing of his subjects.

And now to digress: while walking around the gallery, I kept thinking of the video artist Keren Cytter’s “Les Ruissellements du Diable” (The Devil’s Streams2008) and “Der Spiegel” (The Mirror, 2007), an association that seems as odd now, as I write about it, as it did then.

But improbable mental links are always worth clicking. Like Kurtz, Cytter sprinkles her work with deliberate provocations (such as full-frontal male masturbation in “Les Ruissellements” and abundant, unvarnished nudity from both sexes in “Der Spiegel”) and recycles thoroughly explored concepts (such as Julio Cortázar’s short story, “Blow-Up” — famously adapted by Michelangelo Antonioni in 1966 — as the narrative for “Les Ruissellements,” and the faux-single-take technique devised by Alfred Hitchcock for his real-time tour-de-force, Rope (1948), as the structure of “Der Spiegel”).

Foreground: Detail of "Luther & Francis" (2011). Wood, metal wire, newspaper, glue, tape, matte medium, cane, and necklace. 70 x 47 x 21 inches. Rear: "Chalkley" (2011). Wood, metal wire, newspaper, glue, tape, matte medium and necklace. 68 x 17 x 17 inches.

The thoroughly explored concept that Kurtz recycles is the human body — with recycling as an all-too-appropriate term (or all-too-atrocious pun) given his remarkable handling of newspaper. His self-conscious application of his materials — allowing newspaper to stay newspaper, rather than slapping on a coat of paint — infuses an inimitable spirit into his creations, just as Cytter, through similar formal means, breathes life into hers. (As the characters in “Der Spiegel” distract the audience with direct, Brechtian-style addresses, she slyly transforms the piece — via Hitchcock’s somewhat static system of completing each take with a close-up of an inanimate object — into a crazily self-regenerating loop.)

But that’s not all. While newspaper contributes an ephemeral twist to Kurtz’s art making (as well as much of its pleasure, with bright splashes of color rekindling the childhood joys of the Sunday comics), the strength of his sculpture is not in its surface but in its form.

Detail of "Sniffing Ass" (2011). Wood, metal wire, newspaper, glue, tape, matte medium and brassiere. 48 x 20 x 60 inches.

What drew me into the gallery, as I peered through its glass façade, was the visual ruckus inside — there was something kicking around in there that I had to check out. But once I got a closer a look, I realized that under the riotous colors lay a fundamentally sculptural sensibility, and that the thrusts, swells and hollows animating Kurtz’s paper, wire and wood constructions proceed from the same formal concerns as an 11th-century dancing Shiva or Auguste Rodin’s “Burghers of Calais” (1884-1895).

This has nothing to do with verisimilitude, realism or academic training — we have enough stone-dead, classically proportioned effigies to go around. Kurtz may restrict his vocabulary to the human body, but he also seems to intuit the abstraction pulsing beneath his figures’ flexing limbs, pebbly toes, and ropes of hair.

Sensitivity to abstraction may be what ultimately defines his work, but it doesn’t account for what makes it feel so compellingly now. And that element, which endows Kurtz’s art with a timeliness that simultaneously contradicts and accentuates its sculptural presence — despite its similarities to faded bodies of work such as Duane Hanson’s and George Segal’s — is its essential rudeness. And I mean that in a formal sense.

Let me put it this way. When I was in college, my sculpture instructor looked over the bulbous wax figurine I was working on and brought up the idea of “serious caricature.” I suspect that he made up this concept on the spot. Nevertheless, after a brief discussion and a fleeting reference to Daumier, he left me to contemplate the potency of my piece as a caricature, albeit a serious one.

This memory came to mind while roaming The Renaissance Portrait from Donatello to Bellini, the dazzling exhibition currently at the Metropolitan Museum (through March 18th). Viewed a certain way, the highly reductive, quasi-geometric treatment of facial features found in many of these portraits, articulated through clear, simple colors and crisply delineated forms, can be interpreted (or creatively misinterpreted) as a boldly graphic caricature seeking to indicate with a few broad swipes what the sitter looked like.

Looking closely, you can’t get away from how strange and off-putting many of these aristocrats seem. In contrast to the classicizing impulse that dominated religious art, these secular images are distinguished by how far their idiosyncrasies — notched noses, receding chins, extravagant hair — depart from the dominant shape (oval or square or rectangle) of the subject’s skull.

(The Met, ever obliging, provides a point of comparison via its hugely enjoyable Infinite Jest: Caricature and Satire from Leonardo to Levine (though March 4th), which explores caricature’s hallowed history of content-driven grotesquery as opposed to the abstracted shorthand — i.e., serious caricature — at work in formal portraiture.)

Kurtz’s work pays tribute to sculpture’s geometric substructure while extruding highly individuated forms out of it. The result of this interplay between major and minor cylinders, spheres and cones hovers just above caricature’s fault line: to a greater or lesser degree, such simplified, interlocking shapes unavoidably exaggerate facial features and body types, just as they did for their Renaissance precedents. Still, these sculptures don’t evince the requisite mean gene of the true caricaturist.

Not that they are comfortable works of art. Kurtz’s subjects range across the bottom rung of our economic caste system, and to encounter their distressed flesh and workaday clothing in a white cube gallery space would seem an open invitation for ridicule (see Duane Hanson).

This is not the case. The artist seems to harbor an abiding affection for the genuine weirdness of his fellow human beings, and this openness helps to mitigate — though not entirely erase — some problematic aspects of the imagery, about which I admit to being perhaps overly sensitive.

The social and political subtexts of caricature — despite the formal reasons I’ve endeavored to explore (and which, I believe, award this body of work the elusive title of serious caricature) — become more or less perilous depending upon the race of the person depicted. There are obese white people and badly dressed black people, yet the perceived power imbalance (even though both are equal in the eyes of the 1%) is queasy-making when the creator of the work is himself white.

It remains, however, that all of Kurtz’s characters — black, white and Hispanic — are made from the same worthless detritus, the very mention of which should gather immediate metaphorical resonance.

The infectious spirit of the show is convincing enough to believe that Kurtz is not an elitist, and that he is smiling with, not at, his subjects. They look that way because that’s the way they looked when he snapped their picture with his iPhone. Kurtz’s honesty cuts both ways.

His refusal to play the condescension card, however, doesn’t prevent his down-and-outers from trashing the place. Their kinetic energy verges on the chaotic, brimming over with unruly sensations that make everything around them feel messy and ungovernable. Their impetuousness is too rude, and too raw, for insular games and parochial contexts.

This work does not argue a position, test a hypothesis or elucidate a line of thought; it springs to life before your eyes. And that is a profound, and profoundly subversive, shock.

Will Kurtz: Extra Fucking Ordinary continues at Mike Weiss Gallery (520 W. 24th Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) through February 18.

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