The entire historical range of mimetic artistry — the copying of natural appearances — is essentially on display at Ogden Contemporary Arts in a single exhibition: Tamara Kostianovsky’s Mesmerizing Flesh. Best known from its Western version, beginning in the Renaissance, which began in several parts of Europe around 1400, the first great standardization of artistic principles saw young would-be painters and sculptors, almost all men, apprenticed to masters who taught them to grind, mix, and apply paint or select, carve, and polish stone. These activities find parallels in colorful sculptures that Kostianovsky makes from discarded, functional textiles: monochromatic pieces of cloth that she combines and sews together, like the solid color paints apprentice artists learned to make and with which they copied on walls and wooden panels the way the world looks.
Today, of course, half a millennium later, not just readymade and purchased paints, but a pre-made patterns and textures that run the gamut from realistic pictures to abstract patterns are available to produce a less purely natural-looking image: one that appeals to sophisticated viewers by composing the appearance of a subject from the way some other things look. A floral wallpaper might be collaged by an artist to represent a field of flowers in a landscape, the clothing of a portrait figure, or even something it doesn’t resemble at all, like the sky or a head of hair. This postmodern, self-conscious copying of visual data can be seen in Mesmerizing Flesh in more elaborately layered representations that use decorative fabrics — prints, weaves, upholsteries — in making images that the viewer’s eye and mind can choose how to see. In one side of beef from the main room of the exhibition, which renders with unsettling realism a butcher’s locker room of dressed and hung animal carcasses, can be found as well a jungle landscape, complete with flowering plants embedded in the beef, with exotic birds perched among them. It’s all in how closely the viewer looks.
Kostianovsky takes at least two steps apart from the standard practice of today’s avant-garde — not because she lacks courage to follow where so much contemporary art goes, but because she has the sheer skill to take her where she wants to go instead. First, she makes objects fit for delectation. The hundreds of carefully chosen and meticulously combined pieces of fabric that comprise her sculptures allow them to delight the eye. And second, where another artist would in all probability assault the viewer’s sensibility, as though convinced that only a frontal attack can penetrate the witness’s cynicism and indifference, she trusts these beautiful objects to evoke the sympathy, rather than the guilt, of her audience.
What Kostianovsky achieves is nothing less than to visually touch upon both sides of a long-standing argument that has so far eluded a simple solution. A fellow who wandered in off the Ogden street apparently thought he’d come upon an actual butcher shop; he asked if what he saw hanging there was real meat. For those of like mind to his, and, it must be acknowledged as well, for the earth’s carnivorous animal population, these carcasses represent the promise of pleasure and the means of extending their own lives. Likewise, the felled and partially sawn trees upstairs tell of a valuable material for enclosing and facilitating life that is as beautiful, and as virtuous, as it is functional. At the same time, these representations also call to mind that, in addition to their beauty, these objects were once living, magnificent beasts and trees. Their fates, as observed here, surely cannot fail to bring the observer face to face with a terrible truth.
While contemplating this unique, visual presentation of one of life’s great dilemmas, visitors to OCA may wish to consider some further details of the exhibition. The artist has shared with the gallery the sources of much of the fabric that went into the sculpture. The animals were made largely from her own functional fabrics, with some of her clothing providing the ornamental pieces. The trees, however, were made from garments her late father no longer required, which adds something to the cycle of life and death everywhere apparent. Knowing this, it’s possible to find differences between the components of the two biological kingdoms that are reflected in the two human fabric sources. Additionally, in the main gallery, downstairs, the borders of the space are used for individual cuts of meat and skeletal remains, which are more accurately depicted, while the five large sides fill the center space, where they hang from a powered mechanism that slowly moves them as if through a processing plant. This almost undetectable dance, a kind of silent and wordless tango, is the source of the exhibition’s title. As they constantly shift their locations and perspectives, they move among customary art gallery signs asking viewers to refrain from touching them. There’s an irony in this, in that anyone who stands still to more closely observe one or another of the life-from-death they promise, should they stand too long in one place, may be bumped, gently but firmly, by one of the works that normally would not be expected to move. According to the posted statement, this mechanism, so perfectly attuned to the artist’s desire to complete her images of life and death by including the human element, was introduced for the first time in this installation.
Mesmerizing Flesh, Ogden Contemporary Arts, Ogden, through Apr. 16
Geoff Wichert objects to the term critic. He would rather be thought of as a advocate on behalf of those he writes about.
Categories: Exhibition Reviews | Visual Arts
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