The Broad, Los Angeles
Reviewed by Nancy Kay Turner
“Man is the only creature that refuses to be what he is.” —Albert Camus
“Creature,” at The Broad Museum, brings together 55 diverse artists whose engaging work, according to the curatorial statement, demonstrates a “representation of the self.” This vague description states the obvious, as art is always crafted of its maker’s fears, obsessions, thoughts, attitudes, neuroses and beliefs. However, let’s examine the word creature. What does the word “creature” conjure? If you are of a certain age, you might automatically think of the cheesy fifties B movies such as, “Creature of the Black Lagoon” or “Godzilla,” our favorite irradiated lizard mutating into a rampaging gigantic freak of nature. Creatures can inspire fear, dread or curiosity. They can be small and terrifying (tarantulas, snakes), or unknown and unknowable like aliens. They can even be invisible like ghosts, goblins or spirits. Real or invented, they populate our imagination and our nightmares.
Which is why Thomas Houseago’s dark, menacing “Cyclops” (Bronze, 2011), is the perfect face of this exhibition. Looming more than fifteen feet high (like a Titan going to battle) this rough-hewn Cyclops has one of its two eyes gouged out, suggesting that anger can render you blind, all the while his clenched fists are twitching to pummel his enemies. This stunning bronze sculpture is a monumental physical manifestation of fright and terror—a very real terminator that rightly sets the tone for the entire exhibition.
Entering into the room containing Leon Golub’s enormous (some as large as 120” x 198”) political paintings on raw, unstretched canvas is like walking straight into the heart of darkness. This grouping of narrative paintings ripped from news headlines in the 1980’s depicts brutal acts of real “terminators” on a vast killing spree during the Nicaraguan civil war. Golub’s intensely physical scraping of the surface makes the canvas into a metaphor for flayed flesh while the paint itself is vigorously ground into the very fabric, becoming one with it. Blood red and the dark rust color of dried blood permeate these paintings, which feel fresh and tragically current. These images of the sometimes smiling few torturing the many, guns to their heads, hanging naked upside down, are a ghastly reminder to us of the shocking prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib prison during the Iraq war by our very own soldiers. Perhaps it is the fog of war that turns ordinary men into these avenging creatures. Golub seeks to remind us that, to paraphrase a familiar sixties counter-culture statement, “we are the people our parents warned us against.”
I am reminded of the famous Yale social psychologist, Stanley Milgram’s experiments on obedience, where he studied how ordinary people (here paid volunteers) could be convinced to harm others as a way to understand the atrocities committed by the Nazis. In a nutshell, if there were uniforms involved, if there were respected institutions involved and if there wasn’t any dissent, the vast number of people would administer shocks (often against their conscience) to other people if told to do so by people in power. Which brings us to Piotr Uklanski’s powerful 1998 gridded collage, in black and white, entitled “The Nazis”, which is comprised of 164 images of actors portraying Nazi’s in television and films. The prevalence of these fictional images (many taken from entertainment magazines) tends to trivialize (as in Hogan’s Heroes), glorify, and in the end, familiarize us with the face of evil in the process normalizing heinous historical events.
Next, the horror/fantasy genre is ably represented by Cindy Sherman’s gothic, 1995 large-scale (60’x 40”) cinematic super-saturated color photographs of monstrous well…creatures! Sherman’s oeuvre since her student days at SUNY in 1974 has been for her to disguise herself as ordinary people on a bus, as fictional heroines in fifties B movie stills, as bored seductress housewives or as victims of sexual predators. But in these in-your-face cibachrome’s, she is subsumed into grotesque and frankly scary images.
In one photograph, Untitled #315, Sherman is drenched in a sickly, shiny, slimy green, and surrounded by an alarming jumble of body parts. Is this creature being born or being shat out? Hard to say. Either way, it’s hard to hold a prolonging gaze. So you look instead at Untitled #324 (59 3/3 x 39”) only to find a freakish face dripping in, one can only hope, chocolate. Sherman, in spite of her myriad personas, is characteristically present in her work. Not here; not in these two disturbing images, where all trace of the artist is hauntingly and unequivocally erased.
A wonderful antidote to all this ugliness is the elegant mixed–media installation entitled Dust (2006), by video artist Tony Oursler, which befalls the space not unlike a beautiful alien alighting in the corner of a room. Delicately lit from behind, the main fiberglass sculpture pulses with cloud-like images. Occasionally, eyes appear and quickly disappear, humanizing this otherwise inscrutable, entirely enchanting apparition.
At first look, Damien Hirst’s large scale installation No Arts; No Letters; No Society, looks like it was lifted from the back room of a pharmacy replete with shelving filled with surgical equipment, the occasional skull (mouth duct-taped crime victim?), rosary beads (nice touch) and pharmaceutical packing (pills, potions, remedies–the works). Once again, Hirst deftly gets to the heart of darkness — the human fear of death. As Jorge Luis Borges stated, “To be immortal is commonplace; except for man, all creatures are immortal, for they are ignorant of death; what is divine, terrible, incomprehensible, is to know that one is immortal.”
While I could quibble with some of the work that’s been included, Jeff Koons’, Metallic Venus, for instance, and what’s been left out – Koons’ porcelain statue of Michael Jackson with his pet monkey, Bubbles, would certainly have been a thought-provoking addition — there are enough surprises here — Joseph Beuys’ gorgeous duotone offset prints of his sand paintings, are one example — to make this a wholly worthwhile and ultimately satisfying exhibition.
Joseph Beuys, Sandzeichnungen paintings