The Soft Machine, William Burroughs' cut-up sci-fi novel about addiction and vice, urges us to "smash the control images" and "burn the books," and the title of The Pace Gallery's summer exhibition Soft Machines (through August 26) alludes to the ideas contained in it, though the memorable pieces here are the ones that challenge rather than simply provoke.
For instance, Liz Magic Laser and Anna Ostoya's seven inkjet prints of blood smears in stores like Macy's, Victoria's Secret, and Bloomingdale's present what would otherwise be the hidden or dismissed traces of violence in public spaces. Another engagement with institutionalized violence can be found in Sterling Ruby's "Double Vampire 4" (2011) hanging on the back wall, a lumpy American flag-patterned diptych with thin lips and sagging bloody teeth; it's mesmerizing in an ironic, Jasper Johns sort of way. Hanging from the rafters on the other side of the gallery is Tim Hawkinson's "Balloon Self-Portrait #4" (1996), a bloated white silicone form resembling a man, stuffed with urethane foam to keep the texture even. It rotates slowly in its naked state, with arms hanging in a grappling pose, as if ready for a fight or a casual embrace. I was tempted to poke it, just to hear it squeal. The didactic piece "Give Me The Night" (2011) by Lovett/Codagnone sits in the middle of the gallery, and though obvious in its reference to the gay club scene (a black painted leather disco ball hangs between three steel barricades, for chrissakes), the freedom to love whomever you'd like is still a contested issue in many places, so I won't be too hard on it.
Unfortunately, the most interesting piece in the exhibition is already gone. During the opening reception, five female performance artists in yellow flower print dresses and matching wooden sandals tore apart a massive brown hunk of clay in Kate Gilmore's new performance piece, "Through the Claw" (2011). It began at 6pm and ended two and a quarter hours later as the performers wiped clay from their weary faces after scraping the last sticky remnants from the platform. Visiting the gallery now, one can't help but notice the dried dung-like piles stuck to the back walls or piled in clumps on the floor surrounding the platform. Kenya (Robinson), who has performed Gilmore's work multiple times, said of the performance: "I don't feel like a martyr when I'm doing a Kate Gilmore piece. I feel more like Wile E. Coyote than Jesus Christ."
There's a self-aware absurdity to Gilmore's work that isn't present in early feminist pieces like Martha Rosler's "Semiotics of the Kitchen" (1975), but is there in, say, Bruce Nauman's early performance, "Walking in an Exaggerated Manner Around the Perimeter of a Square" (1967-68). In all of Gilmore's pieces struggle and repetition are used as metaphors for existence; we the audience want to see the performers conquer these obstacles, but know they might not be able to in the time allotted. It's a race to the finish, and in "Through the Claw" the audience cheered as the performers heaved the last clay wedges toward the walls and quietly left the stage. We may be soft machines, but sometimes we still manage to destroy the objects and images that control us.
(Photo: G.R. Christmas, courtesy The Pace Gallery)
Kate Gilmore's Clay-Scraping Performance
The artist's latest performance piece, Through the Claw, had five women tearing apart a cube of clay at The Pace Gallery.