Like other student art shows, the University of Chicago MFA exhibition "The Long Day" featured a number of artworks consisting of consumer goods stacked on top of each other so as to produce a scary effect.
Such were three of the works by Anton Auth, which consisted of 1: a Flaming Hot Cheetos bag stuffed into a Brisk Half and Half Iced Tea bottle stuffed into a Tyvek sheet stuffed into a piece of black foam stuffed into a blue picture frame ("Untitled"); 2: an Apple Macbook Air package affixed to long metal rods stuck in a concrete block strewn with trash ("Airmask"); 3: a Lululemon shopping bag, covered in the husks of dead cicadas, cut into the shape of a mask reminiscent of those worn by the Ku Klux Klan ("Eyes Without a Face"). The last was like a sick children’s project: cut holes into Lululemon's positivity merchandise to reveal the secret terror underneath America’s cult of the body!
Auth had also tied dead flies to transparent strings and installed them in corners of the exhibit room ("Captive Flies"). I bumped into the flies once while rounding a corner and shuddered. Feelings of shame and body horror besieged me several times in the gallery.
Max Li’s balloon arrangement "Flower no. 3," consisting of yellow and green balloons bound together with zip ties, called to mind deformed and at the same time proud genitals. His work "Site #1, Face the Wall" was an all-black room, filled with black cardboard structures, on the underside of one of which was another mysterious item. I took a flash photo just to see what it was — the light revealed another phallus-like balloon against a backdrop of darkness.
Both works called to mind, quite involuntarily, the description Canadian author Alice Munro yokes to the character Becky Tyde in her short story “Royal Beatings”, one who, the narrator says, possessed “a mascot’s sexless swagger.”
Another unsettling piece was a square box decorated in photo patches of ruddy skin and what appeared to be hairs, perhaps pubic hairs, gathered from a shower drain (Breath Replacement, Alana Ferguson).
Genitals appear elsewhere in the show in a slightly more positive light. For instance, there is a pink dildo placed at the center of a happy-looking flower, itself made from a toilet seat, in the Logan Center Lobby.
It was a relief to see in this work a vision of consumer goods and sexuality not so straightforwardly dystopian, not so imbued with body horror and heavy intimations of violence. And, admitting that art previously considered shocking has been pretty well incorporated into corporate spaces, we can still feel some childish glee that a dildo-toilet-flower has been given pride of place in such an expensive building.
While looking at it I heard a soothing, droning noise that I figured was a sound installation within the exhibit — though it was in fact a worker driving a floor-polishing machine. I had to laugh.
But my favorite work within this emergent genre (can we call it the “quietly sinister consumer goods stack"?) was "Two Wells Drawing from the Same Source," by Sara Grose.
It featured two structures: on the left, a metal well, with transparent plastic coins at its base, and on the right, a plastic boulder suspended from a metal frame, dripping plastic water droplets onto an expectant tongue growing from a plastic boulder below. A LED screen affixed to the top boulder displays falling prices, giving the impression that dollar amounts are somehow being filtered through the stone, transformed into water, and dripping, just a little at a time, onto an expectant tongue.
To loosely paraphrase Katy Perry, do you ever feel like a boulder growing a tongue? With all its dense immobility and its unthinking desperation? As a consumer, waiting for prices to fall, and for money to drip from the top of the economy to the bottom, I have!
There were two other works that stood out to me, both of quite a different emotional tenor than the aforementioned. They were my two favorite pieces, though this is perhaps simply because their creators had managed to better resist the air of pervasive doom, and the topic of consumption, that weigh so heavily on all downwardly mobile aspirants to aesthetic greatness.
The first was a painting by Nicola Pliskin entitled "Residue and Vagary." It depicts a doorway leading to another world, a stencil of a lizard, and a stencil of a weed leaf.
In its presentation of the three items, which are laid out in a two dimensional triangle, it evinces a gentle, chiding love for 1) the emblems of a certain kind of boyhood, the kinds of things many suburban teenagers spray-paint on their skateboard griptape first as twelve year olds (the lizard) and then later as sixteen year olds (the weed leaf) and 2) with the door leading to the other world, the embarrassing profundities of tripped out minds. It shows a Linklater-esque capacity to render with humor and love the average interests of average people.
The other work was Vincent Haynes’ painting "Militärkapelle," depicting a military band composed of Black soldiers. Colored in chalk and encaustic, there are no details on the men’s faces, and everything has a hazy outline. The men play brass instruments and wear green uniforms with red hats. It looks like a memory fading from view — and as one looks at it, it is hard to decide whether to let it be forgotten, or to try to bring it into bitter clarity.