Art Review

Art Review: Jokes of Nature at RedLine Laughs at the Beauty of the Grotesque

For the past several years, RedLine has featured shows that follow certain established themes. This year’s is “Play It Forward,” which curators have interpreted in a variety of ways. For the current exhibit, Jokes of Nature, Donald Fodness and Geoffrey Shamos have interpreted the theme to mean a fascination with the grotesque in contemporary art. But for the most part, the co-curators didn’t go for the gross-out aesthetic, as might be expected. Instead, they used the idea of the grotesque to feature oddities and displacements of some sort.

Fodness, an established Colorado artist and a former RedLine resident, brought his patented taste for the funky and the outrageous. Shamos, an art historian with a freshly minted doctorate from the University of Pennsylvania, is the development director at RedLine. He brought to the project a deep knowledge of the grotesque tradition in Western art history, going all the way back to prehistoric times.

In selecting works, the curators identified a set of topics that fell within their overall concept: “the diabolical, scatological, pornographic, dreamlike, carnivalesque, uncanny, and caricatured,” according to their statement. Shamos also noted Horace’s description of grotesque art as being like a “sick man’s dreams.” In selecting artists for the show, they tapped several with a connection to the region, though some have moved away and now live elsewhere. They also included a raft of nationally known artists, with many of the included pieces having been loaned by noted local collectors, among them Judy and Ken Robins and Polly and Mark Addison. RedLine also commissioned some of the works specifically for Jokes of Nature.

The exhibit begins with a bang: an impressive and ambitious multi-layered installation by Stephen Martonis titled “Things Unseen.” Martonis has hung a clutch of glass vessels using rope strung through an old-fashioned block and tackle. The tied vessels descend from the ceiling, stopping just above a bucket on a low stand on the floor. They have been dipped in wax and are filled with feathers and red wine; the bucket is also filled with wine. A sound system streams live audio produced by seismographs across the world. (A few weeks ago, the sounds emitted by a Chilean earthquake blew out the speakers, which have since been replaced.) Adding to the already dignified environment, Martonis has hung a pair of stuffed steer heads on the walls flanking the hanging element. Oddly enough, the heads refer to the artist’s own experience of seeing a stillborn calf strung over a fence with a rope like the one he used to string up the glass vessels.

In the main space proper is “A Collection of Vibrational Objects,” an installation by Gretchen Marie Schaefer that fills the front corner and resembles a fragment of a natural-history museum’s storage area. Schaefer has assembled an assortment of found and made objects in a tight arrangement on a pair of white-painted tables. There are also elements under one of the tables and on the wall. These objects are meant to resonate with the objects placed near them, some of which “mirror” the shape of the associated objects or refer to them in some other way, even linguistically. It’s clever in places, but it requires careful looking to get the “jokes.”

Several artists have created distorted renditions of the figure or other representational imagery in more conventional formats, such as painting, photography and sculpture. Among the standouts is a trio of abstract portraits by Xi Zhang in acrylic on paper. Zhang has stained the paper to reveal the vague outlines of men’s faces. Nearby is a pair of Bill Amundson caricatures — one of himself in which he is covered with scales, and another of the severed head of Donald Trump being transported as a trophy.

Back in the center space is a real tour de force, in the form of a parody of a portrait sculpture by Matthew Harris. Although it is done in a manner similar to that of the usual marble busts of popes and kings, “Untitled” — in terra-cotta painted with acrylic — depicts a demonic clown. The expressive handling of the modeling, which is toned down by all-over black paint, is brilliant, with Harris having collapsed European art history and contemporary art in a single piece.

Immediately adjacent to the Harris bust is “Perv’s Grotto,” a wall covered in wallpaper designed by artist Laura Shill and produced for her by a commercial wallpaper printer. On a gray ground, Shill has created a repeating pattern of two elements that alternate with one another both horizontally and vertically. The most dominant element is a shape made up of women’s legs arrayed in a circular burst; the secondary design comprises flowers and tongues. Interestingly, despite the subversive content of the nearly nude legs, the wallpaper reads in a normal way, with a feminine vibe coming from the flowers. I could definitely see it being used in powder rooms.

Several other works proceed from feminine to feminist and back again. There’s the unnerving operating table with large pierced holes in it by the team of Elizabeth Faulhaber and Martha Russo. There is also a biomorphic wall sculpture by Russo alone that’s made of porcelain and a pig’s intestine encasing a gashed mango. It’s as disturbing as it sounds. Taking the opposite tack — but also referring to the human body — is Rebecca DiDomenico’s “Ovum,” which is beautiful. It’s a disco ball constructed of test tubes, their round ends facing outward, that completely surround a glass funnel standing in for the birth canal.

A little more in-your-face is the line of pillows rising to the ceiling off a mattress, all of it dripping in white plastic goo; the whole thing is meant to convey Amber Cobb’s erotic fantasies from puberty. Also addressing female sexuality is Jess Larson’s grid of luxurious embroideries on silk about menstruation, with each having a title based on a euphemism for it, like “Leak Week” and “On the Blob.” Strangely enough, they are really beautiful in a conventional way. So, too, is the marvelous Kristen Hatgi Sink color photograph of a woman whose face is completely obscured by large flowers. It’s simultaneously lyrical and unnerving.

There’s no way I can mention everything that’s worthwhile in this show, since the inclusions are overwhelmingly interesting, but I do need to point out one last piece: the black-on-white wall mural titled “Mountain Beauty” by Larry Bob Phillips, which was created on site. Using precise marks in black ink and paint, Phillips carries out an elaborate scene. In the foreground are a variety of depictions, including one of a couple bathing in a spring with hidden faces and animals surrounding them. In the background are the mountains of the title. It’s amazing that Phillips did the mural freehand, apparently using neither stencils nor even a preliminary sketch. Instead, according to Fodness, he started with a few penciled lines and then began painting instinctually. The results are impressive.

When I walked through the show with Shamos and Fodness, they talked about having been inspired by decorative caves and grottos, pleasure palaces and cabinets of curiosities. I was surprised that neither of them mentioned surrealism (until I brought it up), especially since everything here has no more than one degree of separation from the style one way or the other. Plus, surrealism is clearly both the continuation of the grotesque tradition into the twentieth century and still something of a source for artists working in the 21st, as is evident from the work included in Jokes of Nature.

Jokes of Nature
Through October 25 at RedLine, 2350 Arapahoe Street, 303-296-4448,

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Michael Paglia is an art historian and writer whose columns have appeared in Westword since 1995; his essays on the visual arts have also been published in national periodicals including Art News, Architecture, Art Ltd., Modernism, Art & Auction and Sculpture Magazine. He taught art history at the University of Colorado Denver.
Contact: Michael Paglia