Violence, Fantasy, and Childhood: Two Shows at PS1by Daniel Baird
Disasters of War: Francisco de Goya, Henry Darger, Jake and Dinos Chapman (through February 25)
Almost Warm & Fuzzy: Childhood and Contemporary Art (through April 8)
Curated by PS1 senior curator and Kunst-Werke Berlin director Klaus Biesenbach, Disasters of War: Francisco de Goya, Henry Darger, Jake and Dinos Chapman makes a powerful case for the connection between Goya’s savage Desastres de la Guerra etchings, the pedophiliac visions of mutilated nymphets painted by American outsider-artist Henry Darger, and etchings and photographs by the nasty, perverted, brilliant British nihilists, Jake and Dinos Chapman. Although Biesenbach asserts that the artists make the pathos and terror of war “palpable for examination,” the exhibition’s real force is to subtly refocus attention on the violent fantasy and ambivalent voyeurism that breeds in the heart of the attempt to represent evil.
Etched between 1810 and 1816, the atrocities depicted in Goya’s Desastres de la Guerra are rooted in Goya’s experience of Napoleon’s occupation of Madrid. As in his dark, phatasmagorical paintings, Goya’s etchings portray moments of collective frenzy in which the distorted bodies of executioners and victims alike metamorphose into ravenous animals. Women are raped and beaten; men are hung and impaled; soldiers in rags sit wild-eyed, devouring human flesh. Desastres de la Guerra are so cruelly objective, so lacking in heroes and sentimentality, they are sometimes taken as a kind of pre-photographic documentary. But that response misses what is most frightening about Goya’s work. Although fueled by outrage at the brutality of Napoleon’s army, their idiom is a peculiar hybrid of Bosch, Bruegel, and the 18th century art of caricature. Desastres de la Guerra are cynical and mocking, full of demonic laughter.
Runaway from a mental institution at the age of 16, American artist Henry Darger (1893-1973) was an obsessive recluse, haunted by staggering visions of a war between good and evil, innocence and experience. The huge watercolors on view at PS1 are illustrations for Darger’s insane 15,000-page saga titled The Story of the Vivian Girls, In What Is Known as the Realms of the Unreal, of the Glandeco-Angelinnean War Storm, Caused by the Child Slave Rebellion, which was found after his death in his room, buried beneath a mountain of newspapers, Pepto-Bismol bottles, and balls of string. Painted with cheap children’s watercolors on scrolls of paper, the figures traced from children’s books, comic strips, and magazines, Darger’s work is at once creepily sweet and grotesque. The innocent Vivian girls are garroted by evil grownup cowboys, their tongues sticking out and eyes bulging. Nude prepubescent girls with inexplicable bald penises are savagely ripped open, their crudely rendered intestines hanging out. Shreds of viscera dangle from trees. The colors are remarkably coherent, cool, pale yellow, blue, and green, the abundant innards and wounds smeared a lurid red. The figures, set in undulating, fairy-tale landscapes, cluster and move through the pictures in tense, curving patterns. Darger’s perverted visions have the magical literalness of early Christian art. They fulfill a longing for the kind of primitive imagination that can engage directly with a transcendent world, unmediated by art history.
“Disasters of War” achieves a sullied closure with Jake and Dinos Chapman’s Gigantic Fun and What the Hell I-IX. The Chapmans are best known for Fuckface, their series of mutant fiberglass sculptures of prepubescent girls with anuses for mouths and long, obscene dicks for noses. What The Hell I-IX consists of nine monumental photographs of the massive sculpture, “Hell,” in which 10,000 hand-painted figurines swarm over a 28-foot-long inverted swastika. Shot by German photographer Norbert Schoerner, the images have the queasy artificiality of Cindy Sherman’s pornographic mannequins. Torsos hang from trees. Soldiers bugger and dismember naked, filth-smeared prisoners. Florescent magic-marker blood is everywhere in the muddy, fecal landscape. Like the sick Fuckface dolls, the toy figurines in What the Hell I-IX are evil, proliferating mutants, commodities gone awry. The 83 Gigantic Fun etchings were inspired by Goya’s Desastres de la Guerra. Over fragments of Goya’s scorching images, which are parodied and in some cases simply reproduced, the Chapman’s scrawl their signature penis-nose faces, generic cartoons, numbers, and advertisements, as though Goya’s original cycle had been absorbed into, and distorted by, the destructive, amoral, and unstoppable contemporary media culture.
Compared with Disasters of War, the show Almost Warm & Fuzzy: Childhood and Contemporary Art is relatively lightweight. Organized for the Des Moines Art Center by Susan Lubowsky Talbott and Lea Rosson Delong, Almost Warm & Fuzzy is marred by the unresolved tension between its aim of exploring memories of childhood and appealing to children. What the show only glancingly acknowledges is that children are not only innocent, but ecstatic, volatile, manipulative, narcissistic, and amoral. They are also heartbreakingly vulnerable. Childhood is simultaneously a place of freedom and fantasy and irremediable damage. In different ways, both Henry Darger and the Chapman brothers are childish.
Almost Warm & Fuzzy opens with Marc Quinn’s “I thought I was the Sun King: Nervous Breakdown,” in which a suspended face drools long strands of bright red and yellow latex paint, suggesting the aftermath of some manic binge of self-aggrandizement. In Kim Dingle’s “Priss,” two angry dolls with electrified hair and frilly dresses stand in a crib, bottles, diapers, and toys scattered on the floor. In Tom Friedman’s “Untitled (Snow Angel),” a snow angel made in a mound of white detergent, fills the room with the familiar and sterile indoor-smell of laundry detergent. Mike Kelley has placed a stuffed bunny and an open book on an afghan, along with cans of flea and roach killer. Dingle, Friedman, and Kelley’s pieces all evoke the restless, bored claustrophobia of an American suburban childhood: warm, prison-like houses full of fuzzy toys and poison.
Other work in Almost Warm & Fuzzy is more whimsical and interactive. Alexis Rockman renders the ABCs in a series of surrealist watercolors in which anteaters, elephants, and dinosaurs mutate into the letters of the alphabet. The heads of Larry Krone’s ornate, miniature dolls are fashioned out of wisdom teeth. Meyer Vaisman’s fat stuffed turkeys don wild wigs made of hair extensions. In “Shimmering Madness,” thousands of bright jellybeans pair up to dance against a backdrop covered with fluttering mechanical butterflies. “At The Met” has framed miniatures of Metropolitan Museum paintings hanging close to the ground, toy mice arranged in front of them. Joseph Schneider himself was there, conducting activities around his pirate vessel, titled “Ship,” whose cannons shoot confetti and soap bubbles.
In an era in which the space and freedom of childhood has drastically shrunk, an era in which childhood is ruthlessly marketed, in which 5-year-olds gun down classmates and high school kids plot massacres, one would think a show about childhood would have more edge and take greater risks. Disasters of War unsettles and compromises the viewer: Darger is both a naïve visionary and a creep fantasizing about little girls, Goya more like Jake and Dinos Chapman than anyone wants to admit. Almost Warm & Fuzzy, on the other hand, does not so much explore the vicissitudes of childhood as offer comfortable formulae and pious gestures, as though the experience of childhood were something easily known in advance, gleaned from textbooks and magazines. Nothing ecstatic, nothing volatile. At its best, the show is pleasant and uninspiring.