New York CityHelena Anrather
January 24 – February 23, 2020
There are risks with every surgery. For the most part, these remain hypothetical scenarios only realized as part of a phantasmagoric paranoia: a clumsy incision, the quivering hand of your surgeon, an unforeseen lump. Anticipating this obsessive worrying, hospitals aim to reassure us through a compensatory iconography of total sterility. Their white coats and endless hand sanitizer dispensers, however, merely portend the messiness to come, desperate attempts to bracket away the somatic splatter. In her own mock medical exam room at Helena Anrather artist Catherine Telford Keogh takes the opposite approach, suspending cleanliness and grime in tight and competing proximity. This is where the laboratory and visiting hours overlap, a sub-epidermal menagerie retrofitted for the Bubble Boy.
Scattered around a pair of dazzlingly white exam chairs in the middle of the gallery—re-purposed gamer thrones—are three vessels whose MDF exteriors contain a kunstkammer, of sorts. Inside Low Life (Eclectic Energies) (all works 2020), for instance, Telford Keogh includes a Mars bar, Advil, fragrance spheres, and sugar-free gum, among other everyday debris. This constellation of materials is nestled in a variety of individual containers ranging from stainless steel bowls to the compartments of a hot dog tray. Telford Keogh’s idiosyncratic filing system is then submerged in a clear resin, whose color mirrors that of the marbled foam in which her various containers reside. Covered in Plexiglas, Low Life (Eclectic Energies)— along with Low Life (Erratic Cherry) and Low Life (Sour Butter)—ultimately resembles a Paul Thek-ian Jell-o mold, the artist’s quotidian detritus paralyzed in primordial goo. Seen as a type of cartography, the various elements in the “Low Life” sculptures form a dense network of associations between industrial production and maintenance of the body, with Telford Keogh’s material accumulation serving as but one example of their intricate relationship. Rather than merely index the artist, however, the items in these sculptures presage their own, internal processes of degradation and preservation. Weaving together Advil and HPV-11 Plasmid DNA (contained in the viles poking out of the Plexiglas shield), a formaldehyde-like resin with a soon-to-spoil chocolate candy bar, the “Low Life” sculptures are frozen in flux, their future integrity left an open question. Here we find a very nervous system, indeed.
The exhibition’s lone wall work, Infinite Dreamscape with Paraphernalia Corroded and Distilled Gracefully, as the title suggests, showcases a similarly precarious position between health and disease, the profane and the pure. If the “Low Life” sculptures evoke a certain carnality, however, Infinite Dreamspace positions the Internet as its site of contestation. Set behind Plexiglas is a digital print showing a stock image of a sunny sky, layered in Photoshop with an image of tentacles, intertwined text, and, dotted around the composition, an array of miniscule memes, screenshots from porn websites, and other digital flotsam and jetsam. These images offer another type of viral load, a cybernetic analog to the HPV viles right next door. In turn, Telford Keogh tests their vigor by pouring a small amount of dish soap in a layer of Plexiglas situated in front of the print, rendering a fourth of the image Kryptonite-green. Telford Keogh seems to anticipate a sort of sizzling alchemical peel, providing several openings on the work’s surface, blowholes for the mounting pressure within.
If disentangled, the Infinite Dreamscape’s text spells “community, commune, cannibalism,” a provocative lens through which to view the exhibition at large. This list suggests an increasingly disturbing set of intimate relations, moving from vaguely pleasant to shockingly taboo. With this in mind, the various processes internal to each work are juxtaposed with a reminder of the social dynamics—external to Telford Keogh’s creations—that simultaneously govern them and the tensions they exhibit. What is allowed to decompose and who allows it? What or who warrants saving? How do we decide what accrues value and what is left behind? The viewer is reminded that grand, abstract systems that are primarily legible through their own functioning or failure are rarely natural, but carefully produced and vigilantly maintained. Untying and laying bare these various modes of procedure—those within and beyond the entities she presents—Telford Keogh constructs a dizzying display of forces both biologic and algorithmic, clashing head on, from behind, and every angle in between.