ACE Studios Gallery, 619 Western Ave #16, 623-1288
Through Oct 31.
Gallery 110, 110 S Washington St, 624-9336
Through Nov 1.
What's new with penises these days? Not owning one myself, I don't really have any idea. But I was certainly thinking about it after I saw Selma Waldman's Naked/Aggression at last week's First Thursday. As I hauled myself from gallery to gallery I kept overhearing conversations about how controversial Waldman's show was, how very shocking. But when I got there it turned out that all it was really about was equating guns with dicks.
Most of the gallery is given over to small sketchbook drawings of men with soldiers' accessories--helmets, ammo slings, weapons-- but naked, with plump round balls and big erections. The show is annotated throughout with text about war crimes, about the bloodlust displayed by soldiers, about the victims of combat. The drawings have an agitation that makes them very lively, very tangible, and there's no doubt that the indignity they display is very deeply felt.
But that some people are turned on by violence is hardly news; erotics and war have been linked since Lysistrata, if not before, and penises and weapons since Freud. It is all very well to be outraged, but the "myth of the warrior-hero," which this exhibition wants to reveal as fraudulent and obscene, has been unmasked over and over again; even Hemingway's former soldiers, though in denial, still must reckon with what manhood means. What's most telling about Naked/Aggression is that it seems to be pitched, like most contemporary political art, to an audience that already knows this, so one wonders--even if one is in agreement politically--what the point is.
Oddly enough, I was more moved (significantly so) by Su Job's Soft Porn, a series of tiny needlepoint works, each one a miniature window into a pornographic moment. These are wonderful for a number of reasons, not least of which is the whole circle of linguistic references that includes penis and needle and prick, and the repeated piercing, plunging motion that needlework involves--fertile ground for anyone interested in the metaphorical possibilities of craft.
Most of the works are rendered in many shades of gray, and are shown in such close-up that the shapes become very nearly abstract. In some cases, it takes a few beats before you can figure out which is tab A and which is slot B; in some cases, you might not figure it out at all. (Each work is identified only by a pair of names--Bobby and Briana, Alex and Dayton, Kevin and Nicole--that seem so remote from everyday life as to become a kind of abstraction themselves.) The stitches are like pixels; up close they scatter senselessly, but at a distance they resolve themselves in surprising amounts of depth and modeling.
Job is also showing a series of works that are taken from Japanese shunga (erotic) prints, which are even funnier than the photographic pornography partly because the penises, when you can discern them, often look like exaggerated noses on cartoon characters--take a good look at Yin Yuan Bao Shao (Monkey that Climbs and Groans). The titles are names of sex positions, as illustrated in the Pillow Book (a sex manual traditionally given to newlyweds), and some of them sound like hilarious euphemisms: the cat and the mouse in the same hole, the rock above the Black Sea.
These little works are incredibly labor-intensive, which is part of why they work. There's a dissonance between the spontaneity of sex and the focused intent of needlepoint, although pornography certainly has its own laborious boredom as well. But to take something as fleeting and discardable (the more so if, say, it arrives unwelcomely in your e-mail inbox) as pornography and render it in a medium tied to commemoration and tradition is very funny, and also has an angry little resonance, perhaps about what gets plucked and saved from the endless river of debris that flows past us and what gets swept clean away, and about how much control we have over either condition. Embroidery is very much a wishful act, a slow devotional act toward something we hope to be true; Job's needleworks supply a cynical little riposte.