Donnabelle Casis
Howard House, 2017 Second Ave, 256-6399. Through Oct 21.

Jeanne Dunning
James Harris Gallery, 309A Third Ave S, 903-6220. Through Oct 28.

WE IMAGINE THAT we are masters of our physical selves, but this is a lie. Our bodies follow their own impulses, and despite our best efforts to depilate and deodorize, hasten libido and slow down aging, in the end we have little say in the matter. We're saddled with them--these disobedient, inflated bags.

To which Chicago artist Jeanne Dunning adds what she calls "the blob." In four large-scale photographs on exhibit this month at James Harris Gallery, women contend with "the blob"--a dense, flesh-colored sack filled with some kind of oozing fluid. In two of the images, women lie pinned to beds, the blob covering most of their bodies; one woman's body is outlined in the slick area where fabric is taut. But the blob is not strictly a malevolent presence. It could be seen as comforting as well as smothering, protective as well as invasive, blanket as well as tumor. In another image, a woman shares a bathtub with the blob, and it's unclear whether she's tolerating it or enjoying it--the mood of the photograph reads as both sensual and a struggle. In the last image in the series--the most transfixing of all--the blob flows out from under a woman's shirt and fills a platter that she offers to the viewer, her expression defensive, as if to say, "Here it is--what of it?"

Such an ambiguous relationship to the body is at the heart of Dunning's work. In her earlier photographs--close-up shots of unspecified holes and cracks--the artist seems to take perverse pleasure in leading us to wicked assumptions that turn out, on closer inspection, to be unfounded (the holes often prove to be nostrils; the cracks formed by two bodies lying together).

By making the familiar strange in this way, Dunning adds a new argument to the ongoing conversation about art and the body, usually the province of feminist art. But where that movement has traditionally cloaked vaginal imagery in abstraction, the better to insist on its beauty (think of Georgia O'Keeffe or Judy Chicago), Dunning's work is more confrontational, forcing the viewer to take apart any preconceived notions about what is grotesque and what is, unavoidably, ours.

It's also very funny. In a video work that accompanies the photographs, a woman dresses the blob in a kicky skirt and blouse--not quite the outfit, one feels, that the blob would have chosen for itself. This is not an easy task: The blob oozes and resists, like dough overflowing a baking pan, but the woman attends to her task with workmanlike concentration. This, lest you have any illusions left about who's running the show, is the last word on the equivocal relationships we have with our bodies.

At Howard House is Donnabelle Casis' take on the abstract body, but hers is a much more violent vision. In six large paintings, Casis presents imagined objects that share a number of associations with Dunning's work. They're big, uncontrollable, mostly pink, constrained in some places and bulging in others. Somehow the paintings manage to be abstract and familiar all at once. They seem to be something you know. The shapes that make up each one are indistinctly familiar--a fist here, a pastry there, a phallus over there--and are painted in vibrant colors borrowed from the palette of Disney: acid green, bubble-gum pink, a yellow that morphs from mustard to lemon and back again. The fleshiness is undeniable, and here, as with the blob, it is a force to be reckoned with.

There is a similar wit at work here, too. The objects (creatures?) are decorated here and there in such a way that suggests that they're dressed: a chintz wrap, a lacy frill, a translucent skirt that reminded me of the dancing, tutu-wearing hippos in Fantasia.

But Casis is more de Kooning than Disney. These paintings have tremendous visual energy, almost a jolt. The works explode in places and implode in others. Casis heightens the effect by using light, cartoonish brushstrokes to suggest movement, or in one case, a puff of smoke, which suggests the exhaust such a creature might expel. Her confident paint-handling creates surfaces that are as alive as her subject, and backgrounds that refuse to sit still and be backgrounds. You simply can't stop looking at them. And like Dunning's blob, Casis' paintings embrace a fleshy contradiction. These strange cartwheeling, vomiting, engorged things are somehow appealing, even lovable. You have to love them--they're you.