from my fall sloane review: “dead or alive” at the museum of arts and design, nyc

Costumes–The instances of these are some of my favorite works in the whole of the exhibition, as much for their elaborate craftsmanship as for their symbolism.  Nick Cave’s Soundsuit I first encountered earlier at this spring’s NYC Armory Show, and was instantly hooked by the bizarre constructions, which the artist originally conceived as life-size sculptures made of found objects like twigs, that he realized were “soundsuits” the first time he put one on and the rustling and rubbing together of the materials animated them and changed the nature of the form into a third thing. Sanford Biggers, “Ghettobird Tunic,” is a massive puffer coat made entirely of exotic feathers, looking like some kind of tongue-in-cheek ceremonial coat, and the pinnacle of this group are the two works by the Columbian artist, Maria Fernanda Cardoso.  Her “Emu Flag + Cloak (Fluro Orange)” and “Ruana with hat, undergarment and socks,” are intricate creations of feathers, mesh, fabric, fiberglass and nylon netting that refigure the feathers of the ubiquitous bird of her residence Sydney, Australia, into a haunting and delicate shroud which obscures the wearer so highly that the dead cloaks become a life-form in themselves, reducing the human wearer to the inanimate, hidden form. These avant-garde, monochrome pieces are a wry commentary on beauty, mutability, armor and an inversion of the exploitation of animal life for unnecessary human purposes such as fashion.

Memento Mori–Bones, skulls and hybrid-form skeletons are featured in many of the works.  Jan Fabre’s “Skull” is made of beetle scarabs and feathers, a bird caught twisting in its frozen mouth, while Billie Grace Lynn’s “Mad Cow Motorcycle” takes cow bones and turns them into a humorously ghoulish vehicle.  Christy Rupp has a few featured works, all shaping discarded chicken bones from fast food restaurants into the form of life-size, skeletal reconstructions of extinct birds such as the dodo and great auk, a study on the hastening and casual nature of disposability in American culture. Chinese artist, Shen Shaomin, marries natural science with mythology in his large sculpture, “Sagittarius,” a skeletal beast comprised of a human torso with arms and skull attached to a bestial lower half.  Alastair Mackie’s pile of mouse skeletons atop a loom whitewashed with concrete transforms the tiny bones into something resembling a pile of dust or ash, ethereal and mute.  Helen Altman’s wall of skulls is one of the most intricate and varied works included:  nearly fifty, arranged in rows and made out of different materials that both reimagine and play up the shape of the human skull.  Rendered out of everything from pods, seeds, dried flowers, “Spice Skulls” takes this symbol of death and reconfigures it into a tactile and fragrant tableau, emphasizing the variegation in color, texture and smell of each natural material.

Flora + Fauna–Finally, plant life is transfigured from the organic world into sculptures that both underscore and downplay the wildness of natural growth.  Julia Lohmann’s “Kelp Constructs” repurposes seaweed by soaking, wrapping and reshaping it into a tendril-tiered translucent lamp.  The youngest represented, Dutch performance artist Levi van Veluw, uses himself as a human landscape, looking something like a human chia pet, molding and layering mini plots of grass and trees directly onto his head, neck and face.  One of the easiest to pass over but most visually arresting is the circuit board of bronze and reformed dandelion heads with tiny lightbulbs inside, entitled “Fragile Future 3.”  Created by Lonneke Gordijn and Ralph Nauta, the piece is built out of interconnecting lengths of phosphorous bronze, a pathwork both interrupted and illuminated by the glowing dandelion orbs,  an imaginative and fragile microcosm juxtaposing the scientific/geometric form with the electrified and ephemeral organic material of the dandelion.  The interplay of the patterning and wonder here presented is at the heart of many of the works in the exhibition, which revive the tired theme of modern man facing his his mortality into a spirited pictorialization that one approaches with humor and a sense of the supernatural or fantastical, rather than the distant and adversarial engagement people find with much contemporary art objects.

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