Artwork > Writing/Reviews

I had the pleasure of spending a couple of hours in this space...and thought I would share the highlights of it's vulgarity and beauty.

Morbid Curiosity
The Richard Harris Collection
January 28th-July 8th 2012

A Review by Sarah Grana

The Chicago Cultural Center’s newest exhibition ‘Morbid Curiosity’ is an exquisitely arranged journey into the iconography, ritual, and relics of death. The show explores ideas of mortality, the horrors of war, and what it is to be human. Employing the concept of Kunsthammer or ‘cabinets of curiosity’ the viewer is led into a landscape of precious relics, paintings, sculptures, prints, video installations and mixed media that plays to the darkness. The idea of the cabinet of curiosity dates back to European tradition in which the wealthy created collections of scientific specimens, exotic relics, ancient artifacts, and memento mori.

The show covers art work made to explore the themes of mortality and human existence spanning some six thousand years and covering the work of artists from 5 continents. One main theme is the idea of vanitas. Many artists throughout history have made work about the vanity of the living and the inevitability of death. It is very interesting to see modern artists exploring these very antiquated ideas framed by Christianity and the European tradition. Many vanitas show the limber, lush young bodies of women juxtaposed with skeletons and other matter of human decay. The idea is to remind us of our ‘Dance with Death’ and that beauty and youth are fleeting.

Upon entering the space I was quite taken with the Salon-style wall covered from floor to ceiling with images of decomposing bodies, skulls, human anatomical sketches, all framed in various sizes and shapes. One striking piece included on the Salon Wall was titled ‘Headhunter’s Trophy’, 19th C. , Naga People of India. It is comprised of a human skull, mithun horns, and fiber. The piece looks like a warrior talisman, and in fact was hung in morungs or youth dormitories to show the power of the tribe and be an inspiration as they trained to be instruments of war. The skull has two enormous demonic horns on either side of the temples. The gorgeous blood -red wall set the tone of the show and acted as an anchor to the vast space. Before the Salon wall is a banquet table littered with skulls of all purpose and design. Some are covered in pearls or very shiny glasses, while others are much more sinister; spitting snakes from between their ghastly teeth.

There is a section dedicated to the Mexican holiday of Dia De Los Muertos, including pre-conquest objects and contemporary works from modern Mexican Artists. The festive neon colors and large bouquets of flowers surrounded by ribbons and beautifully decorated hats and gowns set the tone for this section. There was an altar to the dead with display food, candles, and skeleton statues. I really enjoyed the small figures hand painted for the holiday of various adult and child skeletons celebrating. The concept of mourning has always been interesting to me. How does it come to be that one culture finds the act of mourning to be such a refined and sorrowful things while another celebrates the life of the loved one who has passed with dance and music.

One of the more striking pieces in the show was an enormous, decadent chandelier comprised of plaster-cast bones of the human body. The artist Jodie Carey revisits the dance of death theme, reminding the viewer that all people come to the same fate, regardless of wealth and stature. I found myself thinking about the holy reliquaries of Europe housing the finger bones of Saints or the tendrils of hair from angels. This piece is also reminiscent of the Sedlec Ossuary in the Czech Republic, which contains the skeletons of between 40,000 and 70,000 people. The bones have been artistically arranged to form decorations and furnishings for the Cemetery Church of all Saints.

Perhaps one of my most favorite pieces of the exhibit was John Issac’s mixed media piece entitled “ Are you Still Mad at Me?” Isaacs studied biology before turning to the world of postmodern art. The piece includes a very realistic and very horror-cinema like figure that is missing its lower jaw, both arms, and one leg. It is a surrealistic view of the monstrous and yet it clearly depicts the very real physicality of the human form. Intestines spill over the edge of the torso, the viscous meat of the leg clings to the femur bone. Artificial blood was used to cover the figure in a shockingly real image of the body. I almost expected to be punched in the face with the very distinct odor of decaying flesh and rot when I approached the figure. The figure is leaning forward in an expectant manner atop a shipping box covered in stickers and notes. The front of the box displays a rather kitschy painting of a young girl, appropriately crying.

‘The Death of Venus’ by artist Roger Reutimann was a sculpture of a life-sized nude woman painted with cherry red auto paint. The effect was a shiny red figure that appeared to have been covered in blood. The figure wears a small piece of cloth over her head like a cape. When you walk around to the front of the figure you are met with the grimacing skeleton skull beneath the headdress. The combination of the young female body with the skull plays to the theme of the Dance of Death.

In the room dedicated to the Horrors of War I was most struck by the grouping of prints by the Chapman Brothers. These finely detailed prints reminiscent of Goya were clearly depicting the degenerate acts of war. Combining acts of violence with overtly pornographic juxtapositions of genitals and mechanisms of war, these prints were shocking and yet familiar.

Overall, the exhibition was captivating and undeniable. Unfortunately , a piece I was most looking forward to seeing by artist Steve Dilworth was not yet installed. The suspended figure includes a human skeleton, heart, liver , meat, horsehair, and sea grass. Titled, ‘Hanging Figure’ this piece mimics the act of decomposition and acts as a reminder of our fleeting physicality. There was an area reserved for the piece with its placard at the show , but the piece, in all its gory glory was absent. Apparently, it was stuck at Custom’s and not being let through due to fear of disease. Leave it to the government to mistake ART for disease carrying refuse.

Our relationship with the idea of death is a one of fragility and denial. Too often we find ourselves trying to mask the inevitability of death. We bury our loved ones in hermetically sealed boxes adorned with velvet and satin in costly rich woods. We do not want to think of the process of decay. We don’t want to see or know about the mortician’s hand sewing the eyes shut and draining the body of fluids in preparation for our very orchestrated rituals of presenting the dead. We do everything we can to distance ourselves from such an inevitable fate.

It is refreshing to see so many various interpretations of this age-old theme. It is the shock of the real, the dance of the macabre, the rawness of biology and physiology or lack thereof, that excites us. This exhibition is a must see for anyone who has blood pumping through their veins. We can find humor in Death, and we can find brotherhood, for it awaits us all. I think Thanatos would have been proud of this exhibit.

---Sarah M. Grana

Morbid Curiosity
The Richard Harris Collection
on view at the Chicago Cultural Center
January 28----July 8

A Review by Sarah Grana