May 6, 2008

History of Art Majors Society explores boundaries of art and the body in 'Exquisite Corpus'

Bodies -- inside and outside, observed, exposed, reflected, hacked to pieces or otherwise taken apart, deconstructed and reconstructed -- are the subject of the student-organized Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art exhibition "Exquisite Corpus: Interacting with the Fragmented Body," through June 15.

The exhibition was curated by the History of Art Majors Society as its annual showcase at the Johnson. The students also prepared an exhibition catalog, wrote essays on the artwork and brought guest artists STELARC and Vlatka Horvat to campus for public talks.

Society members Sarah Humphreville and Stef Hirsch, both fourth-year dual majors in fine arts and the history of art, led an Art for Lunch tour of the exhibition May 1.

Interaction is a key feature, with film and video, Polaroid photography, and Internet-based works among 2-D and sculptural elements.

"In contemporary art right now, there are no limits, no boundaries," Hirsch said. "We wanted to show contemporary work, and show that art can be anything, maybe even vulgar."

The title and concept refer to the Exquisite Corpse, a Surrealist exercise in which three artists independently draw a section of a body: head, torso and legs. In "Exquisite Corpus," viewers are also welcome to play.

In Blue Couch Collective's "Snap," one of two ever-changing interactive pieces they created for the show, viewers are invited to photograph themselves with a Polaroid camera; the snapshots are then pieced together into "bodies" on the gallery wall.

"Some people are spending time composing shots of exactly how they want their body to appear," Humphreville said.

Blue Couch's "Vote" invites self-reflection (one of the keys to navigating the exhibition) with one question: "Are you A) a construction of molecules, or B) a heart and soul in a bag of skin?" Colored papers for each answer show the results inside a clear plastic ballot box.

Much of the work on display is explicit, true to the subject matter. Warning labels and safeguards for young patrons (or those who are easily offended) are in place in the galleries.

Body image, sexuality and identity are among the most-challenged and played-with concepts by the artists in the show. "Conversions," a black-and-white film by Vito Acconci, runs for more than an hour, in which the artist portrays himself, naked and exercising, as an unspecified human gender -- neither male nor female. Paul McCarthy's color film "Wild Gone Girls" seems to parody amateur voyeur videos, showing us bikini-clad women partying on a boat as they hack off a man's (fake) leg.

"You become more aware of yourself when you're forced to look at something that's uncomfortable," Humphreville said.

Other artists shown include Roy Lichtenstein ("Study of Hands," 1981), Robert Rauschenberg ("Booster," 1967), Paul Rotterdam ("Substance 284," 1975-77) and Frank Stella, whose 1972 works "Charlotte Tokayer" and "Hollis Frampton" intimate they are more than abstract geometric images.

Surrealism and juxtaposition are prevalent throughout the show. In the images on this page, Philip Guston's lithograph "Sea" shows a mountain of large disembodied heads, while John Baldessari's "Domestic Smoke" is a series of disassociated parts, at one end a woman's hand, at the other a man's head.

Most of the works were drawn from the museum's permanent collection, including recent acquisitions and others never before shown here. Museum staff including Andrea Inselmann, the Johnson's curator of modern and contemporary art, provided assistance. The student-curated exhibition is made possible by an endowment from Museum Advisory Council members Betsey and Alan Harris.

"It is a marvelous show, challenging, exciting, imaginative, everything that one wants a group of students to do," said Johnson Museum Director Frank Robinson. "The mission of any museum, and especially a university museum, is to challenge us and make us think and expand our boundaries; this is what 'Exquisite Corpus' does."

The works by McCarthy and Acconci, and John Coplans' nude self-portraits, "are famous and have been shown in literally hundreds of museums around the world," Robinson said.

For more information, visit http://www.museum.cornell.edu.