It’s hard to think of a more boring premise for an exhibition than the one behind “People,” on view at the Jeffrey Deitch gallery. Figurative sculpture, even created with nontraditional approaches and materials, is such a broad and varied category as to be almost meaningless.
Yet the show, featuring more than 50 works by 45 artists, is certainly a crowd-pleaser. It also raises provocative questions about the human body and our relationship to it as viewers, or voyeurs.
Frank Benson’s “Human Statue” from 2005 looks exactly like a nude man wearing silver body paint, so much so that you might confuse him for one of those living statues seen on Hollywood Boulevard. He stands in perfect contrapposto on a plinth, near two equally realistic sculptures of women, by Duane Hanson and Tony Matelli. No less uncanny, despite being made of yarn, is Luis Flores’ “Guns,” a life-size statue of a man flexing a bicep. Like Hanson’s and Matelli’s works, he stands directly on the gallery floor; I was startled a couple of times thinking he was real.
I hope Simphiwe Ndzube’s creepy figures never come to life. Their faces are covered with hair, like Cousin Itt, and they sport awkwardly distorted proportions and grotesque, vegetal appendages. “Mbhobho, Chief of the Gravediggers” has one long, glittery arm that snakes out like a tree branch. It’s nightmarishly fantastic.
Then there are the three sculptures by Anna Uddenberg. They each feature a vaguely female figure folded into an impossibly compromising position, but they appear to be made out of bicycle helmets, orthopedic supports and cat furniture. They’re bondage scenes for the cozy cat lady.
Yet that provocation pales in comparison to Narcissister’s “Totem,” a sculpture and performance piece. As I was regarding this hanging column of squatting sex dolls, a man came up behind me. Saying “Excuse me,” he placed a ladder in front of the piece, and two women, naked except for masks and merkins (a kind of breechcloth resembling pubic hair) approached. One climbed the ladder and perched on a seat below the uppermost doll; the other sat at the bottom of the column. Together with the dolls, they formed a totem pole of naked women.
The comparison between the dolls and the women was exceedingly uncomfortable, highlighting the ways in which the act of looking, especially in an art gallery, is always an act of objectification. And in this case, because the dolls look like women but are used as sex toys, it’s an act tinged with sexual dominance.
This queasiness infected my experience of the rest of the show, making me aware of how easy it is to treat people like objects. Figurative sculpture lets us contemplate the human form without consequences. The dead eyes of a sculpture never really look back.
I do take issue with Narcissister’s use of the totem pole form, which is specific to Pacific Northwest Native cultures and is often associated with spiritual practices. Her appropriation feels disrespectful. But in the sense that totem poles often carry the stories of the cultures from which they come, it makes a sad kind of sense that our culture’s tale would be a tower of naked women, used for sex, then tossed aside.
Jeffrey Deitch, 925 N. Orange Drive, L.A. Through Saturday. (323) 925-3000, deitch.com
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