“Carnal Knowledge: Sex + Philosophy”

Leslie Tonkonow Artworks + Projects
535 West 22nd Street, Sixth Floor
May 5, 2012–July 27, 2012

Adrian Piper, Food for the Spirit #1, 1971, black-and-white photograph, 14 1/2 x 15".

In 1971, Adrian Piper spent the summer holed up alone in her apartment, reading Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason (1781), practicing yoga, and subsisting on nothing but juice and water. To counter the feeling of falling away from the world, Piper began reading into a tape recorder and photographing her image in the mirror, as if to ensure her existence.

The result of this intimately staged exercise in intense self-study is “Food for the Spirit,” 1971, a series of fourteen underexposed black-and-white self-portraits that are at once ethereal, acetic, and, in the context of a large and lively group show bridging the great mind-body divide, unnervingly seductive. In the three vintage prints included here—and on the pages of an accompanying binder featuring the artist’s annotations of Kant’s text—Piper appears to hover ghostlike between the abstract, intellectual, and immaterial, and the earthy, sensual, and unabashedly physical, a tiny camera raised casually, almost defiantly, to the nook below her naked chest.

Curated by Christopher Eamon and Beth Stryker, “Carnal Knowledge: Sex + Philosophy” is an exhibition that hinges, perhaps predictably, on the playful, mischievous, and roughly erotic, from the polished wit of Marcel Duchamp’s L.H.O.O.Q., 1920 (seen here as it was reproduced on the cover of the March 1920 issue of 391 magazine) to the wildly explicit photographs Hans Bellmer made in 1946—all tangled, penetrating, upturned limbs—as studies for Georges Bataille’s Story of the Eye. Impressive not only for its historical and material range but also for its finely tuned sense of humor and multilayered approach to the desires that bind brain and body, the show certainly intrudes on reason and rational thought with what the curators demurely (and euphemistically) call “amorous instruments.” But the more sensitive substrata of this exhibition—as seen in Piper’s photographs, Sophie Calle’s The Dice, 2010, and Paul Chan’s customized, ink-drawn font for the Marquis de Sade (2009)—gives full-blooded form and ample imagination to the idea that serious intellectual inquiry is often as sexy as it is cerebral.

— Kaelen Wilson-Goldie