PRINT March 1993


CHRIS ISNER’S ART IS about the body and its tribulations and pleasures, but unlike other body artists—Robert Gober, Kiki Smith, Matthew Barney—his work does not flow from inside to out- side; he’s not bringing something lurking within to the surface. The interiority or psychology in his work is no deeper than a cut in the skin. “Surface” for Isner does not mean “superficial”; it is the site of meaning, having the same relevance as a good tattoo an acquired externality that encapsulates and symbolizes the person it adorns.

Skin is the central trope in Isner’s work, and is figured in various ways, from the more literal and metonymic to the more metaphoric and abstract. In Urban Integration 2000, 1990, Isner branded his own body. In The Hottest Piece of Ass on the Block, 1992, made for a benefit auction, the initials of the piece’s buyer were to be tattooed on Isner’s buttock. (The piece did not sell.) A fleshy latex appears in many of his works, and a 1991 series involved painting and writing on pigskin. In an ongoing series, “Chrisdjinn,” begun in 1992, piles of raw wool are pressed under glass, which transmogrifies them into an organic-looking mass.

Elsewhere the reference to flesh is more oblique, in pieces that palpably invoke the physical machinations and contortions by which they were produced. In the ongoing “Torque” series, begun in 1990, mounds of untwined rope suggest the physical act of twisting. In Matrimoniuin Emasculatus, 1993, a flaccid roll of heavy cloth is held in a right angle by the tense knotted nylon cord that strings it up, the title giving a sharp corporeal resonance to a structural configuration familiar since the ’60s.

Originally trained as a painter, Isner, a Los Angeleno living in San Francisco, seems to transpose the late-Modernist attention to surface and support onto its bodily equivalent: skin and bones. Deflecting the hermetic ’60s focus on art about art, he endows his work with body content, projecting it as flesh, the basis for primal experience. After all, skin is the most accessible site of torment and pleasure, our sensory contact with and flimsy protection from the rest of the world. In the “Stigmatic Constellation Series,” 1990-92, Isner records bodily lesions as another artist would the contours of a face: unlike Kiki Smith’s similar works, these dangling sheaths of flesh-toned latex, with burns marking the positions of scars, are “portraits” of individual people. Like the sculptural pieces that involve imprints of parts of Isner’s body, they convey a sense of both presence and absence.

In its physicality, at times visceral, always sensual, Isner’s work taps into large issues of identity. In Veni, Vidi, Veni (The Merry Month of May), 1991 (now destroyed), Isner ejaculated daily onto a full-length mirror for a month. Beyond the abrasive initial impact of the fetid glass, Veni, Vidi, Veni clearly presented itself as a self-portrait or self-reflection. But the mirror invoked more than the familiar Lacanian figure in the formation of identity, for this cum-coated looking glass incorporated the viewer as well. Masturbation is often a solitary act, but here the self was refracted into an open-ended multiplicity.

Just as the mirror’s reflexivity canceled depth, from another angle, the scurrilous nature of Veni negated the artistic gesture as privileged expression of the artist’s soul. Yet it was as gestural as a Jackson Pollock. And as in Pollock’s drip paintings, Isner’s gesture consisted of arcs determined by the perimeters of his body. Again, though, this was a gesture without the expressionist sense of interiority—a peculiar combination, emblematic of all Isner’s work.

The body has become culture’s last frontier and preeminent battle zone (as is evident, for instance, in the struggle over abortion). It is no longer simply the object of sexual investment, but of a multitude of ten- sions pulling in different directions: concern with disease, violence, and the molding of the body through cosmetic surgery and bodybuilding have assumed a central place in the zeitgeist. Given the financial resources, the body can now be engineered to look like anyone else’s, as when Michael Jackson becomes an ersatz Diana Ross. Technological developments, of course, enhance these tendencies: now we can, for example, corn-modify reproductive functions, contractually extracting the “self” from its internal organs.

One response to the centrifugal energies currently at work on the body may be the attempt to make one’s skin more unique through such ancient techniques as tattooing and body piercing. This is the opposite of plastic surgery, wherein you join millions of other Barbie-doll wannabes. Indeed, the discourse around body piercing and tattooing, especially among women, centers on individual expression, self-styled identity, and exorcising the name of the father—in a word, freedom. More than mere decoration and a grunge version of épater la bourgeoisie, they are a conscious reaction to the body’s colonization. The content without depth that Isner is forging registers both the barrage to which the body is being exposed, and its refusal.

Daniela Salvioni is an art critic and curator who divides her time between New York and San Francisco. She is currently curating a show, New York—Cologne that will open this April at P.S. 1 Museum in New York.