PRINT May 2003


Weighty Madonna

Steven Klein and Madonna, Kidney, 2003, color photograph, 70 x 86".

MADONNA GOES THROUGH INCARNATIONS the way the rest of us go through tubes of toothpaste. When last season’s soigné, spiritual Madonna appeared on Larry King Live in October, one marveled at how she constantly evolves: from her breakthrough MTV “Like a Virgin” moment, writhing on the floor in a wedding gown in 1984, to her more recent, mature work, writhing on the floor sporting a cabala tattoo in the “Die Another Day” video. Her latest avatar is now enshrined at Deitch Projects: I saw it as an allegory of forces within the buff megastar, where Darkness and Light battle 24/7, and she literally has to contort herself—even putting her foot over her head—to express that inner conflict.

Throughout history, Art has enabled the culturally empowered and spiritually ambitious. Enrico Scrovegni had Giotto; Philip IV had Velázquez; Madonna has top fashion photographer Steven Klein and a smart installation designed by LOT/EK. Recognizing that Art needn’t languish in the high-culture ghetto, Deitch Projects decided to mount this weird, glam show when proprietor Jeffrey Deitch saw images from Klein’s forty-four-page Madonna shoot for W (April 2003). Five pictures from that session were developed into Art, tricked out with video, animations, and sound and presented in five self-contained “chapels,” inspired, according to LOT/EK, by the Caravaggios in baroque churches.

The mysteriously spelled “X-STaTIC PRo=CeSS” “deconstructs” the cult of Madonna while trading on her star power. She is exposed amid the trappings of her spiritual and theatrical practice: from yogi, prophet, and queen to freak and pole dancer. With the exception of one shot in full costume, she cavorts half-dressed in leotards, corsets, fishnet tights, satin character shoes, and the Ace-bandaged look favored by fellow star Matthew Barney. Knee pads and the powdered palms of the gymnast complete the ensemble. The sheer lavishness of the installation imbues the show with conviction; its well-designed, artfully “unfinished” bluster almost distracts from the ridiculousness of its apocalyptic posturing.

Entering the blacked-out, cavernous gallery, one first spots the hardworking pop star bending over backward—literally—giving her all for Art, even when menaced (or “guarded,” Klein suggested) by wild animals. In this triptych of near-life-size projections, the upside-down Madonna is sandwiched by twin coyotes; their wire leads, and the elbows of their handlers, are visible—to emphasize, like the whole show, that the image is a setup. The beasts’ heads move jerkily, digitally dynamized. The entire triptych is housed in an industrial-chic rig with exposed scaffolding, soundproofing, gadgets—designed by LOT/EK to underline the “constructedness” of the image and its cult. Whether or not you are a true believer in the Madonna, beware: All ye who enter the hip gallery enter the “X-STaTIC” cult of Glamour and Fame. The actual space is so dark one can easily trip—so watch out!

The holy-peep-show/sideshow vibe continues in the next Madge altar, which features the limber celebrity on a grimy table (in leotard, fishnets, and baby-blue heels), with her foot behind her head, uncannily echoing the anatomical drawing on the wall: a digitally palpitating kidney. Amid the industrial-techno din emanating from the various displays, Madonna exhorts: “Do not fear what you are about to suffer . . .”

Now she tells us.

“This is not fashion,” Klein reminded me, as we walked through the show. Don’t be fooled by the stage-y makeup, coiffure cleverly “deconstructed” with bobby pins, and fancy foundation garments. Madonna is not, like, “selling a dress,” he said earnestly. “She’s never about her vanity, she’s really into what the work is about . . . creating an interior landscape for a performance artist—which is how I see her.”

I perked up when he mentioned he’d been looking at Francis Bacon’s work. If art is the sum of destructions, it’s rather brilliant to see a sacred cow of realness like Bacon butchered by Madonna’s “edginess.” Bacon was everywhere: in the diptych and triptych formats, geometric structures in a vacuum, the body styled like meat. The tableaux do have a painterly effect, inviting one to pause rather than flip quickly to the next shot: All it takes to slow down the viewer’s experience of photos, I marveled, is huge-scale, super-high-end projection, emanating sound, a self-contained shrinelike installation, and a bit of animation.

The oddest diptych—and that’s saying a lot—expresses the pop icon’s duality: On the left Madonna slumps into a sumptuous red gown and miterlike headdress, evoking one of Bacon’s screaming popes or Gary Oldman’s Dracula—her animated midsection pulsing, froglike; on the right she’s splayed out on a skanky cot, wildly “vogue-ing” her arms, her mouth twitching rapidly, like a deranged robot. “I call this one ‘the Mad Queen,’” said Klein. “It’s the power of the queen and the yogi, the intellect and the pure—they’re opposed. That’s part of who she is too.”

I consulted the press release: “Rather than the packaged glamour that one might expect from the collaboration of a pop star and a top fashion photographer, the work is raw and menacing. The spirit is apocalyptic. . . . Klein sees Madonna as a messenger, asking people to wake up and confront the dehumanizing forces in the contemporary world.”

Madonna seemed to return my gaze as I watched her digital arm dance. “This is hilarious,” I said to Klein. “That’s great,” said Madonna’s messenger. “One of the things that Madonna said too is she’s not into darkness.” Indeed, the more “apocalyptic” Madonna’s vision, the lite-er it seems. “People think she reinvents herself for her own self-promotion,” said Klein. “I feel like in a lot of ways, she’s a messenger, and . . . the messenger always gets persecuted.”

Titled Beast, the inner sanctum of the show provides benches for viewers to contemplate a messianic Madonna on all fours, preaching from Revelation. She’s poised to do a leg lift, attired in a dressy arm splint and beaded gas mask. (“It’s a couture mask,” said Klein.) The coyote wanders around the set, and a mystery wedding gown/tepee structure is animated on fire: “He said to me, I am the alpha and the omega . . . the beginning and the end . . .” Who does she think she is—Madonna?

Rhonda Lieberman is a New York–based writer, critic, and artist. The Rhonda Lieberman Reader (2018) is now available from Pep Talk Press.