PRINT May 2004

US News

the SITE Santa Fe Biennial

“Disparities and Deformations: Our Grotesque”—the evocative title selected by Robert Storr for SITE Santa Fe’s Fifth International Biennial—might at first glance suggest a curatorial riposte to the previous installment of the New Mexico institution’s signature exhibition event, Dave Hickey’s 2001 “Beau Monde: Toward a Redeemed Cosmopolitanism.” After all, in its common pejorative sense, the grotesque would seem to be the antithesis of the sort of worldliness to which Hickey’s title provisionally alludes, a zone not of refinement and urbanity but of disharmony, disenfranchisement, and aberrance. Yet as with Hickey, who had often grappled with questions of beauty and the condition of the “public” before he made his show, Storr’s interest in the notion of the grotesque long predated his selection as this year’s guest curator. And, as did his predecessor, Storr saw the biennial as an opportunity to unpack an idea more complex and subtly shaded than its conventional connotations would indicate.

The grotesque “has always seemed to me to be a perfectly natural thing to be preoccupied with,” says Storr, in a recent telephone interview from his home in New York. “From a very early age, I looked long and hard at Jacques Callot and Goya. I grew up in Chicago and studied with Ed Paschke and knew that crowd and read comic books like everyone else. And it always struck me that this is something in its own right, not a digression from greatness or some kind of weird deviant thing—or if it is, there are so many of us deviants that we ought to stand up and be counted. It’s been interesting,” he continues, “to see all the different varieties of it, that there’s so much of it now, and that some of the taboos that used to make it impossible for people to take it seriously have begun to weaken, although they’ve not entirely disappeared.” The grotesque, Storr says, “is a constant thread in modern art. It’s the part that the culture doesn’t know what to do with. . . . It’s a whole aesthetic, the full counterterm to a kind of purifying idea of what art could be.”

This sense of generative impurity, as Storr notes in his preliminary concept statement for the show, goes back to the very roots of the concept of the grotesque. The word itself derives from “grotta,” the Italian word for “cave,” and first referenced the discovery during the Renaissance of Neronian palace ruins heavily decorated, in the late-Roman style, with paintings “characterized by surprising hybridities—bizarre fusions of plant, animal, and human forms.” The “unifying principle” behind the idea of the grotesque, then, “is that of contradiction,” he writes, signaling the “point at which logical and emotional certainties waver, taste loses it bearings, and familiar realities warp into disorienting paradoxes.”

In keeping with the heterogeneous nature of his subject, Storr’s “Disparities and Deformations” is a diverse affair, with SITE Santa Fe’s newly updated building slated to host some fifty living international artists—including established masters like Louise Bourgeois, Bruce Nauman, and Sigmar Polke; midcareer figures such as Cindy Sherman, Carroll Dunham, and Robert Gober; high-profile younger artists like Tom Friedman and Kara Walker; and emerging names like Lamar Peterson, a young American painter with a knack for rendering curious narrative scenarios in a vivid Technicolor palette. Taken as a whole, Storr’s roster demonstrates his desire to track the grotesque through various cultural and generational frames, but it also gives a glimpse into the diverse manifestations the subject will take within his catholic scheme. Notable among these, perhaps not surprisingly given its etymological roots, are investigations of the human body and the ways that physical states can evoke states of mind—from the abundances of flesh in the paintings of Lisa Yuskavage and Jenny Saville to the uncanny mixed-media works of Brazilian Adriana Varejão, whose carefully painted surfaces, often suggesting expanses of decorative tile, are interrupted by gashes that reveal what appears to be bloody tissue lurking behind the tessellation. The inclusion of artists such as Hermann Nitsch, Paul McCarthy, and John Waters indicates Storr’s willingness to embrace purposefully profane challenges to conventional taste, a tendency further amplified by his choice of several artists celebrated for their subversive, often humorously rude reworkings of the cartoon form—among them R. Crumb, Charles Burns, Raymond Pettibon, and Peter Saul, a “principal character in all this,” according to Storr, who “has been basically offending everyone for a very long time. His content is political and social, but his position is always to attack shibboleths.”

Storr, who recently left his position as senior curator at New York’s Museum of Modern Art and now serves as Rosalee Solow Professor of Modern Art at the Institute of Fine Arts, New York University, notes that the current SITE Santa Fe project is “in a sense the offspring” of “Deformations: Aspects of the Modern Grotesque,” a 1996 show he organized at MoMA with works from its permanent collection. And in writings, from his 1992 “Do the Wrong Thing: Eva Hesse and the Abstract Grotesque” to his essay on the grotesque for the 2001 Stedelijk Museum exhibition “Eye Infection,” Storr has employed his considerable scholarly muscle toward thinking through various theoreticians’ and artists’ formations of the concept, from Ruskin to Gombrich to Mike Kelley. He says his essay for SITE Santa Fe’s catalogue will hearken back to earlier literary contexts, like Baudelaire and the nineteenth-century writer Jean Paul, who memorably coined the term “soul dizziness” to describe the existential state produced by the grotesque.

While historically grounded, Storr’s exhibition, given the iconoclastic contention with dominant culture that characterizes the grotesque, is also particularly topical, especially in an era when presidential spokesmen warn Americans to “watch what they say, watch what they do.” “It’s ‘decadence’ that the conservatives use to blame this stuff,” Storr says. “But what they don’t like is that [the grotesque] involves the mixing of cultures, the mixing of orders of importance; they don’t like that humor and seriousness can coexist.” The works in his show, Storr says, are made by a different lot: “people who allow themselves to think thoughts that do not in a sense channel” but rather “that exfoliate, that blossom in these weird ways.” For viewers undaunted (or, indeed, intrigued) by the prospect of dizzy souls, who view the occasional bit of intellectual disorientation as not only inevitable but even salutary, “Disparities and Deformations: Our Grotesque” would seem to promise a compelling corrective, redeeming a contested idea and reclaiming it on the audience’s behalf—returning it to its rightful place at the very center of “our” own cultural landscape.

Jeffrey Kastner is a New York–based critic.

SITE Santa Fe Biennial Artists (to date)
On view July 18, 2004–January 9, 2005

Ricci Albenda
Louise Bourgeois
Charles Burns
Francesco Clemente
Bruce Conner
R. Crumb
John Currin
Carroll Dunham
James Esber
Inka Essenhigh
Tom Friedman
Ellen Gallagher
Robert Gober
Douglas Gordon
Mark Greenwold
Lyle Ashton Harris
Jasper Johns
Kim Jones
Mike Kelley
Maria Lassnig
Sherrie Levine
Christian Marclay
Paul McCarthy
Jennifer and Kevin McCoy
Elizabeth Murray
Bruce Nauman
Hermann Nitsch
Jim Nutt
Tony Oursler
Gary Panter
Lamar Peterson
Raymond Pettibon
Lari Pittman
Sigmar Polke
Neo Rauch
Alexander Ross
Susan Rothenberg
Peter Saul
Jenny Saville
Thomas Schütte
Jim Shaw
Cindy Sherman
Laurie Simmons
Fred Tomaselli
Adriana Varejão
Davor Vrankic
Kara Walker
John Waters
John Wesley
Franz West
Lisa Yuskavage