New York

Steven Gianakos

Droll/Kolbert Gallery

With Steven Gianakos, ideas of conservative and radical are not applicable. He aims for the catharsis of humor, a smutty subversiveness; but, regrettably, his recent exhibition showed he only has one weapon in his arsenal: penguins placed in human situations. In a series of ink-on-museum-board cartoons, Gianakos’ penguins are stars of blue movies, celebrities at a Penguin Premiere, proud owners at Dog Show, and health enthusiasts at The Gym. Gianakos’ penguins aren’t the cute animals wearing tuxes, but rather dimestore, molded-plastic models, their limbs frozen onto a pedestal. They’re oddball stand-ins for various human conditions.

As someone who reads the National Enquirer fairly regularly, I know it’s important for some of us to feel that we’re spiritually and physiologically kindred to animals. This isn’t Gianakos’ intention, because these penguins aren’t cute and charming—they don’t speak sign language or do other human stuff the media animals are celebrated for—these penguins are human surrogates, androids. Was it a chuckle or a chill to see the humanizing of these Antarctic stand-up comics? I laughed a lot, but there was something naughty about Gianakos telling different jokes that all had the same punchline.

His message in the cartoons is clear, that humans are interchangeable, consubstantial with assembly-line androids. This is not philosophical insight particularly, but rather an ass-backwards attempt at role reversal, the idea being that we understand our roles better if we see others assume them. It’s neither trenchant social satire nor insightful art, but a feeble stab at entertainment. I was entertained. (But I’m a cheap laugh.)

There was one particularly fetishistic piece in the exhibition—a toy for adults—that held my fascination. A mixed media sculpture called Mixed Marriage: it shows a naked woman, prone on all fours, buggered by a penguin’s beak, which the viewer could activate by rotating the viewer-participation handle. It was the only genuinely hostile article on view, and it didn’t go for the joke, the way the cartoons did, wanting instead to be a vehicle of aggression, of wish fulfillment. What misanthrope has not privately wished for his or her enemy this fantasy vengeance? A strong piece in a lightweight show, Mixed Marriage truly justifies the name of action object.

Carrie Rickey