New York

Nancy Grossman

Barbara Gladstone Gallery

“You should only wear leather if you mean it,” goes an old West Hollywood proverb, an admonition to make the streetfoolish streetwise. Does Nancy Grossman really mean it? Not that she wears it, but she does continue to swathe life-size wooden busts with the stuff. Naturally, leather is hide, so why not give your sculptures skin? But Grossman’s sculptures look a little more semiologically complicated than this simplistic premise.

Her ten new busts look dressed to kill. Three are eyeless, blindfolded by leather hoods. They look about as harmless as sharks: two have bared teeth, the third a spiked muzzle. The other seven members of the Grossman party look like variations on the same chosen Negroid face; a few have shiny white painted noses peaking through their black leather (stitched and zippered) headgear; all have peculiar “eyes,” some made from cast-off buttons, others looking ceramic-glaucomic.

If Nancy Grossman really means it, what does she mean? Her show should be called “Of Inhuman Bondage.” These heads, decapitated from phantom bodies, stand at eye level on tall pedestals, as though the rest of them might be supported by, or encased in, coffins. They are all men; they are all menacing. I used to dismiss Grossman’s work as fashionable flirtation with the accoutrements of sadomasochism—all dressed in leather with no one to dominate. But her longtime obsession suggests that these sculptures are about a less transitory and more terrifying domination, like the spectre of Fascism.

A description of the Grossman dominator: male, head covered with leather and supplemental offensive/defensive gear—horns, spiked muzzles, eyes that see out but that you can’t see into. He’s an oppressor who’s essentially faceless but unforgettable. His is bellicose regalia—no one could be better prepared to wage war or to have war waged upon.

Ultimately, the message of these thoroughly unlikeable ghouls (unlikeable does not mean “not good”) is: I have seen the Enemy and he is . . . unidentifiable. But why the black “skin”? Why all men? Grossman’s enemy may be faceless, but the expression of his attributes make such questions unavoidable.

Carrie Rickey