New York

Louise Bourgeois

Robert Miller Gallery

The directness of Louise Bourgeois’ anger makes you avert your gaze; you turn away with a sickened feeling, sometimes, in Nature Study Velvet Eyes, 1984, for example, to meet another pair of staring eyes, emblematic of Bourgeois’ unflinchingness. But you turn back (unless you have no guts at all) because you know you’re being forced to confront something in an art context that has not been faced before—the absolute horror of sex. The story of the joy of sex has been told endlessly, the danger of sex (from Judith to Sardanapalus) frequently, but never the sheer primal horror of sex. Few artworks try to rebuff the viewer so completely as those here do, few are as willing to risk the loss of gaze. But for Bourgeois each piece seems to be a test of love, which is to say a test of power—how much will we take?

Bourgeois wants to rip off the lid of latency under which art boils and steams. If, as Freud contends, interest in seeing the genitals is repressed to create esthetic beauty, and if concepts of such beauty so far derive from a male history of art—if, in other words, it is femaleness that is repressed in esthetics—then women artists may feel faced with a choice of either participating in a denial/distortion of part of their selfhood, or destroying all notion of the beautiful, of “correct” and “incorrect” form. Bourgeois’ reply to Freud’s observation that “the sight of the genitals . . . can really never be considered ‘beautiful’” is: “Fine.” Is this work pornography? Dunno. It’s sexual, violent, but Bourgeois’ anger is oddly nonpartisan, fair in its indiscriminateness; it aims at sex, not gender.

Whether for male or female use, desublimation, an art of personal risk, offers raw power as a way out of the present deadlocked, postformal situation. Not all of Bourgeois’ pieces attain this power. She uses at least three methods to grab viewers: drama or theatricality (in the environments); an exaggerated viscerality (for example, using latex to suggest the the viscosity of the penis, increasing the number of protuberances for a species of hyperglandular disgust, emphasizing the limpness or flaccidity of sexual parts by hanging or draping); and startling juxtaposition (the metaphoric, hybrid pieces). When a work goes wrong it can be because, in the first category, events have gotten hammy, or, in the second, the visceral is missed altogether (as may be the case with one or two of the recent marble pieces such as Fear Four, 1984, which has more bidet than bedevilment about it); finally, one half of the juxtaposition may not be primal enough. Of the new works, the big-bellied bronze figurine trapped in coils and suspended above a slate disc on the floor is among the theatrical pieces, and manages successfully to present pregnancy as a state of suspense. With the umbilical cord strangling the mother rather than the child, this piece, which might be called fated femme, meets the femme fatale in the guise of the marble sculpture Blind Man’s Buff, 1984. The work’s innumerable breasts poking out from classical drapery put it in the visceral category, as well as revamping the Venus de Milo, indeed all those sculpted ladies whose dresses are falling off. This is funny, black humor—a Joan Rivers (“Can we talk?”) invitation to frankness—but only for those who have first acknowledged and discharged their anger or fear. Then one sees what’s so funny in this double bind: like the blind man in the game, we must touch—the shape cries out to be touched—but no inch of the surface is safe (polite) to touch.

The most startling accomplishment in the show falls into the juxtaposition category. Gargoyle, she-wolf, human, it’s a triumph of crossbreeding. Endowed with the usual overly generous supply of parts, this bronze Nature Study, 1984, pulls us toward it by identification with the picked-out spurs of the backbone and the definition of the collarbone, only to repulse us with its demon claws and tail. It leans forward like a begging dog, it squats suggesting defecation; headless, it raises the specter of castration. It is, all in all, a riveting, menacing debasement.

Jeanne Silverthorne