New York

Daisy Youngblood

The expression of contemporary Western culture’s relation to the dead, and to what lies beyond the world of the visible, takes other forms than those of the ethnographic fetish. Without privileged access to the cultural codes through which the fetish object acquires its meaning, our perception of it remains mediated by anthropological texts and museums, where the object is autopsied. Here, the object is petrified, patronized, estheticized, and circumscribed by another topography which alters its value. If Daisy Youngblood’s earlier clay manikins, with their stick limbs and real hair, caused some unease, it may have had less to do with content than with the ambivalent status of these objects; their formal resemblance to “true” fetishes implied an occult reading, but one divorced from a ritual context, because the necroscopic esthetic codes of the museum or gallery fetishize objects differently. Yet as the artist’s most recent work suggests, a common discursive space can be assigned to both the occult object and the art-object: while the former functions as a mediator between the real and the spirit worlds, the latter assumes the role of fetish, both in the Marxist sense, as a commodity, and in the psychoanalytic sense of disguising a lack—the absence of the thing represented or of the original self. In other words, it is as a site of exchange that both kinds of artifacts may find value.

The eggshell fragility of the white-and-russet fired clay out of which Youngblood models her melancholy, miniaturized ungulate beasts provides the formal means whereby we may begin to speak of such a site. The taut clay surface limns the contours of heavy, distended bellies; but they are hollow and mostly limbless vessels, rent and open to the exterior—phantomlike residues whose allusions to loss, or death, are most obviously demonstrated by the skull attached to the body of White Cow, 1985. In Magnolia, 1985, an animal lying on its back displays its carcass as both an efflorescence and a disembowelment, or as both sensuous gaping vulvae and postnatal rupture—an ambiguous form that recurs in Evening Cow, 1985. The associations of naturalism, the passivity of the animals, and the moon (as in Mars Trine the Moon, 1985)—with their seeming nostalgia for the maternal body—suggest a rhetoric of Jungian symbolism which is finally less engaging than the relationships set up by the sculptural form itself. The spent shell functions as a site of exchange: it is a spatial boundary between an interior and an exterior, as well as a temporal residue alluding to a “then” and a “now.” And yet it is a contour without closure; like Paleolithic cave drawings with their layered and overlapping spatiotemporality, the substance of the “inside” is exchangeable with that of the “outside.” The economy of loss, too, is that of an exchange between life and death where, as in Open-mouthed Crucifixion, 1985, expiration may also be a sucking-in of breath or life—an inspiration. If, indeed, the maternal body is mourned and fetishized here, it is through its exchange with the art object that it may seem, at least, to be regained.

Jean Fisher