Chicago

“Some Went Mad, Some Ran Away . . .”

Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago (MCA Chicago)

“Some went mad, some ran away. The great majority remained faithful unto physical death.” So writes Angus Fairhurst in an essay on medieval mysticism from which Damien Hirst culled the title of this energetic show, identifying himself and the 14 artists collected here (including Fairhurst) as that minority who pursue alternatives to the herd, who follow other—sometimes erratic—paths to artmaking. As there are clearly many different ways to go mad or to try to escape, Hirst’s exhibition presented works in a range of styles and materials all keyed to a frenzied pitch.

Hirst seeks out a kind of playful insidiousness, a desperate gaiety that undercuts as it entertains, whether in the hard-edged, abstract, box-shaped paintings of Robert Peacock, or in Marcus Harvey’s send-ups of macho abstraction, or Sophie Calle’s dour photographic narratives of a family burial plot, or the numerous indignities imbedded in the cast-body sculptures of Abigail Lane. The exhibition crackled with diversionary strategies, including Michael Joaquin Gray’s Apple, 1992, a replica of Rodin’s Balzac made out of bright-orange urethane, and suspended upside-down from the ceiling in a sort of negative phallic display. Johannes Albers’ Table-tennis Table, 1994, operated on a similar principle of inversion, replicating the forest-green field of a pingpong table and its thin white lines minus the net only to hang it on the wall. Here the game is stripped bare; structural geometrical abstraction is rendered dysfunctional, humorously reprogrammed. Jane Simpson’s In Between, 1992—a large, horizontal slathering of butter chilled by a refrigeration unit while a small part of it is heated by a halogen bulb—created a curious and beautiful aureole of putrefaction, presenting a substance in transition that straddles the space between frozen solidity and degenerative decomposition.

Hirst’s own contributions to the exhibition included Away from the Flock, 1994, in which a lamb, prepared for him by a taxidermist, is snugly immersed in a tank of formaldehyde. As serene and peaceful as an equestrian painting by George Stubbs, the wide range of complex and contradictory concepts this object evokes-death, innocence, Christ, our stewardship of nature, animal rights, definitions of sculpture, preservation, etc.—swirl imperturbably around the clinical coolness of a Modernist box. It’s a kind of metaphor for the entire exhibition—not quite this, that, or the other thing, and always more fond of provocation and possibility than of positing conclusions.

James Yood