New York

Not Vital

Sperone Westwater Barone/Boisanté

It’s been a long time since I’ve seen an installation in which the wall became so much more than a neutral backdrop. At Sperone Westwater, Not Vital’s bronze castings of sheep tongues projected from the gallery wall like claws in a horror film. Some turned into fingers, while others were obviously penile. Only the devil knows what polymorphous monster hid behind the wall. In Snowballing the Giraffe, 1997, Vital seemed to have hurled globs of plaster at it, but clearly the creature is more unsavory and bizarre than a giraffe, and the comic snowballs don’t begin to penetrate its lair. The skin-and-bone remains of its meal were all around the gallery—a horn, a zebra skull hanging on the wall, ostrich skin, and, to cap it all, a stuffed greyhound supporting a plaster cast of a human leg.

The gallery’s front room served as something like an antechamber to the inner sanctum of the backroom, where the manneristic taxidermized dog—a hybrid of animal and human—acted as a high altar. The marble herm with the satyr’s head in the front room prepared us for the experience in the back, as did a bench with busts painted immaculately white for legs. A drawing (seen with other earlier works on paper at Baron Boisanté) entitled Golden Calf, 1989—the luminous bovine form set against a pitch black ground—makes Vital’s point succinctly: his art is about sacred space, where the hierarchy between the divine and the animal, between the transcendental and natural, has been collapsed. Animals have always represented the sacred for Vital, as his “pole animals,” fetishized animal parts from the early ’90s, made clear, but in this installation he outdid himself. There seems no return to the relative calm and concentration of his expressive drawings, where the sacred takes the form of a gnostic contrast between the dark power of demiurgic, animalistic impulse and the steady force of blissful light.

All of Vital’s works have the character of initiation rituals. In the first room of the Sperone Westwater installation, the inedible remains of the animal meal evoked the climax of Dionysian ritual, in which an animal is torn apart and consumed. (The connection between such ritual and cannibalism is made transparent in Vital’s use of the human leg.) The garbage cans in the show—found plastic trash receptacles topped with silver lids—added a flippant note to the installation’s sinister atmosphere. In its Apollonian aftermath—suggested by the second room—the initiate is reborn as a spiritual being. Vital’s treatment of the sacred even manages to transform the animals. As the taxidermic process has freed the dog of all its fleshy matter, the animal itself has been purified.

Donald Kuspit