New York

“Bathroom”

Thomas Healy Gallery

It’s almost certain that there’s never been a better overview of bathroom-related art than the 133 works by 82 artists and designers that writer Wayne Koestenbaum, who guest-curated the show, packed into this gallery. The exhibit felt like some kind of sideshow with an anthropological theme, a view of who we are as reflected by the attitudes we assume toward our bodily functions and the places we reserve to take care of them. It’s also part peepshow, a glimpse of the john as sexy or seedy, and it calls to mind all the things we’ve done in the only room we could lock as children. And then there’s also something of the trade show in the plumbing paraphernalia on display, including an elegant variety of ceramic Lady Js, which allow women to micturate while standing, by Kim Dickey, along with photos of them in use; there’s also Yolande Daniels’ Femme Pissoire, 1997, a prototype standing urinal for women, and photos of handsomely spare industrial fixtures by Interim Office Architecture.

Koestenbaum’s curating went for the comprehensive, reflecting just about every stance an artist could assume toward the loo. In the someone-was-bound-to-do-it category, we found George Tony Stoll’s Untitled (Angel Soft), 1997, embroidered silk toilet paper. There was the inimitably scatalogical 12 Assholes And A Dirty Foot, 1996, by John Waters. And the garish, a ceramic Venus Toilet and Bidet, both 1996, with purple floral flourishes by Beth Katleman, above which hung matching towels, “she wipes His” and “he wipes Hers,” by Diller + Scofidio. Besides the playful there was the pathetic (Marilyn Minter’s Mom Making Up, 1969/1995), the good-natured (everything by Joe Brainard), the allegorical (Sandy Skoglund’s “Walking on Eggshells,” 1997), and the comic (Claude Wampler’s Penn Station Walk-in pieces, which capture the startled expressions of people who’ve interrupted the photographer mid-business). For eroticism we were offered Bob Mizer’s eleven gelatin-silver prints of nude young men, recalling the Straight To Hell publications of Boyd McDonald and time spent with Physique Pictorial. And of course it wouldn’t have been a real bathroom show without accounts of disgust bordering on horror. In Sarah Lucas’ Cibachrome print Is Suicide Genetic?, 1996, the question is phrased in brown smears in the bowl of a filthy toilet.

The works were chosen both liberally and well, and each is capable of eliciting so much on its own that to see it amid so many others was to experience an embarrassment of riches. (Never mind that this luxurious feeling dissipated after leaving the gallery, as soon as one found oneself needing an actual bathroom in Chelsea.) One might quibble that there were too many toilet-paper pieces, but then one pauses to wonder when there has ever been too much toilet paper.

Whether as a refuge sought for sex or drugs, or a private asylum whose existence defines “civilization” in practical terms, the bathroom is an equalizer, our common denominator—and, as this exhibit showed, not necessarily our lowest. Even when it’s pretty low, we might learn something of ourselves there. But because the works ranged from the grossly frank to the sublimely beautiful, one feels forgiven for feeling that Koestenbaum dealt the art world a flush.

Tom Breidenbach