New York

Chloe Piene

Tanja Grunert Gallery

Ye olde mix of sex, death, and ungodly powers from beyond infused a recent show by Chloe Piene, and results ranged from excellent to interesting to problematic. With a group of charcoal drawings on vellum and two elaborate videos, Piene explored exhibitionism and violence, the allure of raw Goth-teen personae, and the difficulty of balancing adulation with critique.

Each of Piene’s drawings (from 2002 and 2003) depicts a contorted, long-haired maiden with her hands between her legs, floating somewhere between putrefaction and ecstasy. Skeleton and flesh blur; the drawings’ contours are nervous, luscious; the pictures themselves graphic, and graphically gorgeous. This erotic/neurotic combination gets complicated, however, in the video You’re Gonna Be My Woman, 1997–2000. A small blond woman (Piene) wearing stained white panties and T-shirt gambols in a cramped concrete enclosure. She laughs and snarls for the camera; she springs out of frame like a gnarly sprite and bounds back in like a pretty ape. The radically manipulated sound track snarls and growls, and we assume this doe-eyed, red-lipsticked creature is speaking its command to us—though, in a show obsessed with auto-eroticism, probably to herself as well. She is ratty, feral, gleeful. Her hair hangs in greasy dreads; reversed video allows her to suck gelatinous drool up off her arm. The piece tweaks a trope of the incarcerated sexy/crazy female that extends from Ophelia to the grim Lolitas of Edvard Munch to Schiele’s tortured erotics to Angelina Jolie in Girl, Interrupted: She is the ingenue who’s taken a demon lover. This makes sense with the drawings. Still, something about Piene’s exuberant equation of self-empowerment with decay gives one pause. And the other video, The Woods, 2002, does not allay suspicions.

As the room goes dark, a sinister electronic voice shouts, “Nobody loves you! Satan spits on your very soul! You don’t deserve to live!” Harsh, distorted music plays over an image of teenage boys absorbed in a mosh pit, filmed in an elastic, narcotically slow motion. Silky bangs swirl around their lowered eyes; big jeans and T-shirts billow; callow, powerful bodies jerk as if each were trapped in a private cell within the collective trance. The voice continues, “I fuckin’ wanna destroy your life!” as the camera glides and stutters. The rather beautiful filmmaking notwithstanding, I thought The Woods made its subjects appear both stupid and frightening. If Piene feels that she belongs to this scene and wants to address authenticity, youth culture, and the glamour of in-group anarchy, then the sanitized gallery setting and arty production values are patronizing. If she wants to critique a self-indulgently nihilistic masculinity, there’s too much libidinal hero worship in the piece’s dramatic rhythms (the final shot, for example, shows the artist crowd-surfing, Christlike, as the sound track intones, “You feel free”). And if Piene wants to have her boy toys and comment on them too, to appropriate this particular sort of testosterone for her own use—why? Is there really something transgressive, or liberating, about suggesting that girls, too, can be self-congratulatory aggressors?

This is not to say that these kids really are violent, or stupid, or frightening—we don’t know what they are, because Piene manipulates their images so forcefully. Nor do I suggest that girls are allowed to objectify only themselves, and never boys. But if visions of power must include menace and degradation, then appropriation of and projection onto someone else’s subjectivity is risky business. Piene flirts not only with the gothic, but with a soft kind of fascist kitsch—it’s a puerile choice. On the other hand, I haven’t been offended by a video for quite a while, and for that, I credit Piene’s verve.

Frances Richard