Ellen Cantor

1 000 000 MPH Project Space

Can a blow job be a religious experience, and if so, for whom? The dictionary specifies that the word is “usu. considered vulgar”—and the same might be considered true of the act itself—but perhaps that’s all to the better, since abasement and transcendence tend to function hand in hand. But the work of Ellen Cantor suggests that the question could be rephrased: Is a blow job even possible? The motif has been recurrent in Cantor’s drawings, yet she has arguably never depicted it as anything other than imaginary, a fever dream.

Look at any of her drawings in which the act is shown—Path of Sun—Road of Life, 2006, the wall-size work on black paper that is the centerpiece of the latest exhibition by this London-based American is merely the largest of them—and you’ll notice that between the cock and the woman’s head there is some representational disjunction; they do not quite correspond in pictorial space. Even the method of drawing is likely to be different. The woman’s face will be a flurry of approximations, its contours and surfaces adumbrated with a multitude of feathery strokes, delicate almost to the point of indeterminacy; the male organ, though likewise portrayed by means of multiple lines, will on the contrary be limned with a firm hand. Despite the vivid evocation of the woman’s fingers’ tension in grasping, her lips’ in sucking, one has the sense that there is no real contact. Her eyes are closed; she has withdrawn to an inner distance. “There is no sexual relation”: The Lacanian dictum finds confirmation here, but precisely this absence of relation becomes an occasion of ecstasy.

As this recurrent image appears in Path of Sun—Road of Life, it is overlain with overlapping circles, as if the resonating of the act, or of its implications, were welling up with such intensity as to drown out the image itself. As the contemporary German philosopher Martin Seel put it in his Aesthetics of Appearing (2000), this resonating marks “an encounter with formless reality,” and “all interest in resonating stems from pleasure in self-surrender.” Woven into the reverberating texture of this echoing space, one finds little astrological symbols, along with inscriptions like YOU SHOWED ME THE WAY TO LEAVE THE PAST AND ONLY YESTERDAY WHEN I WAS SAD AND LONELY. The relationship of these words to the imagery they embroider is ambiguous, because they point to a story with a before and after, whereas everything else in the drawing tends to arrest any narrative dimension in the flux of the moment.

Yet the smaller (and earlier) drawings that accompany Path of Sun—Road of Life point to this “sad and lonely” yesterday. Simon Says: draw a picture that is so embarrassing that you will never show it—then show it, 2004, may not live up to the extremism of its title, but its mimesis of moaning self-pity through its creepy clown-and-snowman imagery and phrases like NO MONEY, NO SEX, NO HOPE, and NO CHILDREN written on collaged-on bits of paper with crossed-out sailing ships comes close. However, there is enough humor, critical distance, and, above all, visual nuance at work to keep the yuck factor at bay. These drawings may run the gamut from depressing to exalting, but their diaristic appearance and blatant indulgence in unacceptably saccharine romanticism mixed with crude sexuality is counterpointed by a coolly diagnostic eye.

Barry Schwabsky