New York

Michael Joo

It stands to reason that pretty much everybody knows what a zebra looks like, either from photographs or the zoo, a tourist safari or Animal Planet. This was obviously not always the case, as for instance when George Stubbs painted the zebra that had been imported to England in 1762 by Sir Thomas Adams as a gift to Queen Charlotte, who kept a collection of exotic animals in the park of Buckingham House (as the palace was then known). In his most recent exhibition, Michael Joo took Stubbs’s 1763 painting of this zebra as the inspiration for three sculptures. The artist makes direct reference to the painting in the life-size bronze sculpture Stubbs (Absorbed), (all works cited, 2009), although the posture of the creature, with its head turned and tail swinging, departs from that of the morose zebra in Stubbs’s painting. A four-part screen shielded this work somewhat from the rest of the exhibition. On one side, Joo printed a woodsy landscape—suggestive neither of Africa nor of Queen Charlotte’s park—while the verso bears images of moving blankets from the artist’s studio. You could say that Joo has displaced displacement with this diorama-like backdrop, and that the zebra as motif is sucked into a sort of mise en abyme vortex. A wild animal is removed from its natural habitat; a (famous) painter paints it; 240-odd years later, another artist, primarily a sculptor, reframes these histories in a way that points up the air of artificiality that has always surrounded the animal. Stubbs (Absorbed) resembles a zebra but in a vividly antinaturalistic way, as the beast’s black body is traversed by shiny and reflective bronze stripes. The zebra—a charming animal, even a cute one—becomes quite aggressive through Joo’s transformative process: There is a palpable vulgarity to this art zebra, a sickness in its sheen. Nature can be ugly, but it’s never vulgar. That’s the domain of culture, and as an aesthetic strategy it conveys a certain hostility. No more Mr. Cute Zebra.

The show included two other variations on the zebra theme. Doppelganger (Pink Rocinante) is another bronze, this one a cast of the blanket mold Joo used in casting Stubbs (Absorbed). The artist has painted this mold-zebra Pepto-Bismol pink: not pretty, not pleasant. Pepto-Bismol is, after all, an over-the-counter treatment for gastrointestinal discomfort; it looks icky even though it is in the service of counterickiness, viz., upset-stomach relief. A third version of the zebra is Consistent-Seen-Touched, a miniaturized replica of Stubbs (Absorbed) standing on a large, reflective stainless-steel base that strongly resembles a piece of medical or laboratory equipment. The pedestal alludes to science, whereas the mini-zebra looks rather like a piece of decorative kitsch, pricey and absurd, a trophy for the armchair big-game hunter—for the fantasist. Joo’s art appeals to the egghead with a taste for exorbitant materials forced into tense juxtapositions, sensuous and intellectual at the same time.

The interrelationships between the natural and the artificial, science and art, have preoccupied Joo since the early 1990s, and the interest is abiding. Certain works veer into somewhat different terrain, more science fiction than science, such as Future Perfect (Dulcinea), which combines an actual flight-suit costume from the revamped Battlestar Galactica television series with a head of sorts consisting of some fifty live-feed video cameras; on the floor there are two monitors, one showing various vantages from the cameras, the other providing a fluoroscopic scan of the interior—the “skeleton”—of the suit. The subtitle “Dulcinea” effects a slightly strained connection to that of the pink bronze zebra mold, “Rocinante.” (Dulcinea is the imagined ideal woman of Don Quixote; Rocinante is the name of his horse.) It’s an impressive-looking sculpture, though it seemed stranded in this otherwise tightly conceived installation. Nonetheless, it may yet presage further weird and arresting developments in Joo’s practice.

David Rimanelli