View of “Puppies Puppies,” 2016. Photo: Aurélien Mole.

View of “Puppies Puppies,” 2016. Photo: Aurélien Mole.

Puppies Puppies

View of “Puppies Puppies,” 2016. Photo: Aurélien Mole.

On the sweltering July evening of this exhibition’s opening, the artist who goes by the name of Puppies Puppies was planted on the sidewalk sporting a Statue of Liberty costume for the performance Liberté (all works cited, 2016). Draped in cheap sea-foam-green cloth, face concealed behind a rubbery mask, fake torch held aloft, the artist’s green-painted skin became streaked with sweat, staining the costume’s polyester stola. Lady Liberty marked a slight departure from Puppies’s growing pantheon of pop-cultural characters whose creaturely or monstrous bodies make them objects of disgust or fear—but still, it’s not easy being green. Standing nearly petrified as a stolid living statue, the artist was met with increasing indifference by onlookers. As the performance dragged on it felt increasingly tragic, the character relegated to social invisibility.

This event served as the prologue to Puppies’s compendium of the absurd, the queer, the normal, and the banal, as it unfolded in an offbeat run at Balice Hertling’s two gallery spaces in distinct episodes and installations bridging the gallery’s August closure. A working shower, occupied by hired male go-go dancers at the opening, promised both sanctuary and exhibitionism. The rest of the exhibition’s first iteration was littered with works by Will Benedict, Ken Kagami, D’Ette Nogle, and with gouache paw-print paintings by an internet-famous fox named Juniper. The press release, by the artist’s husband, Forrest Olivo (né Nash), suggested that the display as a whole was analogous to a child’s drawing, to be interpreted as a schematic expression of familial dynamics and their place within the child-artist’s psychic life. Biography openly informs such readymades as 2 Olive Trees, stand-ins for the Olivo couple; the anatomical model of Open Heart, used by the artist’s mother in medical school; and others that allude to Puppies’s fraught experience growing up gay and multiracial.

The creature comforts of conjugal domestic refuge offered one theme of the show. But these were met with the fear of the consequences of emotional availability and the vulnerability of the biological body. Where Claude Cahun ironically cautioned that one should “beware of domestic objects,” Puppies seems to lap them up. Consumption, for Puppies, is closely linked to ingestion, with consumer objects tied to symbolic codes; visual pranks evince a tropism toward the bathroom. Puppies’s serial array of toilet paper holders and rolls mounted on the gallery walls (Toilet Paper Grid) surrounded and seemed prepared to clean up after two of Benedict’s Untitled paintings, Rothkoesque color fields inset in passe-partouts of scatological smears. A third painting by Benedict, also Untitled, replicated a 1986 drawing by Don Bachardy of his partner, Christopher Isherwood, lying in agony on his deathbed. After the summer closure, the matrimonial idyll implied in the grouping of works installed in the main gallery made way for a starker scene—itself inspired by a viral news item—in which the only work was Human Bones in Ikea Bag (blue) (yellow) (green), a collaboration with Cédric Rivrain featuring real skeletal remains.

Such hefty subject matter, filtered by the artist through the commodified affect of the meme, slides into the bathetic. As Puppies hitches the material of lived experience to the ready vehicles of the pop landscape, rerouting the meaning of established signs to invest them with emotional charge, the subject flees into iconicity. Something nags at the viewer in Puppies’s re-creations of internet memes in pieces such as Spaghetti Condom and Curry, which mix food elements—real and plastic, respectively—with anthropomorphic figuration. Such images can be too easily exhausted, but occasionally they precipitate empathetic recognition. Works such as these share with the artist’s performances a basis in mimesis. In its navigation of popular culture and art history in concert, Puppies’s work of mimicry becomes a means to establish intercourse with the other, but also to camouflage, and perhaps efface, oneself.

Phil Taylor