Theater & art

Art Review

Worcester exhibition focuses on the bizarre in art

Above: Joel-Peter Witkin’s “Un Santo Oscuro.” Top: Joel Sternfeld’s “McLean, Virginia, December 4, 1978.”
JOEL STERNFELD; COURTESY OF THE ARTIST AND LUHRING AUGUSTINE, NEW YORK
Joel Sternfeld’s “McLean, Virginia, December 4, 1978.”

WORCESTER — If you’re the type who has a paralyzing fear of clowns, if the sight of monkeys gives you goose bumps, if identical twins dressed identically make you a little dizzy, you might want to avoid “Perfectly Strange,” a celebration of the bizarre and off-putting in art at the Worcester Art Museum.

Strange, of course, qualifies as anything not normal, and art, with its tendency to prod into deeply felt, disconcerting, and newly envisioned ideas, may lean more toward the strange than other professions. Think of Renaissance painter Giuseppe Arcimboldo’s nutty portraits composed of gourds, fruits, and flowers. Or the penetratingly realistic decay portrayed in Dutch still life paintings of that era. Strange carries a charge.

Nancy Burns, assistant curator of prints, drawings, and photographs at the museum, doesn’t go back as far as the Renaissance. She has put together more than 70 pieces from her department that date from the 17th to the 21st centuries. Many of the usual strange suspects are on view: biting satire in one of Francisco Goya’s “Los Caprichos” prints, tarot cards by Salvador Dalí, twins photographed by Diane Arbus.

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Works on paper make for an intimate viewing experience. You get pulled into a piece, and then you may find yourself repelled, bemused, or both.

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As to the repellent, consider yourself warned: Burns has included an image by contemporary photographer and master of the macabre Joel-Peter Witkin, “Man Without a Head.” It depicts a portly, seated corpse, wearing only socks. The man’s posture is slyly comic — it looks as if he might be sitting down to dinner — except that he’s naked, and his head has been severed.

Witkin made the image in 1993, and Burns included it in her plans for the exhibition before the recent beheadings of US journalists and a British aid worker in the Middle East. The photograph carries especially threatening freight right now, as it reaches beyond the strange into the (horrifically) familiar. Burns is right to keep it in the show. Viewers do not go to see an exhibition called “Perfectly Strange” to be cosseted.

“Man Without a Head” appears in a section about the grotesque; other sections include twists of perspective and odd narratives in the real world; circuses and masks; and the surreal in fairy tales, dreams, and the imagination. The exhibit darts, sometimes disconcertingly, from whimsy and satire to dissonances and nightmares.

For instance, Mary Darly and Matthew Darly’s saucy 1777 print “The Flower Garden,” lampoons the wild adornments noble women put in their ridiculously tall hair, à la Marie Antoinette. The Darlys, a husband-and-wife team, were known for their caricatures.

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Their piece hangs near a more daunting 1934 print by Pablo Picasso: “The Blind Minotaur Led by a Little Girl.” In it, Picasso uses muscular, fluid lines to depict the monstrous man with a bull’s head, apparently tamed by a roman-nosed, blond child. The work of the Darlys is cheeky, but Picasso’s contains volcanic energy.

When it comes to strange art, I’ll take volcanic and unsettling. If you’re like me, you’ll find the most affecting parts of the exhibition in the strict Surrealist pieces, the grotesques, and the twisted, upending narratives. My favorites are all from the last century.

Joel Sternfeld’s color photo, “McLean, Virginia, December 4, 1978” depicts a house afire in the background, and a firefighter about to purchase a pumpkin at a pumpkin stand in the middle ground. In the foreground, other pumpkins have been smashed. Why is the fireman not putting out the blaze? Why is the pumpkin stand open in December? Such a simple, undoctored image — so many rich questions.

Joel-Peter Witkin’s “Un Santo Oscuro.”
JOEL-PETER WITKIN
Joel-Peter Witkin’s “Un Santo Oscuro.”

Then there’s Duane Michals’s delightful photographic series “Number 1-9, 1971,” which leads us by hand from one photo to the next with a simple widening of perspective, from a bathroom through a tunnel, right down into a mobius strip of a rabbit hole.

Herbert Bayer’s 1932 photo montage inspired by a dream, “Lonely Metropolitan,” in which eyes hover in the palms of upraised hands, is installed near John O’Reilly’s 1965 “Self-Portrait.” The two together effortlessly pierce the unconscious with their free associations.

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O’Reilly, now in his 80s, is a Worcester boy who made it big in the art world. He specializes in seamless photo collages that unnervingly tie eroticism to aesthetics and art history. This is one of his first collages, and he made a strong start, mixing Polaroid self-portraits with images from astronomy and Hieronymus Bosch. A large hand scrapes over moon craters, soil, and a woman’s body. Tiny male figures stand and sit on the last, as if it were a landscape; one of the breasts squirts a nebula into the cosmos.

This exhibition is its own kind of collage, finding its strengths in juxtapositions. Two Witkin pieces — “Man Without a Head” and the textured, unnerving “Un Santo Oscuro” depicting a weak-chinned dummy with a cleaver in his head, impaling himself — hang beside Guillermo Meza’s dark drawing of a skeleton, “The Bride,” and Seth David Rubin’s freakish photo, “Tongue.”

These are the grotesques, of course, intended to unnerve. “Tongue” is big, and in living color. Rubin photographs his own face outfitted with an assortment of vintage lenses, which magnify and distort the glistening underside of his jutting tongue and the whiskers on his upper lip and chin, while his nose nearly vanishes and his pale hair flames angelically above.

Like monkeys and clowns, like Witkin’s work and that of the Surrealists, “Tongue” pokes at the fertile and frightening border between human and not human. The strangest things, it turns out, are those most like us.

Cate McQuaid can be reached at catemcquaid@gmail.com. Follow her on Twitter @cmcq.