From the dawn of abstract expression an aesthetic sensibility has vacillated between that of the natural and that of the made, synthetic, or purposeful objects. Harbored in a semi-fractured American setting, the delineation between the Marcel Duchamp of New York and the opposing American bracket led by Alfred Stieglitz formed a debate which crystallized opposing opinions about the correct sources of art. While Duchamp strived to highlight the progress, technology and component parts of modern life through his representation, Stieglitz & Co wanted nothing more than to embody the eternal spiritual quality of nature, despite an increasing technique of systematic abstraction.
The fold between the two sides of artistic sources met and closed into one lapidary clause: nature and technology are both spiritually inspirational and endlessly complex: a rich and challenging source for the artist. We now live, therefore, with an aesthetic sensibility that sources equally from nature and technological progress. It is a matter of purpose to then ?nd the individuals whose work or lives emulate this sensibility. This is not done by prettifying and highlighting the paltry scars of this antiquated schism. The comprehension of this sensibility is discovered no longer in their explanation but is displayed, absolutely, through their very formation.
Enter now: a possible manifestation of this contemporary aesthetic sensibility. “All the Pretty Corpses,” the current exhibit at the Renaissance Society at the University of Chicago features projects by eight living and working artists. The tagline of this exhibit as well as the hearsay qualifier is: “Neo-Gothic.” In a stringent art historian’s mind, Neo-Gothic could rightfully conjure an image of an edifice with cascading glass flying-buttresses, gleaming metallic surfaces ornamented by glowing light, buzzing antennae, coiled wires, piling and protruding from bulbous pods, swirling and swelling from seemingly technological, or possibly, bio-technological necessity: a massive totem pulsating with human or human induced activity. One would replace the spires so familiar of our famous Gothic cathedrals with blasting beams of light. Our magni?cent stained-glass rose windows could be refitted with enormous plasma screens, displaying continually mutating images. This window would be a monitor of progress, a panoramic surveillance of construction and expansion. This portal, which once served as the delicate filter between the harsh earthly existence of the preRenaissance subject and enormously beautiful prospect of heaven, would be in its “neo” incarnate, no longer a filter between squalor and opulence but between the now and the metallic and digital future.
However, as of yet we do not have any edifices which resemble my description. We certainly do have veritable representations of this futuristic reincarnate: films and animated/comic literature offer us a glimmer of this stylized state.
Neo-gothic is mainstream as a concept but its creative fervor is still relegated to the basement hallways of high schools, the midnight salons in diners and in fringe music venues and clubs, and overwhelmingly, on the internet, prosaically qualified as a sub-culture. The Renaissance Society, as an institution, has continuously framed exhibits and featured individuals whose purpose and work could be quali?ed as experimental, counter-cultural or curious. So here, we find the Renaissance Society reaching deep inside the bowels of society, touching a group, a style and an ideal which has held dominion over the nether-creatures of the counter-culture for nearly three decades.
What appeared most blatantly curious about the exhibit during its opening was the complete lack of gothic personalities. In their clothing, accessories and manner of speaking one found nothing reminiscent of the markedly (i.e. stereotypically) gothic individual. No high-contrast makeup, no black, no leather and no occult paraphernalia. How then, we may ask, is this art neo-gothic if not created by gothic individuals? Perusing web-sites devoted to displaying artwork of gothic sensibility one comes across delicately rendered images of princesses, dragons and satanic creatures. There are Giacometti-like scribbles of suffering lonesome individuals cowered in the corner of vast, cold cemented rooms. One finds pouting young girls with slick, long, black hair staring, plainly forward. One can only imagine that the source of these images, created by persons across the world, is their very selves. The imagined accessories of the gothic regalia rendered in ink and pencil drawings or actually fashioned from materials seem only to make sense if they come from an individual who appreciated and understood the aesthetics of this sub-culture: someone who would desire to share their creation amongst the like-minded.
So this synthesis of which I write, that cohesive perspective that does not highlight the opposition between nature and technology, but rather, highlights the in?nity of creation over the explanation of purpose is achieved through the presentation of the “neo-gothic” style by the curators at the Renaissance Society. In codifying several disparate artistic sensibilities in varying mediums of visual arts, the exhibit posits a counter-point to an increasingly insincere period of popularized artistic representation. Most conventionally executed are the ink drawings of Kacy Maddux. This artist, in utilizing gothic or occult symbolism—aspects of religious, mythic and the corporeal—has enveloped the urge (or angst) towards the infinity of creation in a series of sizeable pieces which covered an ample portion of the gallery walls. When studying the dynamism of these images, an almost inexhaustible source of inquisition towards a definition of a “what” materializes itself. The drawings are immaculately executed in clean, steady lines and curves and framed for the viewer to stand squarely and study their content. This inexhaustible source of inquisition is not a secondary inquiry into the drawings but is the very content of the drawings themselves.
Maddux explained during a question and answer session at the opening, the drawings are the representation of a folding and unfolding of a repetitive sentiment. This sentiment, impossible to represent directly, is achieved through meticulous and scrupulous expansion and retraction of an iconography of the artist’s invention. An iconography, as Maddux explains, could be conceived as a transitory language. The series of drawings display an extract from a personal catalogue of icons that form the grammar by which this language is constructed. As a reading of Maddux’s drawings carries itself towards a form of representation which expresses in its material and its consistent imagery the actuality of a sentiment or an occasion, her inclusion in the neo-gothic style further substantiates the polarity between a sub-culture and the respected “culture” as such. The images that are found in the wake of Maddux’s pen, working against conventional contemporary culture and its incestuous purveyors of representation, are exaltations of sincerity. This art does not parody a sentiment to the point of a hollow echo. There is no mark of the deathblow called kitsch to banish this project to the realm of instituted product. The mistake of miscomprehension through blundered abstraction was performed by certain artists of the early years of abstract expressionism, but we may now have found seriousness through excavating sub-cultures from their quasinarcissistic catacombs.
This sincerity is even more apparent in the installation/ sculpture of Chicago-area artist Tony Tasset. His Grotto (2005), amassing blood-colored candles in the mouth of a life-size stone-and-mortar-looking plaster shrine conjures images of occult ritual and miserable onerous devotion. At first the “neo-gothic” imagery seems apparent, almost to the point of triteness. On the aesthetic note: the grotto looks solid. As the candles melt while some still burning, the red languid wax scores trails down the appreciably stone-gray plaster walls and sprawls onto the floor: the overall effect is quite beautiful. To conjure further the feeling of devotion, reverence, or grief in the wake of tragedy, the Grotto was placed in the corner of the gallery. One has to step aside from the main course of the galler y and stand alone, facing the glaring mouth of the edifice, which larger than us, blocks our view of anything else.
However, Tasset’s commentary on the piece was the more poignant of appreciable elements. Tasset explained his disappointment in the contemporary monument or memorial. Placing his grotto in the same context as a contemporary memorial one immediately thinks of recent events which were later marked by objects. The shootings in Columbine served as the artist’s example. His apparent distaste for the minimalist monuments that serve as the perpetual reminders of unarguably horri?c events posited his artwork within the dynamic style of representation here termed neo-gothic. Why not conjure the blood and misery of the event in its respective memorial? In explaining the allure and bene?ts of this sentiment and noting his child’s attraction to goth and/or metal music, he described our current state of affairs as pretty awful. In a society where everyone professes his or her anger and couples society with shit, why not sing about that? Why not show the shit and the society together, in glowering directness? Tasset’s Grotto serves as the memorial for a fictionalized tragedy. His memorial addresses the materiality of the event: the darkness, the blood and the inevitable isolation, which follows human tragedy.
“All the Pretty Corpses” offers its audience a tour through a world which is nothing short of stimulus and engaging imagery. This exhibit also incorporates artists whose agendas extend beyond those possessed by their source, the youth sub-culture of “goth.” However, it would be quite contentious to write that the works of art and the position taken by the artists or the curators of the exhibit were refreshing. Refreshing would assume a reconstitution of a state of freshness of which is presently difficult to conceive. However, if the cathartic properties of art were ever to be as present as they are in the exhaustive performance of head banging, ritual and incantation-based lyricism and a frightfully accurate representation of anger and fear as are found in the music and musings of the goth milieu, the art that this state of mind inspired is certainly a step towards a moment of respite from suffocation. This sensibility could be an antidote to the choking insincerity so symptomatic of befuddled parody and the lurking and lascivious kitsch of mainstream culture.