Saturday, May 30, 2009

Fallen angel: Laurel Nakadate at Leslie Tonkonow Projects

Laurel Nakadate simply does not know her own power, for if she did, she'd certainly have mercy on the damned souls that populate her provocative works on display at Leslie Tonkonow Projects. Known primarily as one of the "hottest" female artists working today, Nakadate is an example of pure physical perfection-- an ideal feminine specimen-- but she turns our aged notions of feminine beauty on its head by also being sly as a fox, and naughty as a misbehaving two-year-old.

Throughout Fever Dreams at the Crystal Motel, you can almost feel bedbugs crawling up your neck as you watch the Yale-educated artist and her various cohorts laying belly-up on mattresses long ago needing disposal. In one clip, Nakadate writhes on the hardwood floor, possessed. The squalor of the cheap motel envelops you as a pitiously haggard gentleman monotonously intones for Satan to release her captive soul. "Go away evil spirits. Leave her body. Leave! Leave! She's a good girl." Good girl? Hmm. I wouldn't go that far.

Nakadate is a good girl by no means. No, here is a woman who knows what she wants, when she wants it, how she wants it, how much she wants it, and she's going to get it NOW. This reviewer loves this quality in her. Nakadate is literally the most powerful female artist out there working today. But at the same time my heart goes out to the various sad sacks she seems to gravitate to (i.e., prey on). For Nakadate is more like a lionness on the hunt for sweet game. What's terrific about the artist's body of work is the powerful role reversal. In Nakadate's world, there are no male predators following innocent young lasses into dark alleyways, for the artist herself is a far more terrifying concept than any anonymous thug.

In one of the best scenes from Little Exorcisms, Nakadate directs the camera to repeatedly zoom in on a drifter filling up at the pump. We're in some corner of Nowheresville, nary a soul around. He smiles creepily in as come-hither way as he can conjure, thereupon playing a charade with the camera. Casting his line as if he were a fisherman reeling in his catch, he giggles uncontrollably. But the joke's on him as his genetic flaws are bared for the whole world to see-- a gaping hole where his front teeth should be, with vicious fang-like overgrowth of a jaw too inbred to be able to hold this bone structure. Maybe in his next lifetime he'd be able to catch a lady like Ms. Nakadate, but it's highly doubtful. Though I believe the artist in the past has mentioned her relationships with these cast of characters are harmless, I'm not so sure. In this case, I must ask if reverse gender victimization is excusable if they don't realize their part in it. Becoming self-aware is not necessarily in the cards for each of us, and for those that do not have that ability, kid gloves may be a necessity.

In another video, a bikini-clad Nakadate dances provocatively in the desert to the strums of Bruce Springsteen. Evoking Tawny Kitaen and her legendary Whitesnake poses, the artist becomes her own video vixen-- her serpentine motions thrill, electrify and captivate. Much like a young woman experiencing the joy of her sexuality for the first time, she directly confronts the viewer with raw attraction in its most basic form. The Id of Ms. Nakadate knows no bounds, and this is a powerful concept.

In a far funnier vignette, Nakadate rides in a train car looking out the window at the barren rural landscape. Suddenly, up comes her tank top as she flashes her breasts to an audience of no one. At first it's funny, and then upon subsequent views, I found it a great study in vanity and cock tease 101. It's certainly one of the funniest tongue-in-cheek narratives of the "look at my tits" culture that plagues today's young women, who seem to only know their value from Girls Gone Wild, or reality tv porn stars.

Fever Dreams at the Crystal Motel will be on view all the way until July 24th. There's simply no excuse for missing it this summer.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Badass mamas, toads eating icy cones, sexification, and the disconnect that connects us all-- visiting with Rafael Perez

In the past three years I've often tried to think about what makes or breaks an artist for me. Is it their ability, personality, message-- or is it something more? With my recent Brooklyn studio visit with Rafael Perez, I think I've finally figured it out. What stands him out from other artists is the way his works dig deeply into my very soul, bringing out long-forgotten childhood memories, and things I love, as well as fear.

When I first saw his animal watercolor series, I might have let out a squeal of delight. To me, there's nothing better or more entertaining than anthropomorphization. But these aren't hybrids or genetic experiments, as is the de rigouer, but instead, they're playing dress-up as characters-- kind of like people in your everyday lives. This series brought back memories of when I was little at my dresser, putting on the clip-on earrings of my greatgrandmother, and holding my well-worn copy of "The Wind in the Willows," or "The Animals of Farthing Wood."

In Perez's case, his inspiration came from a love of the "Frog and Toad" series-- books I had unfortunately been unfamiliar with until now. Nothing makes me more thrilled than when I'm looking at Perez's portly toad licking away at his icy cone, in full-on '80s hued wifebeater (minus pants). And of course we ALL know animals never need to wear pants, right? Take a look at Kermit-- he was naked all the time, except for that collar. Here, Mr. Toad looks like he's watched one too many Jane Fonda workout videotapes, and decided to cheat while no one was looking.

Mr. Chameleon totally killed me as well. Could anything be more appropriate in comparison than the cranky old guy at the assisted living center asking for his third helping of Salisbury steak of the day-- (the nurses told him he could only have two). Being human has its perks sometimes-- in the fact that we can imagine what the creatures of our world would be like if given human attributes. But in the case of Perez's creatures, they hold on to their animal instincts a bit more. On top of it all, if you don't find this off the cute-o-meter chart, then you're just a plain ol' meanie.

Perez honed his skills at the Graduate School of Figurative Art in New York City, at the New York Academy. The school is well known for the rigorous technical ability of its graduates, as well as its emphasis on anatomy of the figure, but sometimes it's also known for the stuffiness it places on its students, almost enveloping them with a fear of taking risks. Perez has left that completely behind, and brings a dark humor into his works, as well as appreciation of the body that can sometimes border on quiet observation of the female form, or the blatantly sexual.

In his new collaboration with artist Amanda Barr, you should probably shield the eyes of the young, because it's about as in your face as possible. Here Perez completes the watercolor landscapes, and Barr the cartoony figures in the foreground. Breasts appear as dripping ice cream cones, penises and crotches sit at ready, all while people frolick in their garden of earthly delights. It's a nice analysis of sexual debauchery, as well as delicious humor kept throughout. The beauty of this work is in the freedom it allots itself to throw caution to the wind and celebrate the joy of flesh and human circumstance.

Perez is also known for his Dangerous Women series, with last summer's similarly named group show at DFN Gallery I reviewed on ArtCat. Hot mamas with hunting rifles and flack jackets congregate, standing tall and aloof, awaiting their kill. Long before Sarah Palin came to the forefront, Perez had already begun this series of works. But throughout the series there's a sense of disconnect or vagueness to the eyes of the women. They look fairly disinterested, as if they have bigger fish to fry, but at the same time are desiring someone to come in and rescue them as well. Of course these ladies are the same types who'd eat you alive if you chose to do so, so I'll just leave it as that. They're nice to look at, but you might not necessarilly want to know them on too intimate a level.

Finally, Perez is now collaborating with the poet Sierra Nelson on a series of illustrations for an upcoming project. I'm especially fond of the work Merboy, which seems to convey to the viewer its isolation, and freakishness-- struggling to come to terms with his being an outcast, but hopeful nonetheless for what may come his way. I'll leave you with Ms. Nelson's words.

Your Affinity is with a Blind Beggar with Mismated Feet

Come dine with me now, baby merman –
Hail from your dusty dive and drink
Deep with thine eyes our desolate sea.
Sideshow specimen chained to the ceiling,
Stop overseeing this tawdry human fate –
You were born for more than fortunes for a quarter.
Bone grin, dry scale, no you can’t have pearl eyes –
Yes, she’s forgotten you, laughs one-eyed Jolly Jack.

Tremble in cobwebs, Ye Olde Curiousitie,
Above the 10 cents (U.S. Coins Only)
Girl in a Bathtub Peepshow Girl Méchanique.
They hauled you in half-afraid, half-strangled,
Mermonster gasping at the bottom of the boat.
There was a high soft wail before the gurgle and pained grin.
Now your dry tears make a lucky souvenir.
Yes, she’s forgotten you, laughs one-eyed Jolly Jack.