by Justin Manley
Frankenstein’s Birthday Party, showing at Hosfelt Gallery through August 11, celebrates the 200-year anniversary of the publication of Mary Shelley’s novel. The subject matter is heavy, and its combination of fantastical grotesques with artifacts of real-life atrocity requires fortitude and a morbid curiosity. Determined visitors are rewarded with a show of first-rate artworks assembled with inspired curatorial vision.
Like the titular mad scientist, visitors to Frankenstein’s Birthday Party confront a collection of innocent grotesques and must navigate between compassion and disgust. This is not a show about Frankenstein the book, but a birthday party for Frankenstein, the man (the title gives it away). Though Hosfelt Gallery is known for its focus on the effects of technology, the Party is for anyone who is a creator or custodian of life: scientists, engineers, doctors, certainly — but also teachers and parents. Each visitor walks the gallery as a modern-day avatar of Victor Frankenstein.
Frankenstein’s mental struggle between disgust and empathy is the central drama of the novel. The scientist is repelled the moment that his creature awakens, and he curses its yellow skin,
shriveled complexion and watery eyes. Later, the two meet on a lonely mountaintop, and the creature makes an eloquent, lyrical plea to Frankenstein. Looking back on the encounter, Frankenstein recalls: “I compassionated him and sometimes felt a wish to console him, but when I looked upon him, when I saw the filthy mass that moved and talked, my heart sickened and my feelings were altered to those of horror and hatred.”
This moment reveals a tension between vision and language that shapes the reader’s experience of the story. The creature’s hideous appearance and its plaintive words seem to tell contradictory truths about its character. For Frankenstein, the visual overwhelms the verbal; in the end, persuasion and reason are no match for the forcefulness of a hideous appearance (“the filthy mass that moved and talked”). For the reader of Frankenstein, immersed in text rather than the multi-sensory richness of real life, the experience of the creature is very different. The novel provides a natural habitat for the creature’s words and holds the full force of its appearance at a distance. In this textual context, the creature’s words seem to reflect the truth of its soul, and its appearance seems merely an unlucky accident.
Language is notably absent from Frankenstein’s Birthday Party. With the exception of two works by Russell Crotty and William T. Wiley, the artworks at Party are purely visual. As a result, the grotesques in this show have no way to speak the inner truth of their souls. Like the mute monster in James Whale’s iconic 1931 film adaptation of Frankenstein, these works must convey all that is beautiful and beastly through sight alone.
Patricia Piccinini’s The Comforter is the first work to capture my attention. This hyperrealist silicone sculpture shows a young girl with thick, dark hair covering her face, arms, and legs cradling a “chimera,” a hybrid creature like a human baby with a cow’s udder for a head. My instinctive reaction is to marvel at the craftsmanship that gives the sculpture its uncanny realism (a common response to such works). Convinced that the infant is breathing, I spend several
moments staring at its stomach. At some point, my wonder shifts into freak-show fascination. I consume with guilty greed the grotesqueness of the young girl’s hairy face and the drape of the infant’s udder-head. The girl’s hairiness, caused by hypertrichosis or “werewolf syndrome”, isonly skin-deep, a matter of mere surface appearances. Yet, despite its obvious superficiality, the strangeness of her condition dominates my judgment of the sculpture and whether it is worthy of empathy.
The Comforter is most sympathetic from afar. Squint and it could almost be a modern Madonna, a scene of maternal love and infant vulnerability. Even up close, there are elements of pure tranquility. The girl’s turned-in feet with their velcro strap-on shoes express a certain innocence, and the expression on her face is peaceful. Yet as I zoom in, it becomes increasingly difficult to grasp the tenderness of the scene. Sympathy and revulsion in The Comforter are activated at different viewing distances, and it is the nature of hyperrealism to invite up-close inspection. The
Comforter contains both beauty and deformity— but, as with Frankenstein and his creature, the sculpture is easier to loathe than to love.
Janine Antoni’s to twine inspires a subtler unease. This cast polyurethane sculpture consists of a pair of human spines twined like snakes on a hemp mat. The snakes trigger an instinctive alertness to danger. The mat, with its vaguely domestic connotations, makes the snakes seem even more out of place. There also seems something inappropriate about displaying human bones in this way, almost in a heap on the ground, as though they had been stolen from a grave — or left carelessly behind by a hurried grave robber (recall that Frankenstein built his creature out of bodies plundered from graveyards). The spines can also be read as nuzzling lovers, and if there is something indecent in this display of public intimacy, there is also a sense of tenderness. Nearby, another Piccinini sculpture, The Struggle (2017), depicts a lion attacking a stag, rendered in steel and metallic paint as a motorcycle and Vespa. Looking from the violence of Piccinini’s composition to the seductive strangeness of Antoni’s spines, I am reminded that for all their negative associations, snakes are also symbols of healing, fertility, and rebirth. The balance between attraction and revulsion is precarious and difficult to maintain. In to twine, it is exquisite.
Of all the images in the show, Tim Hawkinson’s Pink Bike (2010) is the hardest for me to look at. There are two levels of unease.First, the proliferation and juxtaposition of Hawkinson’s body parts through collage makes me squeamish. I squirm at the bicycle tires made of knuckles and the four pairs of arms in the bicycle’s frame. The second and more troubling aspect is my
dislike of the artist’s body: his skinny arms, pallid yellow skin, and shaven head, like a cancer patient’s. The vulnerable generosity of Hawkinson’s nakedness makes my ungrateful distaste feel shameful. This is an image that is too ugly to enjoy, and yet too human to dismiss.
After the grotesque comes the sublime. The second half of the exhibition abandons the complex ferment of beauty and anomaly that characterizes works by Piccinini, Antoni, Hawkinson and others. What we get instead are artifacts of human violence in a slow and relentless barrage: guns, mushroom clouds, incarceration and torture devices. These are not shock-pictures, the photographs of the war-wounded and the maimed that characterize war photography. For the most part these are pictures without people, and they offer a silent, oblique view of human cruelty.
The few exceptions to this parade of weapons offer a relief. Bruce Conner’s Bombhead (1989) shows a trench-coated figure with a mushroom cloud for a head. Conner’s collage is too serious to be campy as Shelley’s novel sometimes is. The message is somber (humanity calmly destroying itself), but it has an element of absurdity, like René Magritte’s famous surrealist image, The Son of Man (1964), of a bowler-hatted man with an apple in his face. (That painting is currently on view in a Magritte retrospective at SFMOMA, reviewed in these pages by Mark Van Proyen).
Two of Michael Light’s photographs express a similar dark humor. Both photographs, culled from government archives, show U.S. officials, scientists, and soldiers watching nuclear tests beyond the frame of the photograph. In one, a scattering of people marked by long shadows gaze at a distant spectacle. The scene suggests weapons testing, but it's ambiguous; these people could be spectators at a sunset, as in Scott Polach’s Applause Encouraged. In
Light’s second image, silhouetted figures crouch in a long line, covering their eyes and turning their faces away from an intense light. This image, an unambiguous record of explosives testing, offers a moment of morbid comic relief in the ridiculousness of soldiers shielding themselves from an atomic blast by turning their backs and closing their eyes. Together, the two photos trace the full thematic arc of the exhibition: the gaze of horror and fascination — and its denial.
Through all of these somber images and objects, the great pleasure of Frankenstein’s Birthday Party is its sense of harmony, the way that neighboring artworks relate to each other across media and across aesthetic styles.There are visual affinities in the mauve of Louise Bourgeois’ canvas bust (Remembering, 1999) and the pinks of Hawkinson’s bicycle, and between the bony forms of Hawkinson’s knuckles and the vertebrae in Antoni’s to twine. Alan
Rath’s dog-shaped video sculpture (Creature II, 2012) seems to share its exposed metal skeleton with Edmund Clark’s photograph of a force-feeding chair at Guantanamo and Russell Crotty’s drawing of a robotic moon-rover, The Moon is My Friend (2018). And doubled figures are everywhere: in Antoni’s twin snake-spines, in Piccinini’s pairing of motorcycle and Vespa, and in John O’Reilly’s marvelously abstruse collages, all reiterating the experience of otherness.
Achieving such unity through difference is a rare mark of curatorial skill. Beyond even this, the Hosfelt exhibition, which bears close thematic ties to the exhibition that will close July 22 at the Met Breuer (Like Life: Sculpture, Color and the Body – see David M. Roth’s recent Letter from New York), is memorable for the consistency with which it pursues its themes: the human body, the encounter between self and other, and the responsibilities of creators.
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“Frankenstein’s Birthday Party” @ Hosfelt Gallery through August 11, 2018. Other artists in the exhibition include: Rina Banerjee, Isabella Kirkland, Surabhi Saraf, Barbara Kruger and Kiki Smith.
Cover image: Rina Banerjee (detail), if lotion and potion could heal–for certain her oils… one place and one face, 2006, ink, acrylic, collage on paper
38 3/8 x 49 3/4 inches
About the author:
Justin Manley is a Bay Area writer and engineer. He writes about architecture, technology and art.