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Corporal Politics reveals the power of the human form

Corporal Politics
List Visual Arts Center.
Through Feb. 14.
By Deborah A. Levinson
Contributing Editor

The body is a strange thing, a mix of lean curves and misshapen lumps, of angles and lines, of functionality and sensuality. It can be an object of beauty or an object of disgust, whether in parts or as a whole. It is simultaneously an instrument of power and a symbol of weakness.

Corporal Politics comprises works by eight artists who use dissociated body parts to examine this dichotomy between form and function, turning a simple arm or leg or foot into a political statement. (The exhibit itself became a political statement when Anne-Imelda Radice, then-director of the National Endowment for the Arts, denied federal funding for Corporal Politics, prompting Aerosmith and other proponents of free speech to fund the exhibit themselves.)

The most overt political statements are cetainly those of David Wojnarowicz, who died last year of AIDS-related causes. Wojnarowicz produced mixed-media work, here represented by combinations of photographs and text or paint and text. While his Why the Church Can't/Won't Be Separated from the State or a Formal Portrait of Culture takes easy potshots at familiar targets (part of the work includes a skeletal bishop or pope figure made out of money), his Untitled (for Peter Hujar) uses a long text to bring an added dimension to the piece. Over nine stark photographs of a man's head, feet, and hands in a hospital bed, Wojnarowicz writes "there's a thin line a very thin line and as each T-cell disappears from my body it's replaced by ten pounds of pressure ten pounds of rage ..."

Other artists in the exhibit use sexual organs to make political statements, as Robert Gober does in his delightful Male and Female Genital Wallpaper, featuring silkscreened "chalk drawings" of genitalia in a very funny parody of typical household wallpaper. His untitled beeswax sculpture of a disembodied human torso, half-male and half-female, one side with a small, sagging breast, the other with a sparse covering of dark human hair, has a peculiarly gruesome unity to it. Untitled (Candle) is a thick, stubby white candle on a square base covered with what looks like pubic hair, perhaps to show us how ridiculous it is to look upon images of the penis as something forbidden, perhaps to show how even the simplest objects can be sexualized.

Kiki Smith's work also deals with simplicity, among other issues -- the simplicity and normalcy of sperm, of bodily fluids, and of the human uro-genital system. Her 200 oversized glass sperm tumble over each other on a black background, looking like surreal tadpoles; her series of 12 cider jugs, each embossed with the name of a bodily fluid in black-letter type, brings a clinical matter-of-factness to something most people find repulsive.

The final work in Corporal Politics is a large installation by Lilla LoCurto and William Outcault in the adjacent Bakalar Gallery. Entitled Self-Portrait, it consists of a giant transparent sphere encompassing four stacked video monitors trapped within a chain-link fence. One sits facing the monitors, where a video camera films the viewer's face and incorporates it as the head of a body formed by pictures on the monitors. The three lower pictures fade to different body sections every few seconds. Self-Portrait, created after a friend of the artists died of AIDS-related causes, shows how we are all the same: inhabiting different bodies, but trapped within the same world, and within the same fence of our auto-immune system. It is a striking work, best viewed alone and in absolute silence.

Only someone who finds the body obscene will say the same of Corporal Politics. For generations, the pornography industry has been doing approximately what these artists have been doing: taking selected body parts and blowing them grossly out of proportion to serve a specific purpose. But like gay activists who have reclaimed the word "queer" by vountarily applying it to themselves, these artists are reclaiming the breast, the penis, the vagina, and the male and female form as the images of natural beauty and vehicles of free expression they were always meant to be.