Brilliant Mistakes | Art Review | Chicago Reader

Brilliant Mistakes 

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Edward Lipski

at Alan Koppel, through August 1

Edward Lipski's eight sculptures at Alan Koppel often look like mutations of pop icons. At once provocative entertainments and meditations on our culture, they use exaggerated forms and intense colors or black to suggest the chaos of the id yet seem restrained by a self-denying withdrawal or a sense of their own failure. Lipski--a Londoner born there in 1966--cites as one of many influences the antiheroic strain of Hollywood filmmaking in the 1970s, and his work as a whole denies the proudly jutting heroic forms of classical sculpture.

Showgirl, the exhibition's centerpiece, is a life-size rendering of a nude woman with plumage almost as tall as she is sprouting from her head. But rather than strut, this figure lies in the fetal position--and even her sequins and feathers and the base she lies on are black. The feather headdress--taller than in any of the showgirl pictures Lipski found in his research--is exaggerated to the point of absurdity, both evoking and undercutting desire. Meanwhile the black acts as a sinkhole for light; Showgirl seems a void rather than a projection into space, pulling away from the viewer just as the curled-up woman does.

In Fuckers, two almost fused black figures appear to be having sex doggy style. The one on all fours looks like a dog, and the standing figure has a fluffy tail; Lipski says that each is intended to be seen as part human and part animal. Their rough surfaces, reminiscent of burnt charcoal, are actually made up of lambs' wool, which Lipski purchased dyed. Lipski says he made multiple cracks in the black base "to corrupt the integrity of that support": they made me think of the cliche that an orgasm is like an earthquake--a force evoking destruction and ecstasy.

Lipski--who read Baudrillard, Foucault, and Georges Bataille in art school--told an interviewer in 1997, "My sculptures are mistakes in the same way language itself is a kind of mistake." Attempts to describe the world, he said, are "doomed to failure," and "my sculptures try forcefully to be themselves, but they ultimately fail to do so." So-called primitive art often confounds human and animal forms to produce powerful effects, and Fuckers is startling. But its fuzzy surface and rounded forms lead to a self-questioning inwardness. Like the other work here, Fuckers refers to objects in the world, but it's hard to believe there's a sight in the world like the one Lipski created. The contradiction between thrusting out and drawing in is mirrored by Lipski's mix of representation and a sense of its failure, his quest for sculptural perfection despite a cracked base or out-of-proportion headdress.

Among the other influences Lipski mentions are industrial music, the "postpunk romanticism of early goth culture," writer Kathy Acker, and artists Joseph Beuys, Peter Halley, and Jeff Koons. The manufactured look of Lipski's sculptures superficially recalls Koons and his cultural commentary, but Lipski achieves something more psychological: filled with contradictory impulses, his sculptures create chaotic voids around the issues of meaning and desire. Having neither the poised tranquility of classical sculpture nor the conceptual elegance of Beuys or Koons, his pieces revolve around artistic failure--they can neither unproblematically represent nor be purely themselves in the manner of classic abstraction.

In our era of image overload, an elegant balance between imagery and meaning seems impossible; acknowledging this, Lipski makes possible many meanings--or produces a sense of nonmeaning. He once referred to his work as "an excess of itself...it must overflow whatever container is constructed for it." And the odd, disturbing shape of Superhero Embryo--a pink, seemingly deformed figure enclosed in a case and mounted with its back to us--produces a flood of thoughts and feelings. Lipski used theatrical makeup on sheep leather to create the figure's raw, fleshy look; its intensely sensual curves appear to be still evolving. The oxymoronic title is part of the point: we assume that unambiguous "men of steel" arrive fully formed.

Lipski's brightly colored Superhero also undercuts invulnerability. Lying flat on its back on six rocks painted black, like Showgirl it evokes a corpse on an examining table--even though showgirls and superheroes are normally icons of vitality. Its arms and legs are severed, and a huge, pointed, phallic nose projects upward, recalling the unconvincing exaggeration of the plumage in Showgirl. Its suit is decorated with zigzags of yellow and red and a wavy blue line on its chest, but without the flat, plastic look of comics. Indeed, Lipski painted this aluminum sculpture in multiple layers of oil because he finds acrylics "too plastic." Once again he introduces a disparity: here he's "trying to breathe life into" the flat cartoon world. Lipski finds older art--early Flemish oil painting, Tibetan and Khmer sculpture--more rewarding than most contemporary art, and that preference shows in his work's almost rhythmic flow of surface and form, from the curves of Showgirl to the supple colors of Superhero Embryo.

Many contemporary artworks leave meaning to the viewer, but by mixing bold assertiveness and other impulses--unaccountable sexuality, self-abnegation--Lipski acknowledges how very difficult it is to make sense of our frenzied world. Boat comes complete with funnels and a "mast" that looks like a cartoon nose; the whole thing is covered with color photocopies of late-60s psychedelic posters, for Jefferson Airplane and the like, which Lipski painted over, heightening the colors. The piece has an appealing 1960s optimism, as if the expansion of consciousness really could change the world, and there's something of the playfulness of children in this miniature model. The boat shape is odd, but perhaps it represents tripping or a journey back in time. What are we to make, however, of several protruding breast shapes?

The exhibit also includes 11 "drawings" made by gouging black laminate on plywood with a pointed tool, producing very thin, pale lines. Each panel has irregular edges, and seen from afar the installation resembles a knowing send-up of Ad Reinhardt's resolutely abstract black paintings: Lipski's elegantly smooth, reflective surfaces contrast both with the jagged edges and with the drawings themselves, rough renderings of animal and human figures, many related to Lipski sculptures. The surfaces rebuff while the drawings invite, but their offhand lines are like tentative chalk marks, suggesting impermanence and imperfection. In this they're truer to human life on earth than to classical monuments to the eternal.

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