Sex, Death, Tomatoes | Art Review | Chicago Reader

Sex, Death, Tomatoes 

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JEANNE DUNNING

at Feigen, Inc.

The look of Jeanne Dunning's current show of Cibachrome photos is tres chic: visually simple, often dramatically lit images of body parts and peeled tomatoes presented in sleek, no-fuss frames. But unlike so much recent postmodern art, with its sterile mind games, Dunning's current photos stir up a variety of emotions by acknowledging the beauty, mystery, and horror of the human body. Perhaps these images are not quite as unique or intellectually rigorous as some of her other, more feminist works, but neither are they as cold.

Dunning's strategy often hinges on making her subject look like something it's not. In this show, tomatoes look like tongues, hearts, or testicles; body parts resemble canyon walls. By humanizing the tomatoes and dehumanizing the body, Dunning puts vegetables and humans on the same plane. Significantly, the tomatoes are of the canned variety. Is she implying that human beings are equally homogenized? In three almost identical tomato pictures--Detail 8, Detail 9, and Detail 10--Dunning brings the camera in tight to produce in-your-face close-ups. Brilliant ruby "flesh" shot through with faint veins glistens, filling each picture space. Black oval frames make the red even more intense. Dunning's choice of an oval rather than a more traditional rectangular frame seems intended to recall both portrait photography and mirrors: she cleverly uses form to critique photography's historical characterization as a "mirror of the soul" or "window on the world." For though these photos seem straightforward, they're more paradoxical than revealing. Their overpowering visceral quality makes us uncomfortable--more than a little squeamish. We could be confronting our own organs as they loom, horrifically large and isolated, in their portrait/mirror frames. On the other hand, that soft fleshy tissue is so lusciously red, the color of lipstick and lingerie. The seductive gloss of the photo surface is augmented by a salivalike coating of laminate. These moist, scarlet mounds are like gigantic tongues ready to French-kiss the viewer from head to foot. Even the three black oval frames begin to look like several letter O's strung together to suggest an orgasmic "OOOOO."

In other photos Dunning explores the transformative potential of the body by creating a metaphysical or surreal mood. This usually involves one or two body parts surrounded by a deep, rich black background. By holding the flash or other light source too close to the subject, the artist often burns out detail; usually only the contours of the body parts are detailed enough to convey basic form, skin tone, and the presence or absence of hair. Most impressive is Knee Elbow, in which the title body parts seem luminous Stonehenge monoliths, conjuring up images of ancient Druidic rites involving human sacrifice.

Abstracting the body is a theme Dunning has pursued for several years now. One of her earliest ventures was a series of color close-ups of skin and hair called "Untitled Landscapes." Viewed from a distance, these often looked like flat land and open sky. (One of these photos was in a group show at Randolph Street Gallery in 1988, "Sex, Death and Jello.") Since then Dunning has produced related groups of work, including "Untitled Holes" and the more recent "Crack" series; three "Crack" pieces are in the current show. Their large photo grain, gentle flesh tones, and undulating body lines create a soft eroticism quite the opposite of the blatant tomato and stark body-parts photos. Each is composed of two nude bodies in direct contact from shoulder to ankle. Using a combination of in-camera cropping and direct cutting away of the photo print, Dunning removes the nudes' heads and all background detail; only the shadowy line of bodily contact and a few inches of flesh on either side of that line remain. The resulting long, thin strip of photo is framed in a vertical wooden box of similar dimensions. By obscuring the sexual identity of the subjects, these pictures equalize gender socially and politically. They also confuse our expectations of body logic by making it difficult to discern which parts we're looking at. Breasts, calves, buttocks, and backs all weave together in seemingly impossible configurations.

The "Crack" pictures suggest that, despite socially determined gender conventions, sexuality knows no natural taboos. And it is as much a fact of life as death. Looking at these abstracted and encased nudes, one can't help seeing them as trapped in coffinlike boxes. The crack itself symbolizes any physical or social boundary. But its very existence recalls its opposite--the desire to merge. The "Crack" pieces seem to imply that life is a series of separations and divisions that fall away when sex or death enter the picture.

Dunning is perhaps best-known for her portraits of the backs of women's heads, which also seem to resemble other things the longer you look at them. These antiportraits take a unique artistic approach, but unfortunately the same cannot be said for Dunning's bodily abstractions. From world-renowned Edward Weston to more locally famous Barbara Crane, many photographers have used the same cropping and lighting techniques with similar body-transforming results. (Of course, Dunning's agenda is different. Artists have traditionally abstracted the human form as a way to explore new aesthetic styles. Dunning's goal, however, is to provoke a dialogue centered on the commodification of the body--a distinctly postmodern concern.) Besides, psychological associations between sex, death, and the camera have been ruminated upon by artists and intellectuals from Baudelaire to Andy Warhol.

But while Dunning's hair photos are unique, the series is often visually repetitive, sometimes even formulaic. The strength of Dunning's current show of body parts and tomatoes is how well she mixes up the pot without losing thematic consistency. The formal arrangements--color, composition, framing, and hanging--are expertly regulated to keep us moving from one picture to another. A variety of moods--scary, secretive, snotty, seductive, goofy, and threatening--demands our continuous engagement. This is a most entertaining and persuasively packaged show, if not always the most challenging.

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