The Blank Slate | Art Review | Chicago Reader

The Blank Slate 

Two artists strip the human form and then impose a new identity.

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Kim Joon

at Walsh Gallery

Matthew Cox

at Aron Packer

Ironic that identity theft should become such a big issue just when identity has become so obviously a thing of the past. But then we always cry loudest over the deadest doctrines--and anyway, what we call identity theft isn't really about identity at all but about buying power, which remains a vital concept.

Korean artist Kim Joon clearly understands that identity--the real Western humanist thing, the sense of oneself as an individual with unique characteristics, an independent fate, and very possibly a soul--isn't an option favored by consumer culture. He recognizes that what we take for autonomy is actually nothing more than a pattern of choices made from the narrow menu provided by Organized Commerce (successor to Organized Religion). That what we have are not identities but a set of identifications: Cubs versus White Sox, Nike versus Adidas, VW versus BMW, Jesus versus, oh, say, Allah. Yes, this is banal--the stuff of number-not-a-name science fiction. But (a) that doesn't mean it isn't true, and (b) Kim makes it compelling with his astonishing, disturbing photos in "Tattoo You" at Walsh.

Most of the work in the show is from a series called "We": 13 enormous color photos, roughly eight feet tall and five feet wide, each depicting a trio of full-size, full-grown naked men or women. Or at least their torsos and limbs, the heads having been cut off by the top edge of the print.

The pictures are stylistically consistent. The three figures are always clustered together facing one another--belly to belly, more or less--against a white background. The body language in some clusters implies casual conversation, while in others it suggests a moment of rough play or rooster-ish confrontation. All are "tattooed," shoulder to toe, with a corporate trademark or some other iconic image. In We--Cubs, three men have Cubs logos of various sizes plastered on their feet, calves, thighs, butts, arms, backs, and chests. In We--Jesus, kitschy representations of Christ cover the bodies of three women: Jesus-as-shepherd on a buttock, Jesus crucified behind a thigh, crowns of thorns encircling a spot just below all three left knees. And so on, with homages to Samsung, Starbucks, Jimi Hendrix, Harley-Davidson, the Marines, Adidas--and perhaps most strikingly, Gucci: bodies black except where Kim's placed the double G logo or red and green Gucci stripes.

No live bodies were inked in the making of this series. Each piece starts with a digital image of a single individual, which is rotated to produce the three clustered figures. The logos are "mouse painted" on the bodies in the computer. The process itself opens up a whole secondary riff on identity by demonstrating how malleable--not to say reproducible and therefore weirdly impersonal--our bodies have become. Kim's decision to crop out heads, moreover, forces questions about physical indicators of uniqueness--questions that double back on themselves when you realize that, were we to see the heads of the figures in any given cluster, they would all be exactly the same.

Functionally faceless, then, with no control over our digitizable bodies, what are we? What we wear? What we buy? What we're told? The answer suggested by Kim's technology is that we exist as flesh-toned billboards and "are" whatever can be projected onto us.

"We" is a traumatic tour de force, but it's not the only work in "Tattoo You." There are also selections from Kim's "Tattooress" series, which derives its title from the collision of "tattoo" and "dress." The name is creepily apt. Tattooress--Man offers a variation on the theme of being poured into one's clothes by portraying a body (digitally) stitched into leather clothing. Tattooress--Shoe shows bare feet with designs superimposed on them to create the look of a running shoe.

But far creepier than Kim's flesh fashion is his flesh-corrupting video, Bubble--Pink. Consisting of a single pink arm on a pink surface, Bubble--Pink shows the skin of the arm seeming to, well, bubble up. Hugely. It's like watching time-lapse images of some uncheckable, surreally horrible, blister-producing disease. And it offers the final insult to the notion of identity, reminding us that we were never our own to start with. Once Adidas, Jesus, and Photoshop are done with us, the bacteria will get their turn.

That last point is also brought home--marvelously--by Matthew Cox, whose show "Thread Into Plastic" can be seen at Aron Packer, just down the hall from Walsh. Cox has taken "found" X-rays of ankles, knees, skulls, torsos, hearts, jaws, babies, and more and reconstructed them the way a forensic artist reconstructs the features of an unidentified crime victim from the skeleton. Except that where the investigator might use clay, Cox uses embroidery thread.

Cox's notion of reconstruction is a lot more liberal, too. His embellishment of an x-rayed upper body, Dextraposed Heart With Pneumonia, leaves the diseased lungs alone but supplies a head surrounded by landscape and sky. Knee complements the title joint with grass and flowers. Skull provides a young woman's face in profile while leaving the back of the cranium exposed.

Cox's technique alone is arresting. This kind of richness seems impossible on a plastic surface. But much more powerful is his straightforward statement of the mortal facts, like something out of a New England cemetery: here is the life we want; here, the bone beneath.

Kim Joon

When: Through Fri 12/2: Tue-Sat 10:30-5:30

Where: Walsh, 118 N. Peoria

Info: 312-829-3312

Matthew Cox

When: Through Sat 11/26: Tue-Sat 11-5:30

Where Aron Packer, 118 N. Peoria

Info: 312-226-8984

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