through November 3
by Mimi Cheng
Credit: Mimi Cheng
There is continued and persistent research on creativity as pathology, fueled by strange and illicit tales of the lives of artists, or criminals with artistic tendencies. Caravaggio killed his tennis partner after losing a match. John Wayne Gacy’s demented clown paintings have shown up in galleries and art auctions. Creativity and pathology have become so entangled in popular imagination that Paul McCarthy recently speculated that artists are viewed as one step above criminals. Art and crime can both be understood as acts of transgression; a crime is committed when a law is broken, and artists can push us to the edge of moral or aesthetic code. How, then, do we recognize the line between a work of art and an act of crime?
No Bingo for Felons at Arcadia University Art Gallery is the second iteration of a curatorial project by Alix Lambert and Julian Hoeber that explores the connection between art and crime, as well as their subjective, malleable definitions. Both curators are artists in their own right, but interestingly, have chosen to curate rather than produce new work. They gathered artists ranging from Honoré Daumier to Tom Sachs in order to present a wide view of perspectives and forms. While the show fully occupies the modest, one room gallery at Arcadia, it does ultimately feel thin in the curators’ attempt to cover a broad multitude of sub-genres and thoughts that naturally arise from the complex topic.
The most successful moments in the show place the viewer in a tenuous position of aligning with either the victim or the perpetrator, the artist or the criminal. The most poignant of these occur upon viewing Yoko Ono and John Lennon’s 1969 film, Rape. The film was created through a set of instructions written by Ono, not unlike in form to her poetic, koan-like instructions to create artworks in her book Grapefruit, written a few years earlier. The score for the film was titled “Film No. 5, Rape (or Chase)”, and does not contain any of Grapefruit‘s sweetness or imagination. Instead, this score is harsh, deliberate, and darkly detailed: “A cameraman will chase a girl on a street with a camera persistently until he corners her in an alley, and, if possible, until she is in a falling position…”
Still from Rape
The film begins in a park, where the cameraman meets an attractive, young blond woman and begins to tail her from public streets into her apartment. She gets more and more agitated, demanding to know who they are, and what they are doing. Sometimes, the cameramen get so close that her long, blond hair completely obstructs the lens, sending the screen into total darkness. Her initial confusion progresses into fear, and eventually, hysteria and defeat. Ono described the process as “rape with camera”.
Rape is an artwork that is ambiguous in its authenticity, and highly dubious in its legality. As a viewer, we are also cornered. We watch her nightmare unfold from the viewpoint of the cameraman, as both perpetrator and voyeur. And even though there is no bloodshed or even physical contact, the woman is viciously violated. When the film was released, some critics saw the piece as a response to the advent of merciless paparazzi culture. Lennon offered a much more political interpretation of the piece, saying “We are showing how all of us are exposed and under pressure in our contemporary world. This isn’t just about the Beatles. What is happening to this girl on the screen is happening in Biafra, Vietnam, everywhere.”
“A lot of my works have been a projection of my future fate. It frightens me. It simply frightens me. I don’t want to see Rape now. I haven’t seen the Rape film in a long time, but just thinking about the concept of it frightens me because now I’m in that position, the position of the woman in the film.”
There are no explicit images of physical violence in the show. Instead, there are several pieces in which a camera documents the residue or reference to a criminal act with great visual subtlety and contextual ambiguity. Zoe Strauss snaps a picture of a solitary police car in her neighborhood on a velvety dark night. John Divola breaks into abandoned buildings and captures his minimal alterations to their interiors in his Vandalism series. In these incidences, the camera creates the relic of an ephemeral truth, and is evidence of the act. In A Short History of Photography, Walter Benjamin writes,
“Not for nothing were pictures of Atget compared with those of the scene of a crime. But is not every spot of our cities the scene of a crime? every pass by a perpetrator? Does not the photographer – descendant of augurers and haruspices — uncover guilt in his pictures?”
Furthermore, there is a strong association between the camera and death; we look upon photos of the past with an understanding that the people in them have passed. That is why crime scene photography is doubly morbid. There are four crime scene photographs that Luc Sante has collected from the New York City Municipal Archives, but none of them contain a victim. In describing these photos, Sante says, “The pictures are silent, or are pools of silence within a commotion discernible only at their borders. They are dream images”.
While artists can be found complicit in dark acts of a criminal nature, the exhibition also presents incidences in which they have shone a light. They are the good guys, creating works that attempt to mend fissures in society. The ultimate good guy in the show is Frank Bender, whose training at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts informed his reputation as a highly accomplished forensic artist who helped identify dozens of murder victims, the first of whom was Anna Duval. His answering machine greeting cheerfully identified himself as the “recomposer of the decomposed.”
The story behind the bust of Anna Duval begins with a grisly discovery of a body at the Philadelphia International Airport in 1977. Gunshot wounds to the head had rendered her facial features unidentifiable, but Bender was able to deduce her likeness with near-perfect accuracy in the form of a fiberglass bust. With the help of a wig and some tactfully applied makeup, New Jersey police soon identified Anna Duval as the subject of a missing persons case.
Within the gallery, the bust is displayed on a rod atop a white pedestal. The doughy, middle-aged face with a dirty blond bob is undeniably lifeless. Her eyes are blank, her rouged mouth slightly open. Without the physical allusion of a body, the bust looks more like a decapitated head that for some macabre reason, is being put on display. However, provided the understanding that it was produced for the explicit purpose of giving a victim back her name, identity, and story, it is a prized artifact in the history of the forensic arts, as well as one of the most captivating pieces in the show.
As a tangential exploration, the show includes work that co-opts activist and social service methods and movements, and in turn, positions the artist as the positive force in the fight against crime and injustice. The most assured of these is Suzanne Lacy’s documentary video of the 1997 performance of No Blood No Foul in which she created a non-hierarchical platform for the acknowledgement and release of mistrust and tension between the youth and police officers of Oakland, CA. Through the format of a basketball game, the two sides were pitted against each other in honest competition. The documentary film includes numerous interviews with the youth, police officers, community leaders, and even the artist herself, to ensure that multiple perspectives on the issue are heard. Taken together with policy initiatives that Lacy orchestrated in collaboration with the community, the work is certainly a laudable example of social practice, as well as a victory for the Oakland community. Despite these social commendations, its inclusion in the show (shown on the same screen as Rape, no less) heightens the video’s overarching sense of political correctness that is noticeably absent in the rest of the gallery.
That said, each individual artwork in No Bingo for Felons presents a distinct, nuanced perspective with which to negotiate the relationship between art and crime. Criminal behavior exists on a spectrum, and art can often elucidate the subjectivity through which we perceive the criminal. In creating artworks, the artist may also either inadvertently or intentionally become complicit in an act of crime. Considering that No Bingo for Felons is only the second presentation of the curators’ exploration, there is the expectation of upcoming investigations that will be more defined and deep in order to expand upon the perspectives and sub-genres that were broadly touched upon both at Arcadia and Blum & Poe gallery.
Mimi Cheng received her BFA from the Maryland Institute College of Art in 2011. She lives and works in Philadelphia.