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Depictions of viscera have a long history in Western art, from anonymous late-medieval crucifixion scenes to Rembrandt’s Anatomy Lesson, from Thomas Eakins’s The Gross Clinic to Chaim Soutine’s expressionist beef slabs, from Hermann Nitsch’s bloody performances to Damien Hirst’s cleanly sliced cows. Medically or scientifically speaking, viscera are the internal organs of a human or animal—the innards or guts—that are located in the thorax and abdomen. Used as an adjective, the word describes an intense, graphic visual experience, a deeply felt, physical encounter. Both are points of reference for this proposed exhibition.
Viscera hopes to continue and expand on this art-historical dialogue through the work of five contemporary artists. Visually concise, the curatorial theme can be immediately grasped because of the works’ common colors—deep blood reds and purples—as well as their subject matter. The tight confines of the Rotunda Gallery’s project space can only enhance this, making the room feel like a walk-in meat cooler.
At the same time, Viscera is open and suggestive, and could be “about” a number of things: violent representations in slasher films and video games, reality footage from television news broadcasts, the current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, animal-rights activism, and more—meaning is not foreclosed. But since the exhibition doesn’t contain contemporary media—video, photography, or digital works—but rather older, slower forms of expression—painting, printmaking, sculpture—I would like the viewers to consider how traditional works of art might still challenge a world supposedly desensitized by literal depictions of violence and viscera.
The wounded bodies and corpses in works on paper by Pam Butler recall the gruesome victims (or perhaps accomplices?) of terrorism and war, among other things. The figures lack names, however, and their stories are withheld. Despite this anonymity, an awareness of the senseless loss of life and limb becomes clear.
Mark Dennard’s heavily worked paintings of animal carcasses explore two crucial modern ideas: interest in and fidelity to the materiality of the work—its visceral makeup and application—and thematic encounters with abject trauma. Another artist with a slaughterhouse aesthetic is Tamara Kostianovsky, who creates forms resembling butchered cows and pigs with colored clothing and fabric and hangs them on industrial hooks.
Paintings by Guillermo Creus are luscious, abstracted depictions of viscera, although it’s not quite clear if they come from human, animal, or something otherworldly. Dark and disturbing, his works are haunting not for being literally grotesque but rather from not knowing exactly what that is.
Like Creus, Crystal Wagner presents a nonrepresentational take on viscera, but in contrast to other works in the show, hers are playful, even beautiful. Of Evolution she writes, “When I am drawing I am thinking about the way tissue meets tissue, the collection of joints, of angles and other interesting organic details. I get even deeper … into the cellular, into where it is so close that you are exposed to another world.”