For On the Dot, Jen Talbot's solo exhibition at Raleigh's LUMP gallery, the Chicago-based artist has transformed the gallery into a Target (anti)ad, amusing viewers while simultaneously challenging the status quo. The result is one of the tightest shows I've seen in terms of design, color, concept, execution and installation.
Two 9-foot red bulls-eyes are painted on opposite walls of the gallery. Two women--UNC-Chapel Hill undergraduate art students Lauren Adams and Leigh Suggs--are harnessed and suspended directly in front of the targets' centers. Dressed in white protective jumpsuits, metal armatures of hoopskirts covered in white felt and red pom-poms, black swimming goggles, and Talbot's signature red and white striped tights, the women each hold long fiberglass retractable poles with soft cloth swabs on the ends. One woman paints the other woman's face with thick white frosting, while the frosted woman, looking like someone has thrown a cream pie in her face, cleans the other woman's face with water. As they each dip their swabbed poles in small aluminum troughs of water and frosting, they hover, wriggle, and struggle to reach each other's faces without losing control. When the washed woman is clean, she covers her own face in frosting with her hand.
Each performance lasts 45 minutes, and while the perplexed and attentive audience giggles and waits, the women take short breaks, dangling like puppets with their poles passive. At each rest the audience applauds, after which the women start up again. At the end of 45 minutes, their poles begin to shake, perhaps from fatigue.
"I never imagined it would be so hard to complete the task," said Adams after the performance. "In this blind situation, we both navigated by responding to one another. When Leigh Suggs was applying frosting to her face, I paused to let the attention focus on her. It was not pre-determined as to whether I would then wipe her face or whether she would wipe mine. We simply acted and let that become the process."
While Adams and Suggs felt as though they were moving quickly, the audience saw things differently. "When talking with viewers we discovered that our actions were perceived as painstakingly slow and cumbersome in relation to the human body's normal movements," Adams said. "The harness was uncomfortable and the poles were heavy, the wig was tight and my goggles fogged up with condensation a little less than 10 minutes into the performance."
The women share the gallery with a floor circle of concentric clean cotton makeup remover pads; a looped video of Talbot licking an enormous red and white swirled lollipop that turns her lips and chin sticky pink; and a stunning color photograph of a woman in red and white striped stockings bending over, revealing the underside of a contraption skirt. Within the context of these other elements, the live female bodies become tools, devices, toys and soldiers in a candy-cane land gone berserk. They play the repetitive game of domestic chores, transform each other into dirty and clean dolls, move according to plan, and fight gravity and the urge to let go. Not once do the performers crack a smile. They are deadly serious about this game that puts them at the center of a target--a symbol perhaps of consumer culture or the trap of fashion, signifying possibly the "target audience" or potential violence against bodies.
As a 12-year-old girl, Talbot played the blood clot in a 60-foot inflatable brain sculpture that people could walk inside (her multimedia artist stepdad's attempt to demonstrate what happens in the brain of a stroke victim). Much of her previous work has explored transforming bodily objects--like rollerskates, leather gloves, bras and clothing--into hermaphroditic, ambidextrous sculptures. Her more recent performative work--created in the MFA program at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and at the Skowhegan School of Sculpture and Painting Summer Program--pokes fun at "etiquette" and "clout."
At Skowhegan, Talbot wore a red and white checkered dress that went on past her feet to become a tablecloth for her friends to picnic on. She also sewed herself into a white tablecloth at a long table in a Maine grass field (a field she described as appearing "beautifully licked"). Everything was in white until Talbot ate 12 pounds of cherries, spitting pits and staining the starched white setting. All of Talbot's work is about what we do to each other and to ourselves, how we look and act and perform in a saturated and bankrupt culture.
Even Talbot's elegant drawings hanging in the back room of LUMP conjure up sphincters, orifices, cycles and the superficial facade that masks the messy underneath. Using gym chalk, wallpaper and other mundane materials, Talbot makes concentric circles again, this time more like cells, petri dishes, proliferating diseases, and simplified mounds. Several of them include a smaller circle at the bottom consisting of the repeated word "clout." It's no accident that Talbot chooses a word with multiple meanings. Clout means influence and power, but it is also an archery target, a blow, and a long hit in baseball. Like the rest of Talbot's work, these drawings, in responding to our world, also add to it.
On the Dot will be performed again in two shows, March 16 & 30, 2:30 p.m., at Raleigh's LUMP gallery. Call 821-9999 for details.