BY Jason Foumberg in Reviews | 05 MAY 08
Featured in
Issue 115

Slightly Unbalanced

Chicago Cultural Center, USA

BY Jason Foumberg in Reviews | 05 MAY 08

Sarah Hobbs, Untitled (Perfectionist), 2002

Organized by Susan Hapgood under the auspices of Independent Curators International, ‘Slightly Unbalanced’ chose to position the subject of neurosis and mental instability, as dealt with in some contemporary art, as a form of highbrow entertainment. Here obsession, anxiety and depression were not disturbing facts of life, nor were mania and madness represented as the keys to creativity’s wellspring. As though poking around in the pigeon-holes of pop psychology, much of the art on view was required to dance around the manifestations of mental disorder without ever shifting into analytical mode.

Strangely absent from the line-up were the likes of Henry Darger or Joseph Cornell – those whose well-documented compulsions and obsessions guided their hands into raw and unedited territory. Instead, Cindy Sherman, Bruce Nauman and David Shrigley headlined in what was a less than groundbreaking or well thought-through curatorial conceit. Too often their neuroses came across as cutesy or silly, in part perhaps because they are mainly feigned, exaggerated or aestheticized. The fiction of a distorted, troubled and tortured self is one of the most enduring romantic myths about artists. Likewise, the exhibition communicated its thesis through familiar tropes to promote a quirky viewer-friendly relation to neurosis.

Ward Shelley and Douglas Paulson’s Archive (2004) consists of stacked document storage boxes reaching eight feet high, each labelled as containing eccentric items, from ‘happiness myths’ to ‘undocumented art not worth saving’. The meandering stack configurations formed a hallway and a series of rooms, stage-set imitations of the real-life environments of compulsives and organized hoarders.

Beth Campbell’s flow charts parse out every morsel of insecurity and possibility that arise from a single thought. It’s not necessarily important what the minor outcomes of My Potential Future Based on Present Circumstances (2005) may be, but the overall branching tangle, mapped out minutely, is a great prop for any ‘crazy’ person’s lair. Much like the mad scientist’s laboratory or the genius’ chalkboard, clutter that makes sense only to its makers can easily become a trite symbol of psychological disorder. To complete the cliché Danica Phelps reveals the diary of her daily life, including everything from receipts and laundry lists to love interests.

Sherman actually is the heroine who slays the cliché in this ensemble psychodrama. Two photographs from 2000, from an untitled series of middle-aged weirdos, show her playing dress-up in the closet of ‘that woman’ a character familiar to all of us who never quite shook off the awkwardness of adolescence and now embraces it. To wit, these are bad costumes – unbelievable but remarkably evocative of an off-centre self-image.

Elsewhere, Sophie Calle presented a photo of Sigmund Freud’s London couch (The Bad Breath, 2000); Sarah Hobbs showed a writer’s desk with crumpled white sheets piling up waist-high (Untitled (perfectionist) 2002); Dave McKenzie’s brown paper bag was a small monument to hyperventilation (Self-Help Hyperventilation Bag, 2002); Cary Leibowitz painted pie charts allocating shares of sadness (Untitled, 1990–1). These literal presentations of neurotic behaviour could have been culled from a set designer’s manual. Why are these neuroses so well ordered? Could their failure as truthful artistic documents indicate an inability to reach into the pockets of the mind and pull out gems? Many of the works on view show someone who knows how to deal with their problems and turn them into fodder for streamlined, cognizant and symbol-laden art works. It’s no wonder that artists are learning to sublimate their idiosyncrasies into non-threatening activities, given the omnipresence of behaviour-modifying drugs, or ‘safe and effective medication’, to borrow a phrase from Ed Ruscha, who himself borrowed it from pharmaceutical adverts.

A sub-theme in the exhibition considers the rampant narcissism and dysfunction ranging free throughout the art world. ‘I want a special projects room at MoMA!’ whines a character in Alex Bag’s video The Van (2001). ‘I’m sick of making art’, announces a poster by Leibowitz. One of Shelley and Paulson’s storage boxes contains ‘fictitious dialogues between artists and critics’. Harry Dodge and Stanya Kahn’s video interview with fictional crazy woman Lois, in Winner (2002), comes closest to revealing the truth about neurotic artistry. Lois is a modern-day outsider artist who plays show-and-tell with her art – all ready-made sculptures spaced out nicely on a white towel in the boot of her car – a DIY solo show. Her critical explanation of how art can be difficult to understand pokes fun at the usual trappings of art’s reception, but then she digresses into scatterbrained statements that become frankly dull. Indeed, there is a familiar and less than endearingly redundant quality to neurosis that Lois perfectly captures. No doubt there is a social worker in the audience itching to jab Lois with a dose of lithium. To its credit, the show highlighted the egalitarian reality of neurosis; everyone has a bit of it, and therefore the show’s theme is highly relatable. In this case, then, it’s normal to be crazy, just as long as we remember to take our medication.