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Bad Habits

Jared Pappas-Kelley

Originally published Buffalo News: Buffalo, NY. 24 Jul. 2009.

“Bad Habits,” on display at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery through Oct. 4, is a far-reaching show and the first since the gallery’s recent re-commitment to highlighting works in its permanent collection.

While I’m not convinced that each piece in the exhibition is naughty enough to fit the theme, it does include a hodgepodge of works from some of the most important artists of the past few decades, showcasing the gallery’s Noah’s Ark approach to art collecting. Loosely organised around the premise of bad habits — taking its name from a series of prints by Lisa Yuskavage — the galleries house such art world heavyweights as Janine Antoni, Matthew Barney, Louise Bourgeois, Cecily Brown, Gilbert & George, Glenn Ligon, Tony Oursler and Jeff Wall.

Much of the work explores obsession and its relation to the body and the messier things in life. While in places the exhibition comes off as too diffuse, the real power in these habits lies in the connections among corporeal works scattered throughout, which begin with a focus on oral fixation and grows from there.

Antoni’s works, which frequently reference milk or nursing, are often made of substances that the artist then manipulates with her mouth or body. In the sculpture “Umbilical,” Antoni explores a connection to her mother and the idea of taking nourishment. The object consists of an imprint of the interior of the artist’s mouth connected by a spoon that links to a cast of her mother’s hand as she grips the utensil.

According to the artist, “Umbilical” grew out of her mother offering Antoni a set of the family’s silverware. The hand-me-down spoon is a kite string linking the creased void of her mother’s hand and Antoni’s receiving mouth — a connector of generations. The sketchiness of Antoni’s palette, inverse lips and teeth cast in silver, along with organic maple-leaf topography of the inside of her mother’s hand contrasts with the definite lines of the manufactured spoon.

Across the gallery and encased in a glass and wood vitrine are the two horizontal figures of Louise Bourgeois’s “Couple II.” In this sculpture, pillow-like stuffed figures — a man and woman — disinterestedly embrace, one atop the other. Their cushioned, potato sack construction in dark fabric highlights a childlike perspective on copulation, while the vitrine sets the piece up as an object to be studied like a taxidermied specimen more at home in a natural history museum.

Like much work from Bourgeois that seems playful or naive in its construction, this sculpture revels in the subconscious with often ominous results. Underscoring this is the realisation that the two horizontal objects are indeed headless and the one underneath (the woman?) has her leg bracketed into a brace. While plush, there is something densely smothering about these figures, like pillows pressed over a sleeper’s face. In this piece Bourgeois explores the psychological interplay between innocence and the murkier perception of adult behavior.

One of the livelier pieces is the video sculpture “Junk” by Tony Oursler. Known for work in which video is projected onto three-dimensional structures, his lifeless objects appear animated with anthropomorphized faces and rambling monologues. Oursler’s work explores the disconnect between a detached objecthood — with schizophrenic results — as his pieces whine and pour out their manic souls for the benefit of the viewer.

Although the show may wander at times, it nonetheless highlights some engaging work from the museum’s more recent additions to its permanent collection. Whether those acquisitions embody good habits or bad, there’s a lot worth seeing.