Nick Poyner in your face in your space

Nicholas Poyner, Self Portrait #666, 2008, Platinum, silicone and hair
Nicholas Poyner, Self Portrait #666, 2008, Platinum, silicone and hair

Given what one UArts sculpture student is showing in Philadelphia right now, the Art Institute president’s attempt at censorship of art is downright laughable (see post)–using a gun to swat a mosquito.

On the other hand, Nicholas Poyner‘s horror show sculptures and faux snuff video in the 5 into 1 show are truly transgressive!! Not that I think it should be censored. Far from it.

Poyner makes sculptures that are excuses for making videos or maybe it’s vice versa. The resulting works are take-no-prisoners in-your-face I-dare-you-not-to-flinch affairs. Poyner is comfortable with gore, dismembered body parts and bodily fluids as he confronts limits on sexual and social behavior.

All of this he does with deadpan humor and abandon as he begs, borrows and steals great movie scenes, re-envisioning and warping them for his own purposes. The results would be unwatchable (to some they are unwatchable) if not for a sense that Poyner is playing with his audience, inviting his audience in on his extended jokes, just having a really good time at the same time that he challenges mores.

IMG_6238 Nicholas Poyner
Nicholas Poyner, south paw 2007, platinum, silicone and hair

To clarify a bit about the 5 into 1 exhibit that includes Poyner’s work. The show is in two venues this year. One is at Moore College of Art and Design (20th and the Parkway), where the 5 into 1 exhibit of emerging artists has been held for a number of years. The other venue this year is FLUXspace, home base of the gang that did the curating this year. The exhibit is organized by Philadelphia Sculptors, and focuses on sculpture, that much under-exhibited field because it doesn’t sell as well as something people can mount on their walls. The sculptors in this show have in the past come from the five big art schools–Moore, Penn, UArts, PAFA and Tyler–hence the name of the exhibit. This year, Arcadia was included, so it’s really 6 into 1.

Poyner’s horror show props, south paw and Self-Portrait #666 are at the Moore College venue and bring to mind Ron Mueck, who came to sculpture from a movie prop career. In the case of southpaw, cherry-red blood provides relief from the horror and is sort of a wink that keeps down the hurl-factor (here are Roberta’s most recent Mueck post and Libby’s most recent Mueck post.

IMG_6158 Nick Poyner
Nicholas Poyner, Scum Suckers III, video

The video, Scum Suckers III, is at FLUX. And if you find the sculptures too wild for your taste, skip the video, which is sure to offend you. The curtained entrance outside the video viewing space suggests that no one under 17 enter. Who’s to say 17 is less arbitrary than 18 or 21 or 71? Perhaps it should just say, if you’re in the least bit impressionable or sensitive, this video may disturb you. Or perhaps the age says it all, plus it gets in the peculiarity of official cut-off ages.

While I watched the movie some of the time out of the corner of my eye with my arms crossed protectively across my chest, the truth is I also laughed my way through it. Like the horror show props, there’s a wink of unreality and ridiculousness to take the edge off stuff that would otherwise be quite unbearable. But Poyner, who plays the bad guy in this movie, is also exploitive enough as a character to push buttons.

IMG_6159 Nick Poyner
Nick Poyner, Scum Suckers III, video, in which the kidnap victim trains to execute the perfect blow job, using street debris for hurdles. The training sequence is thoroughly original at the same time that it salutes Rocky and the Karate Kid.

I couldn’t decide if this movie was homophobic or anti-homophobic, but ultimately that question became beside the point. It was a vision of exploitation and emotional manipulativenss having to do with blow jobs, street pick-up sex and desperation. At the same time, the video throws out comical salutes to movies past, from Rocky to Psycho to prison movies to any number of pornos. The allusions are broad and campy.

And then there is the so-called blood. Somewhere, we all have heard that what the movie industry uses for blood is chocolate syrup. So Poyner gives us plenty of chocolate syrup gore that clearly is not blood!!! I won’t tell you about the central sculptural prop around which this movie is built, in case you should decide to subject yourself to this. But I will say the prop is in your face and Poyner dares you to chew it over.

The mix of all these satirical elements with a down and dirty story manages to pull off something pretty amazing–a web of commentary that captivates as it repels and that makes an ethical point. This is the second Poyner movie I’ve seen. The other was of a homeless man invading bourgeois spaces–a Starbucks, the Kimmel Center–and showing people responding or really avoiding responding. It was pretty interesting, and in that case, the prop was the homeless man’s get-up and make-up.

IMG_6154 Nick Poyner
Nick Poyner, Scum Suckers III, the two characters having an unfriendly discussion.

All this brings me to Kara Walker. I happened to be reading Eleanor Heartney on Walker in an old Art in America. Here’s her concluding paragraph:

In a perceptive essay written in the catalogue for Walker’s contribution to the 2002 Sao Paulo Bienal, Robert Hobbs points to the centrality of abjection to Walker’s vision. Abjection, as defined by Julia Kristeva, is essentially a form of border-crossing in which taboo materials like dirt, hair, excrement, dead animals, menstrual blood and rotting food and taboo subjects like castration and dismemberment serve as a means of breaking down the prescribed order of polite society. In Walker’s work, sex serves as an agent of mixing, disrupting order and creating impurities through a willful breaching of established boundaries. In the end, Walker seems to be saying, slavery, and the racism that is its ongoing legacy, deforms all that it touches, victim and victimizer alike. It creates a set of distorted identities that depend on each other for their continued existence. As a result, though the stereotypes which Walker parlays may not reflect “real” people, that fact does nothing to abridge their power.

Walker of course is not the only person using abasement to break through taboos. Paul McCarthy and his manic, excrement/sex-laden movies also fit the bill. Poyner’s approach is closer to McCarthy’s in that there’s the simultaneous complicity and confrontation with his audience. Poyner is using classic abasement tactics–castration and dismemberment, hair, rot, dirt–to cross boundaries of class and sexual identity, not to mention to cross the boundaries of the proper, bourgeois, hoity-toity art world. To see such complicated, bold, edgy work from an emerging artist is pretty exciting.

As for the under 17 caveat, you who are over 17 will have to decide for yourselves if you’re tough enough. I’d put this show in the horror movie tradition, in which you know that what you are seeing is all makeup, smoke and mirrors.

I don’t want to give the impression that there isn’t other interesting work by other artists in this show. To squelch the validity of their work placing them in comparison with this particular young artist who already has so much to say is both unfair and inappropriate, since I did find the work I saw quite interesting and promising. Back to that in a separate post.