It’s Like Shit and Flowers — Alison Wong and John Charnota at Grizzly Grizzly

[Michael finds sophistication in a seemingly unlikely subject, enjoying the cohesiveness supplied by a new show centered on shit. — the Artblog editors]

“From shit comes flowers that over time return to shit and back again,” explain Alison Wong and John Charnota, the two artists behind It’s Like Shit and Flowers, on display at Grizzly Grizzly. The artist-couple transforms the gallery’s intimate space into an ironically clean ode to fecal matter adorned with a bouquet of dried flowers hung from a solitary column, with an aromatic scent that permeates the space.

Good clean fun

Installation view
Photo courtesy of Grizzly Grizzly.

Although the space is dominated by references to Charnota’s favorite gag item, the faux poop, it evades disgust and finds elegance amidst a handful of floral accoutrements throughout the room. Wong and Charnota romanticize the comical pile of fake poop as an object that transcends filth and becomes an item of amusement for multiple generations.

Photo courtesy of Butter Projects.

On one end of the gallery is a wooden outhouse door emerging from the wall, backlit by a flashing screen of vibrant streaks of color and dancing poop emojis. The unsettling imagery of the smiling pile of poo is removed from the putrid aspects of shit, placing it in an elevated, decorative light. The resulting outhouse installation meditates on our strange fascination with the digital, smiling poop emoji as to highlight the absurdity of the image and media’s ability to strip an object, such as poop, of its original meaning as to completely redefine the context in which the imagery is used.

Fecal fascination

Piles of faux poop
Photo courtesy of Grizzly Grizzly.

Opposite the column, contrasting the modern gag use of fake poop, is a series of four material studies in a row, atop a pristine, white-tiled, bathroom-esque surface. Each seems like a step in a step-by-step depiction of a poop’s degradation over time, from the fudgy pile of clay into the petrified, ghostly feces made of a cement-like material that Charnota mixed with sawdust. Like the outhouse, the material studies elevate poop as the primary subject and suggest that they are of the same caliber as the intricate oil painting of plants to their left.

Plant studies
Photo courtesy of Butter Projects.

A natural cycle

Not only do the two artists successfully eliminate the unsavory connotations of shit, they find beauty in the cyclical nature of plants and manure. The orange accent wall added for It’s Like Shit and Flowers frames a solitary oil painting depicting field guide-inspired studies of plants and flowers that literally reflects and imposes itself onto the rest of the exhibition. A resounding warm glow fills Grizzly Grizzly with the floral painting and its origin as an affirmation of the artist-couple’s statement, “From shit comes flowers that over time return to shit and back again.”

Toilet paper and flowers
Photo courtesy of Butter Projects.

In many ways, the interconnected nature of the exhibition fuels a general sense of collaboration and harmony within the space. Somehow, the two artists are able to elegantly arrange piles of crap in the same room as lavish, floral toilet paper that creeps up the walls and dissolves into a tightly cropped, framed work of art that is the most thoroughly developed piece of the show. The toilet paper stand cleverly, and cohesively, blurs the line between bowel movements and the beauty of the flower patterned toilet paper.

In some ways there is an air of cynicism in the exhibition, but with installations like the material studies and the flashing, neon outhouse, a general sense of lightheartedness dominates the space.

Wong’s and Charnota’s flippant acknowledgment of humanity’s bowel movements first and foremost calls to mind Piero Manzoni’s “Merda d’Artista,” or “Artist’s Shit” in Italian, where Manzoni “canned” his own feces and sold them by their weight in gold. The kicker with his piece was that if the can were opened, it would lose nearly all value, a decision that both validated and challenged the absurdity of the Italian artist’s artwork. Meanwhile, Wong and Charnota are developing and contributing to the oeuvre of shit-themed artwork before them by Manzoni, Wim Delvoye’s “Cloaca,” and ArtBlog’s own Andrew Jeffrey Wright, with his zine BMQ (Bowel Movement Quarterly).

Installation view
Photo courtesy of Grizzly Grizzly

Just as our flowers will one day turn to shit, the exhibition at Grizzly Grizzly will be re-imagined in January by the same artists. Personally, I am excited to see if there will be a recycling of imagery and how that will, in turn, impact the exhibition redux.

It’s Like Shit and Flowers is on view at Grizzly Grizzly, 319 N. 11th Street, 2nd floor, Philadelphia, until Jan. 31, 2015.