The human body can be a compelling, but oftentimes off-putting canvas. To look through the books of flash (pre-designed tattoos) at a standard American tattoo parlor is often to be filled with disgust and shock—does anybody really want a skull with fire and whiskey in its eye sockets on the back of her hand? Or does anyone want a soon-to-be-ex-boyfriend’s name on her ankle, even in dubious Chinese character? Nonetheless, the experience of seeing a well done tattoo can also be one of utter awe and admiration. Some tattoos are beautiful and completely evocative of the person upon whom they are engraved. This is when body art transcends its dubious implications within our closed-minded culture. Elsewhere, the body can become a canvas as meaningful as any other, and there is virtually no culture where some form of body manipulation and art have not been recorded. The effect is often unnerving, but nonetheless compelling.
Angela Lee’s exhibit Marking the Body, which is now open at the Hyde Park Art Center and runs through the beginning of March, is an interesting look at what happens when art of the body is transferred to more standard artistic media. The materials used in Marking the Body are all old artist standards—stoneware, slip, and acrylic paints on canvases. Lee draws primarily on body art from around the world, incorporating designs from Africa, Asia, and Oceania. She also stretches the idea of what the marked body means.
The bodies that Lee has created have aspects of primitive art about them—they are small in scale, they are not perfectly formed or proportioned, and they lack detail. They function as models of the human body, or in some cases, models of aspects of the human body. These bodies make their medium very apparent—the stoneware with slip is in texture and color very much unlike human skin. The geometric designs incorporated in most of the body art works in an interesting way with this concretely different medium but is not necessarily more compelling. By transferring the art off of the human skin, Lee has taken away some of what makes markings automatically intriguing. Though the pieces which feature only body tattoos have a certain aesthetic quality, one must look closely at them to find the striking characteristics implicit in most body art. One piece that stands out because of its explicit message is called Remembering Katrina and is a seated, hunched figure with the remnants of an American flag on the skin of its back. These sculptures are all affected highly by Lee’s work with her medium and its blotchy and undulating hues.
Among the most compelling pieces in the collection are those dealing with different ways of marking the body—specifically types of piercing—and the series Lee includes on boxers. The boxers series takes the natural discoloration of the stoneware to a different level, where the bodies Lee has sculpted actually look weary and bruised. Though some of the boxers sport tattoos, the most obvious markings on their bodies are the ones that have been inflicted by purposeful violence. This kind of inflicted violence is in stark contrast to the piercing, scarring, and tattooing that Lee features. Though the scars may be similar, they look very different (both on humans and in Lee’s work).
Lee’s work with body piercing is one of the highlights of the exhibit. One work, called Pierced Woman, features a woman about a foot tall with a row of straight pins with white pearl ends stuck in a softly waving column down her torso. This figure also has multiple very oversized hoops in each ear, a large nose ring, and several gold safety pins in her body. This use of everyday objects and scale, along with the strangeness of the figure, is an interesting take on body piercing and the use of everyday objects in both mutilation and art. Another set of figures features disembodied hands with a group of nails pierced into their palms—not reminiscent of the Western concept of stigmata, but instead an aesthetic and social choice. These works manage to bring questions of cultural relativism and debate to the marked body and its place in the art world. Lee’s exhibit may not quite encircle the globe, but it does make us reevaluate the idea of what exactly a marked body is and to separate the design from the shock of human skin.