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Friday 05.30.08

« Klaus Moje at PAM | Main | Amy Yoes Lectures »

Keith Boadwee's This is a low. at Rock's Box

Untitled (piss in mouth)

Keith Boadwee is a bit of a legend… hmm where to start? Probably the enema paintings of the 90's…. At the time they seemed like a logical abuse of art history and a performance art taunt directed at the fuzzy notions of good and bad taste. Many loved it because it seemed to be a great way to try and kill off "painting" once and for all (nice try), some thought it was talentless drivel, while others saw it as a necessary icon of queer culture. As a series they certainly got everyone talking but I wondered what was all the fuss about? After all bare breasts have played generally acceptable role in art, why not the anus? Picasso famously ran into similar human body censorship from a dealer much earlier (trying to make every orifice visible from one direction). The fact that Boadwee is gay is likely what reignited the fervor... adding identity politics to the mix.

I've always seen Boadwee in the tradition of Yves Klein's"Monotone Symphony Performance", Vito Acconci's "Seed Bed" and Chris Burden's "Shoot". It's a type of polarizing stunt that forces people to chose up love/hate sides. Like all provocative activism it even revealed the splintered responses, even from the very un-homogenized gay community (arts oriented and otherwise). Overall it shocked the easily shocked, thrilled the easily thrilled, worried the easily worried and bored the easily bored. It embodied all the problems and strengths of performance art as spectacle so well that I had to see it as successful in a predictable way (just like Andrea Frasier's later "Untitled" sex with a collector video). Afterwards the world went on spinning on it's slightly wobbly axis as it always has.

Seven Brides For Seven Brothers

The point being that by not being really all that shocking they all remind us of what is simultaneously the scariest and most beautiful aspect of humanity, what Holocaust philosopher Vikor Frankl described as, "Man is a being that can get used to anything." It's a scary/wonderful fact that makes existential questions all the more loaded... namely, "what should we get used to?" One wonders if Boadwee would be all that pleased if we got too used to his art? He seems to enjoy being Sisyphus style provocateur. I definitely respect that, though I've always liked his troublemaking photos more than the performances themselves.

That is why Boadwee's show at Rock's Box is so welcome, one can't really judge an artist simply by one piece at an art fair or a photo in an anthology.

Seven Brides For Seven Brothers

I've come across Boadwee's work for years in group shows and it has always had an incredible commitment that stood out. What I didn't find was the sweep that a solo show gives. And though the title of the show, "This is a low" seems to anticipate its criticisms... it is one of the better solo shows we have had in Portland for 2008.

The opening piece is a bamboo tripod structure titled Seven Brides For Seven Brothers, an obvious allusion to the institution of marriage; gay, hetero or otherwise. The structure is made of things that start with "B" like; bamboo, black rope, bacon, blue boy poppers and a boulder as well as photos of Brittany Speers, a black man and Labrador retriever. The piece is unmistakably visceral and of the body.

The photos all have round holes cut in them (acting similar to Baldesari's photo circles) and are rather Freudianly skewered by bamboo rods. The funniest is the Speers photo which shows her naked, pregnant and surrounded by the truncated words, "best new idea inside." Needless to say stupid people having babies is neither a new idea nor "best" and Boadwee's sneering comment puts the discussion of his place in the culture into context... whatever critique one might have of Boadwee's work, he's definitely not making the world stupider. Instead, here is a kind of kinesthetic visual jungle gym where body and mind have to negotiate; sex (with man or woman), companionship (dog), drugs (blue boy poppers) and needs like food (bacon). To cap it all off a corresponding hole is cut in a gallery wall, implicating the entire space. It's a kind of cosmopolitan visual matrix where the boulder completes the Sisyfusian allusion... find whatever turns you on, then do it again and again.

Unitled (piss in mouth) Detail

Which leads us to the best piece in the show Untitled (piss in mouth), which is quite simply Boadwee on his back, aiming a stream of urine into his own mouth. As a stunt it is full of self effacing narcissism... conflating Eros, humiliation, self sufficient grandiosity and an allusion to the spectacle that is the artist's way. It's about as simple and as complicated as a photograph can be. The work also parallels baroque era grotesques and the golden rain of the Danae myth. It's also a humanistic tour de force... an aesthetic circuit beginning and ending with the body, something most Americans only think about in dieting terms. Like Mapplethorpe, its a beautiful image that might be initially slightly shocking but retains attention because it is formally beautiful. That beauty is also where this work beats Boadwee's own infamous enema works.

Other works like the word painting "Abbie Jection" just seem like one liners but then again how do you follow a photo of the artist pissing into his own mouth?

An ensemble of Boadwee snowmen

In the back room are a series of paintings of snowmen in many hued voids. As a grouping they conjure a funny essay about cartoons and the ability to speak to completely different audiences with the same language. In fact it reminds me of South Park's Mr. Hankey the Christmas Poo. Maybe not as successful as the bamboo construction and the piss photo but still entertaining.


The last piece, California Souvenir, is the most politically overt. Consiting of a plaster hand holding a rope with beads spelling out California... it makes a statement about that state's recent legalization of gay mairrage in California (something we had in Portland for a short time till it was politically outmaneuvered). In this case, Boadwee's sex toy souvenir evokes the hot button issue and I dont doubt many legalization tourists are going to to make the trip to wed in Cali. Of course the issue is loaded, as some wonder why anyone needs to emulate Judeo-Christian cultural institutions? Others make the point for equal rights on legal terms... love is love right, does anything else matter? In general I think it's un-American to have the government legislate people's private lives and now it's even more un-Californian... good for them, no doubt it will be another firestorm for the upcoming presidential election.

Regardless of the polemics, for the moment California will be a lightning rod for the issue and Boadwee has made a toy tsotchke for the political game. Like a lot of political art it might not mean much in 20 years but for right now it has resonance. Walking the talk, Boadwee has plans to wed as soon as he and his partner can.

The show runs through June 22nd at Rock's Box, 6540 N.Interstate Ave @ Portland BLVD/Rosa Parks Way

Open 12-6 Saturday and Sunday or by appointment: 971.506.8938

Posted by Jeff Jahn on May 30, 2008 at 17:02 | Comments (0)


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