• Catherine Chalmers: American Cockroach•
September 5 – October 18
The opposite of glitz is the cockroach, the chosen pest of our collective disaffection. When I say •our•, I refer to those in the first world whose dictum •cleanliness equals goodliness• has directed us into an age obsessed with detergents, manicures, ultra-white and extra-heavy starched shirts, Swiffer mops, etc. In the pursuit of reason and the advancement of society by technological achievement, the cockroach appears and clouds our superiority complex; although able to occupy nations, we are made inferior because we cannot rid ourselves of the disgust in front of us. We try very diligently to kill them; most commonly with pesticides, but a shoe or hefty magazine often does the trick. Most of us haven't tried burning them at the stake, frying them in an electric chair, or hanging them by their neck with some rope, which is why Catherine Chalmers' exhibit •American Cockroach• is compelling. In large format black and white photographs and short video works Chalmers' maximizes the artificiality of the tableau genre and captures human beings disgust and fascination with the cockroach in a way that is humorous, intelligent, and disgustingly, a pleasure to look at. The sculptures in the exhibit continued themes of absurdity and confrontation with the inclusion of cockroaches fabricated in human scale, while the assemblage collages focused on transforming the abject into the estimable by way of reconstruction.
Electric Chair, a 41-by-41 inch black and white photograph from the •Executions• series is the centerpiece of the exhibit. The detail captured by Chalmers’ macro lens makes visible every discriminating mark, from antenna to the spikes on the legs of the cockroach. Although initially appearing against the darker than black background as a wooden throne for the pest, sitting nobly like the Buddha in a meditative position (for a cockroach), the throne is actually a restraining device; straps hold down his middle tentacles. The white light above the cockroach's head and antennae is actually a brain frying arc of electric current. In •Hanging•, another large-scale black and white photograph, a mass cockroach hanging is taking place, and museum visitors find themselves part of the audience at a public execution. In stark contrast to the all white background, the cockroaches create a vertical band of dark black stripes that elegantly dangle from their nooses. Somehow, the abhorrent imagery is mesmerizing to look at. This is due in part to the sheer beauty of the high contrast print and the scale to which they are enlarged, not to mention the keen interest our species reserves for the morbid (exemplified by such horrors as the gladiators in the Coliseum, the public stonings of the middle ages, the private screening of Timothy McVeigh’s execution, a casual glance at the scene of a freeway accident). The absurdity of the imagery of the hanging cockroach reveals the contradictory nature of the human relationship to other humans, other species, and to death, dying, and killing.
The •Executions• series continues with three short video works in the adjacent small gallery. Chalmers’ skill at staging sadistic scenarios which viewers will have a hard time taking their eyes off is evident in •Burning at the Stake•, a three minute and forty-three second single shot of a cockroach death-by-fire. Tied vertically to a wooden stake, bright yellow flames rise and audible crackles increase as the body of the bug burns, smokes, and decays. The colorful fire turns to gray smoke; the bug shrinks, darkens, and stops quivering. Cockroach empathy sets in, and the folks at P.E.T.A. are outraged. The artist superfluously assures us that the making of the work did not harm any cockroaches, a disclaimer that neither harms nor aids the series. The works’ staged sets and scenarios are characteristic of tableau photography, whose basic dictum implies artificiality. It is not real. The works’ function is not in its authenticity, but in the parallels drawn between its staged setting and activity of the real world outside of the set and final production. Not to say that moral relativists shouldn't be disturbed, everyone should be disturbed, more by the implications of Chalmers’ work than its production.
The six-foot large cast resin and rubber •Hanging• uses scale and medium to further confound the relation of man and pest. The naturally puny black cockroach has been transformed into a human scale (•a la The Metamorphosis•) incandescent orange bug dangling from a rope in three-dimensional space. It's presence is not as horribly frightening as that of the aforementioned photographs of the dark black cockroaches, but it is no less absurd and brings to the table an entirely new set of relations to consider, in the distinctions between man and his co-habitants. If the cockroach in real life was of human scale, might there be certain utilitarian purposes for it to serve? I can imagine a world where the giant cockroach might have taken the place of the mule as an agricultural laborer, and certainly in this hypothetical world, if the giant cockroach was near extinction it would be necessary to preserve and maintain its natural habitat and keep the few remaining examples of the species on public display at the San Diego Zoo.
Alas, the roach remains small and ever-present. Somewhere there must be someone who cherishes and worships the roach; the •Trophy Drawings• are for them. Consisting of an actual cockroach head centrally placed on paper, Chalmers' relinquishes the fallacy of scale in her sculpture in favor of the deconstructivist tendencies of juxtaposing •the real• in an absurd context. Keeping a trophy head of a defeated beast from the animal kingdom, besides being extremely tacky, is a signifier of human vanity, pride, and insecurity. It proves our supreme capabilities to command and control nature and make decorative arts out of it in the process. The •Trophy Drawings• belittle our fundamental belief system in natural selection and order. Elevating the killing of the pest deflates the glory of the killing of the bison, the deer, and the antelope. The classifications of the natural world that man has constructed are ripped open and exposed by the simple act of pasting a roach head on a piece of paper and putting a frame around it.
•Executions• creates guilt and enjoyment in one sitting, and reveals a grotesque aspect of human nature and cruelty most would rather ignore and suppress than identify as inherent. Classification and meaning, fundamental to our relation to •the natural world•(and other humans too) here becomes paper thin by creating an alternate world where the despicable pests of our society are re-contextualized, and humanized.