Vital Parts Rearranged at MoMA

Steve Gianakos, “She Could Hardly Wait,” 1996, Oil and ink on cut-and-pasted printed paper.

Steve Gianakos, “She Could Hardly Wait,” 1996, Oil and ink on cut-and-pasted printed paper.

A show to give you nightmares and rip through your subconscious, Exquisite Corpses: Drawing and Disfiguration at MoMA is not so much about decay as rearrangement. The slight misnomer of the title hints at the gothic quality of the 90 paintings, drawings, images, pen-and-inks—you name it—by artists as disparate and wide-ranging as Louise Bourgeois and George Condo, with a seedbed in de Chirico, Max Ernst, Miró and other artists, from 1917 through 2004.

With the displacement and exaggeration of certain body parts comes the questioning. What is that breast doing over there (and, then, what is the function of a breast anyway)? Why does “Whip Woman” (Georg Baselitz), with her huge body and minuscule head, work as art/caricature, and make us laugh like hell? Other titles terrify: “Hand Tree,” by Marcel Jean, with hands scarily reaching out of a tree trunk; “The Flesh Fly,” by Andre Racz; “Baboon Bride,” by Chris Finley.

Then there’s that malevolent-looking leatherette phallus hanging overhead constructed by Bourgeois (with the paradoxical title “Little Girl”) which also—deliberately—suggests a female torso. She explains, in an excerpted statement, “From a sexual point of view, I consider the masculine attributes to be very delicate.”

Grotesque, yes, and now I understand the moved-around features of Picasso women. He’s shown too. It’s such a wild world that it can be fun to see it on a free (freaky) Friday night as I did, with the hoi polloi shaking their heads in wonderment. Plus, it’s a lot more imaginatively cinematic to see a human head turning into a lion, then a misshapen, ant-infested profile (Dali, 1930), than to pay $13 for a 3-D decapitation.

Is there an occasion for the exhibit or just a curator’s mind gone mad? Unclear. Though there is the obligatory statement on the wall at the beginning of the show, a somewhat overwritten “stretching it” rubric about the game of “Exquisite Corpse” in Paris during the 1920s, when surrealist artists topped each other’s work of “aberrant figuration,” taking a metaphor from the parlor game of expanding on the drawing of another, with the impulse continuing through abstraction and beyond.

Exquisite Corpses: Drawing
and Disfiguration
Through July 9, MoMA, 11 W. 53rd St.,