The aesthetics of the grotesque can be quite broad and far-ranging. The grotesque can be so subtle you miss it on the first interaction with a story, artwork, or film; other times, it’s so shocking that you’ll never forget the image having seen it once (and just once, you have decided, is enough). Then there’s the point where the grotesque and satire intersect. According to scholar Philip Thomson—satire allows us to feel intellectually superior (we see the joke), whereas the grotesque does not allow for such hierarchy. But what happens when a work resides in between the two states? You understand the argument, see the joke, but a violence has happened to you nonetheless.
That is often how I feel when observing the work of Scott Brooks. His painting Food Chain (2009) remains one of my favorites, but it almost hurts to stare at it for too long. The light shines upon the top half of the work, so that the first thing we see is rather comical: a group of adults, sitting completely naked on polka-dot toilets (who doesn’t love polka dots?). They are all gazing up at some unknown entity, each with a different expression: the man in the middle appears angry, while the gentleman to the left seems expectant, almost excited with his eyes so wide. The woman to the right of them is more pensive, but also concentrating. The scene becomes even more absurd (or nightmarish) because the toilets sit on a carousel. Notice how those naked bodies are all rather toned and muscular–the gentleman in the center sports six-pack abs; the light shines on the man farthest right so that we can see his well defined deltoids.
In contrast, the ice cream server standing in the center of the painting is pudgy, and his gaze is focused downwards, but he’s not quite looking at the children around him. His spectacles give him something of a scholar/serial killer look (as opposed to the ice cream server off to the right whose grin is pure evil). The children are perhaps the creepiest characters in the piece (I don’t think I would volunteer to babysit any of them). The child standing with a dollar bill and lascivious grin seems like he could just as easily be in a strip club. Others who have tasted the ice cream look either disgusted or like they are getting sick. What is so fascinating about the scenario is the apparent disconnect–none of the adults seem to be aware of the children–even the scholarly ice cream server seems to be holding the cone at the wrong angle to give to the boy. Now, we almost immediately understand the satire of Food Chain–Brooks is taking the saying “we are feeding our kids shit” and making it literal. But getting that point doesn’t necessarily answer the previous concerns I’ve raised. What are the adults completely mesmerized by, and who are the two middlemen? Corporate men? Scientists?
In some ways Gluttony (2004) looks at a similar theme. We all know young children who have destroyed their toys through wear and tear–and there’s many a headless doll and Barbie to prove it. But this poor little bunny fell into the wrong hands. The rabbit’s body and boy’s fingers blend into each other, are of of the same textures as the child’s stomach. At first glance, they all blur into one mass. We must work our way through the details. Now, there is no way that a toddler has enough strength to rip the head off a rabbit and perhaps it is that fact that allows us to laugh even as we feel momentarily sick. The child’s unabashed gaze is directed at the viewer even as he sucks on what could be a stringy muscle, or just string. The bunny doesn’t quite seem real, but how to explain all that blood smeared on the child’s face and bib and pooling right at his penis? This piece was part of Brook’s Seven Deadly Sins project, but there was more horror in Gluttony than in all the others, including Anger. This picture goes beyond the simple maxim that indulgence in food can be bad for you and takes us into deeper questions of gender and violence. For instance, imagine the boy had been replaced with a little girl, blood pooling between her legs. I wonder who placed the bib on the child; even the head doesn’t look ripped off so much as it was sliced clean. Might such carnage be adult sanctioned?
Till Death Do Us Part (2006) is more satire than the truly grotesque, for I think we might enjoy the joke about marriage and “pulling the plug.” The woman’s neck and head don’t quite match her body, her breasts, if custom ordered, aren’t the commercial ideal, but her smile is picture ready. On the right side of the picture, we see her pink heels, which plays off his tattoo hearts and pouty mouth. Certainly, the man seems to have had high hopes in making this work, given the level of dejection we now seem him experiencing. The dissonance between her happy expression and his hopelessness causes both laughter and confusion–just when did he unplug her? She appears to be posing for a photograph with that stiff, very correct posture (who can ever sit that straight?). The bed sheets aren’t rumpled enough to make us think that they have had sex yet, despite her being naked. This takes her out of the “blow up doll” category, despite the plug and the fact that she was assembled, for he doesn’t appear to have taken advantage of her services. His narrative, then, becomes more complex as we contemplate these subtleties.
The grotesque is rather wondrous in how it unravels initial impressions and delves deeper into societal issues we’d often rather not examine. I admire Brooks’ work because it forces me to rethink my own paradigms, indicts me on the ways I help keep unjust systems–whether violence or corporate greed–in place. That’s the power of the grotesque–it will smash hierarchies and refuse to erect any others in their stead, leaving us to work our way out of tired narratives and into a place of wonder and enlightenment.
To view more of Brooks’ work, please visit his website: http://www.scottgbrooks.com/
Images used with permission from the artist