The grotesque is often used as a synonym for all that is dark, obscene, bizarre, and even gruesome. That is a rather lazy definition for an aesthetic that robs us momentarily of our ability to rationalize and categorize things. The truly grotesque moves us more into a sense of mystery — into the world of things that are now given life and essence. We encounter such movement in the 3‑D work of visual artist Michael Rees. In his artist statement about his Putto series, he states, “They head back to a moment in recapitulation creating the possibility of another route in evolution. The acephalous one, the one where the brain is not allowed to become the pathological organ. These works regress back to a place where our emotions are in control, without head. This is about feelings emotions and dreams. This is the world of our inner psychic lives, the place from which we care about things.”
Geoffrey Galt Harpham used Martin Schöngauer’s engraving of “The Temptations of St. Anthony” to explain how this journey into the world of the monstrous and grotesque jams our rationalizations: “The spiky, snouted figure on the far left, for example, cannot be gathered into a single noun, for it is part porcupine, part anteater, part fish (and part fish-hook in the tail): and, in its limbs, its expression, and its sense of intentionality, part human. This is, of course, a terribly inadequate description, for the whole is, if not more than, at least very different from the sum of its parts. But it is the only kind of description possible. The other monsters present us with fanciful inventory of animal parts, a sickening jumble of scales, wings, claws, antlers, hooves, feathers, and hands. They are grotesque not because they are hideous…but because, in the midst of an overwhelming impression of monstrousness there is much we can recognize, much corrupted or shuffled familiarity” (5). It is the tension of almost being able to name that thing, and yet having no adequate answer, that keeps us fixed in time; we can only gaze on the monster — can we judge something we have no name for?
Let us take Rees’ Putto series, which had a working title of “Monsters.” Even that title is a stretch — there is too much object-ness about them. The lack of eyes or a head puts the viewer into unfamiliar territory. Can something be monstrous that has no discerning intelligence, or even more frightening, too many consciousnesses fighting for power inside one body?
The first part of the creature we notice in Putto 2×2×4 (2005) are the legs that uncross and begin to stand, as the two large fingers affixed to the torso momentarily act like insect antennae. But then the legs cause the two fingers to rear up, and suddenly we catch a glimpse of an antlered creature. We can’t call it anything more than that — it has already, within the space of fifteen seconds, morphed into several hybrids. The four “legs” (possible of a human, possible of a table) now hoisted in the air, it walks around, like some blind monster. Then immediately after, the monster tries to find its balance, realizes that it’s made up of too many minds. At forty seconds, the torso is horizontal, in danger of being torn apart by its two halves. Cautiously, they try to walk in unison, but then when the fingers bend down to gain more leverage, the object half now catapults the human half into the air. It struts around, balancing fingers and legs while also turning into an alien life form. When the tables are turned (a bit literally), the monster becomes a lovely, leaping antlered thing.
The more times one watches the video, more creatures seems to erupt from the sculpture and we are caught in the endless dance and struggle between nature, humans, and the realm of objects to which we enslave ourselves to. The grotesque likes to upend hierarchies; it wishes to bring us, ultimately, back into a sense of balance. Rees’ use of 3‑D technology also simultaneously questions our relationship with objects — how we try to “grow” emotionally through ownership of “things” or how we rationalize such detrimental relationships. By given the object back its power, Rees momentarily shocks us into realizing that ownership is illusion. Often, we are the ones being “owned” and mastered.
The second video is an animation of the sculpture Putto 126.96.36.199 (2003).
Within the first five seconds, I am suddenly caught in between The Human Centipede and Goya’s Disasters of War. The putti seem to slowly bear their own corpse in a slow, synchronized march. In one gorgeous, acrobatic move, the torso flings itself into the air as an uncanny resurrection. The joy at such revival immediately turns into a baby sumo wrestling match around nineteen seconds. Legs suddenly morph into arms so that the next time the torso is lifted off the ground, all I see are wrestlers sensuously entangled with each other. It is all laughter and disgust at the same time — a wonderful version of the carnivalesque, of bodies that are, according to Mikhail Bakhtin.
The baby legs closely resemble the Putti in Renaissance painting and sculpture and so they reside amid the living and the dead, the spiritual and the earthly. How many “people” are trapped in that body? Did you count eight, four, or only two? I would argue that this video represents, in some ways, the journey of trying to affix ourselves to one identity based on objects — “I am a writer,” “I am a mother,” “I am a business owner.” By trying to “own” ourselves through such labels (these concepts might more accurately represent how we want to be seen, rather than who we feel we are), the split self begins to vie for power, with no clear winner. But this gorgeous, carnivalesque romp that Rees has created in the space of forty-three seconds, with these grotesque, angelic limbs — could that even be the turning point? As you step into the liminal space of monstrous objects and headless limbs, might you even discover your own wandering soul amid the wreckage?
Harpham, Geoffrey Galt. On the Grotesque: Strategies of Contradiction in Art and Literature. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1982.
Rees, Michael. “Artist’s Statement for the Print Portfolio.” Michael Rees. Michael Rees. Web. 27 April 2012.