When a Fabergé egg with testicles and satellite attachments emerges from a portal in the middle of the minimalist-design room we've found ourselves immersed in, we're taken a bit off guard. We continue to pan around the perimeter of the sleek, round room, which is lined by small surveillance cameras, exit signs, neat, stark arrangements of clean business clothes in illuminated shelves and wardrobes, and windows revealing the surrounding sunlit forest. The egg rises through a cylindrical portal in the floor and floats up to the elegant, rococo-style dome ceiling and through a billowing anus that opens to the sky above. Never in our lives have an asshole and a pair of balls inspired so much awe.
The passage of the obscene through the opulent in Jonathan Monaghan's digital animation 'The Pavilion,' projected on a screen at Area 405, conveys a not-so-subtle critique of wealth and extravagance. But to deconstruct that critique, or any other message in the piece, feels pointless when you're immersed in an expensive-looking room that merges both contemporary interior design and rococo embellishment (as well as the uncanny presence of surveillance) with a fancy floating scrotal egg and an asshole skylight. The abrupt meeting of diverse points on an aesthetic spectrum demands sublime reverence.
Area 405 as a whole feels like hallowed ground, like a dark tomb or a deep cave filled with sparkling treasures and remnants of the past. "Gilding the Lily," Area 405's current group show curated by René Treviño and executive director Stewart Watson, speaks to both excess and time through the artists' incorporation of reflective, shimmering materials and imagery. The exhibition features work by Mary Annella Frank & Francesca Bozzelli, Marian April Glebes, Jonathan Latiano, Trudi Y. Ludwig, Jefferson Pinder, Dan Steinhilber, Jane Yoon, Jonathan Monaghan, and Chivas Clem—a mix of established and emerging local and nonlocal artists working in a wide range of materials and dimensions.
The converted warehouse space's beam ceilings, worn wood and stone walls, and dark, expansive space, paired with the reflective, shimmering materials of the artwork, remind us of a cave of wonders (or, if only initially, The Bun Shop on Read Street).The eerie, cavernous atmosphere, along with the presence of natural artifacts like Marian April Glebes' mounted insects and Jefferson Pinder's real human skull, makes the work feel like a collection of relics, both earthly and supernatural.
With its gold-plated teeth, Pinder's 'Head of a Man' (which is on view inconsistently due to the potential damage the skull could suffer from humidity) inevitably brings to mind British artist Damien Hirst's infamous diamond-encrusted skull 'For the Love of God,' which cost £14 million to create. Presumably, Pinder's skull didn't cost nearly that much, though unlike Hirst, he uses a real human skull rather than a cast. The use of precious materials in a memento mori—a motif repeated nearby in a gold-accented print of human skeletons by Trudi Y. Ludwig, called 'The Exposure of Luxury'—points clearly to the ephemerality of material pleasures. The gold teeth in Pinder's skull also evoke grills and hip-hop culture, while the convergence of the natural bone material—labeled with the numbers "5-326" twice on the forehead—and the 24-karat gold makes the sculpture both an object of study and of luxury.
Other work reaches beyond the time and space of Earth: The black glitter covering Pinder's flat wall piece 'Black Portal' simultaneously reflects and absorbs light, generating a mesmerizing, almost hallucinatory effect as we move closer to the four angular masonite planes, arranged on the wall like a large paper airplane or a sci-fi spacecraft. Nearby, Jonathan Latiano's planetary sculpture 'Crux' whirs in midair. From within a spherical wooden cage, electric fans buzz and breathe, causing the flimsy Mylar blades projecting outward from the orb to flutter. From a distance, the piece feels like a living celestial body, oddly but effectively trapped between the walls and beams of the gallery. Up close, it seems more awkward and almost kitsch, like a massive holiday ornament, or, as a friend insightfully pointed out, an oversized cat toy. The silver Mylar material echoes in Jane Yoon's wall installation 'Landing,' a cluster of gleaming butterfly cutouts spreading over a door and window. The installation feels a bit like a decorative Anthropologie window display, but as it illuminates a dark corner in the gallery, it seems more lively than Glebes' dead, mounted insects.
Similarly, Dan Steinhilber's untitled installation conjures natural phenomena from cheap, synthetic products. A funguslike form, fashioned from packing peanuts tightly sealed in black trash bags sits atop a pedestal of galvanized metal garbage cans. The mass looks like a giant, vaguely anvil-shaped black truffle—an expensive fungal delicacy harvested from the earth—with a ribbed, vacuum-hose orifice. A metallic fringe curtain, acting as a backdrop to the sculpture from one perspective and a veil from another, evokes a sheet of rain or the prey-snaring strings of cave glow worms, casting a dazzling shadow of interwoven beams of light and dark across the floor.
Glebes' 'Throne,' a lawn chair entirely covered in gold leaf, presents a cheap, domestic object in an ironic coat of opulence. That irony might have felt like a one-liner if not for the hornets, moths, and a gold-leaf-plated monarch butterfly mounted in glass-covered boxes on the adjacent wall, providing a sort of anthropological context for the chair—like the insects, the chair becomes an artifact of nature, and the gold recalls unearthed treasures from extinct civilizations. Domesticity reappears in the large wall-mounted installation 'Exquisite Spectacle' by Mary Annella Frank & Francesca Bozzelli, in which more than a hundred large, welded steel keys are pinned over floral wallpaper—almost echoing an insect collection in its careful arrangement.
The exhibition is bookended by Monaghan's two incredible, seamlessly looped animations (both of which you can view on his website). Across the gallery, spanning 20 minutes, 'Escape Pod' contains an even higher concentration of absurd imagery and brilliant juxtapositions of the modern, the historical, and the obscene than 'The Pavilion.' Again, the animation probes clean, modern interior spaces—some similar to the walk-in closet in 'The Pavilion,' others resembling stark government service rooms, a "Duty Free" airport-style market, and a spy-movie-esque modern weapon display room. A white floating pod encircled by crystal blades—like a high-end version of Latiano's 'Crux'—transports a golden fawn in and out of these rooms, until it reappears as a gilded buck with an alarmingly large, gaping human anus, framed by a baroque wreath with paired cherubs, and charges through a vast landscape and up the stairway entrance into a massive hovering vessel with elegant architecture and a giant pair of fuzzy testicles. The imagery reflects the gilded yet grotesque sexuality in the video stills from Chivas Clem's performance 'Desperate to Appear Sophisticated,' in which he spews and dribbles glitter into the camera. Though no humans—at least, no complete human bodies—appear in either of Monaghan's films, human materialism, commercialism, and sexuality dominate his universes, just as they do in the real world.
Reflective materials have characterized the aesthetics of different cultures throughout the history of civilization, from Egyptian tombs to baroque gilding to today's Apple chrome. The artists at Area 405 are not really "gilding the lily" so much as they are conceiving a natural history through embellishment, which is how history is so often conceived. While the mere cohesion of surface quality could easily come across as a superficial, arbitrary motif, the materiality and content of the work in "Gilding the Lily" excavates the history and future of the natural and supernatural world through a range of devices—domesticity, modernity, obscenity—without succumbing to aesthetic uniformity.