The Buffalo News

Date: Friday, December 5, 2003
Section: GUSTO
Edition: FINAL
Page: G18

By: BY BRUCE ADAMS – News Contributing Reviewer

Illustration: Janine Antoni’s “Umbilical,” a cast silver work on display at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery.

WHAT: “Janine Antoni: Incarnate”
WHEN: Through Feb. 1
WHERE: Albright-Knox Art Gallery, 1285 Elmwood Ave.

ADMISSION: $6; $5 seniors and students; 12 and under free

INFO: 882-8700

It was the stuff of legends. In 1971 Chris Burden was shot; a flesh wound through the arm from a rifle fired by a friend. The well-placed round wasn’t intended to be deadly. It wasn’t even an act of genuine aggression. It was an act of art.

The title of the now-legendary performance was “Shoot,” and Burden was both artist and deliberate target.

Whatever side you fall on in the self-mutilation-as-art debate, it’s hard to deny the intensely compelling nature of Burden’s breakthrough work. Yet, aside from a few blurry photos and the faded memories of those who were there to witness history, the moment exists today primarily in the minds of people who have only heard of it.

Artist Janine Antoni has been generating her own share of art-world ripples since the early 1990s with a series of elaborate conceptual works that, while decidedly more genteel than Burden’s early efforts, are nevertheless deeply compelling.

An exhibition of four ofAntoni’s pieces titled “Janine Antoni: Incarnate” is currently on exhibit in the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, where the artist recently spoke before a sizable crowd.

Antoni believes that “Shoot” — and other works by the conceptualists of the 1970s — are compelling precisely because most of us never actually witnessed them. Instead, we rely on oral descriptions that produce a kind of cognitive dissonance between the intensity of the process and the deadpan artifacts that remain. Resolving this conflict actively engages viewers’ minds.

With “Saddle,” a sculpture of haunting lyricism, Antoni also compels the viewer to fill in what is, literally and figuratively, not there.

It’s comprised of a single cowhide, which has been tanned while draped over a cast of the artist on her hands and knees. Cast removed, the translucent skin remains contoured to the form of the absent body, creating something of a ghost figure.

Antoni is, in her own words, “shrouded in death,” yet she is also cocooned in a metaphorical embryonic sac. Gradually, the viewer begins to associate the absence of the human figure with that of the cow.

“Saddle,” like all of Antoni’s work, addresses several issues simultaneously from a myriad of personal passions and art-historical precedents. Her themes include: gender and feminist issues, biological cycles, nurturing, human/animal interaction and the fear of death, among others. Her work tends to prompt a stream of associations in the viewer, which unfold over time — some intended, others created by the viewer.

“Umbilical,” for instance, is a small spotlighted silver sculpture consisting of the cast interior of Antoni’s mouth gripping the end of a monogrammed spoon (from the family’s heirloom silver). At the spoon’s other end is a negative cast of the space within her mother’s hand.

The evocative title generates vivid associations of mother-child connections, the monogram suggests bloodlines, and once again the viewer must fill in what is missing: the mother and the daughter who is being nourished.

The casting is just one in a diverse array of media Antoni has used in producing her heavily process-based works. She has gnawed 600-pound blocks of chocolate and lard, attached herself to a polysomnograph to measure her REM sleep and painted gallery floors with her hair.

In contrast, the remaining two works in the exhibition are comparatively conventional photographs. One of them is of Antoni in a bathtub (used in a barn as a water trough); a cow leans down and nuzzles her. The position of the cow’s head suggests that Antoni is nursing her, and the artist’s placid expression supports the impression.

Cows have been a symbol for nurturing at least as far back as ancient Egypt. More literally, they are surrogate nurturers as children are weaned from the breast, but Antoni reverses the roles here. Any sense of contentment we gain from this bucolic nursing tale is abruptly interrupted by the work’s title: “2038” — the number on the cow’s ear tag. It is, we are reminded, the cow that feeds us.

The other photograph, titled “Momme,” is a quiet, eerie and comical portrait of the artist’s mother that is difficult to describe succinctly. But one of several common threads throughout the aptly titled “Janine Antoni: Incarnate” are these autobiographical elements that transcend conventional self-portraiture. All Antoni asks is that we fill in the details.

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