It was an intriguing concept for an exhibition: "Morbid Anatomy: Examining the Interstices of Art and Medicine, Death and Culture." Guest curator Joanna Ebenstein set the tone by soliciting work dealing with "hysteria, reliquaries, phrenology, 'things in jars,' freaks, taxidermy, waxworks, magic lanterns, memento mori and the pathological sublime." The subjects suggest a sideshow — or curiosity cabinet, as noted in the title — as much as an art show. Such things titillate at a deeply visceral level. Their appeal is sensational with a bit of schadenfreude thrown in for good measure. Yet they can elicit a sense of wonder, the common ground between carnival freak shows and the art of the museum. Which tendency will prevail? And does it matter?
On inspection, the gallery becomes a theater for morbid extremes. Upon entering, we are confronted by a group of white horselike sculptures with canine heads, perhaps a pack of saber-toothed horse-wolves. The mental offspring of Daphne Loney, one has arrows piercing its body, suggesting a hallucination, perhaps St. Anthony's last nightmare on the desert. On the wall above it is an even stranger vision: a small sculpture by Eleanor Crook of a balding gent with contorted features and flipperlike arms (Eustache "Jerk" Dupree, the Icarus Man of Ponchatoula, pictured). A tragic figure, his expertly modeled form suggests nobility within futility, a thwarted passion to soar above the pain and indignity of his condition. On the wall behind him is Chicory Miles' Everything I've Ever Wanted, a painted, cast-iron self-portrait of sorts, only here two torsos sprout from one pelvis, each with two arms and three pairs of breasts, a highly maternal model for multitasking. Hanging like a Pennsylvania Dutch "hex" on the wall, Miles' duplex-doppleganger appears poised and self-assured. The remaining works, numbering in the dozens, all have their own stories to impart. Suggesting a microcosm of earthly life, their foibles and anomalies are rendered largely and dramatically enough to make us feel much better about our own existence.
The Morbid Anatomy Cabinet: Gallery as Wunderkammer
Through June 6th
Barrister's Gallery, 2331 St. Claude Ave., 525-2767; www.barristersgallery.com