Cassie Raihl: Appetites

Cassie Raihl at DODGEgallery
By Candace Moeller

Cassie Raihl: Appetites
11 July – 16 August 2013

DODGEgallery
15 Rivington Street
New York, NY 10002
http://dodge-gallery.com

DODGEgallery continues to serve up a mouthwatering selection of art with its current exhibition Appetites, the gallery’s first solo show with artist Cassie Raihl.

Raihl is a sculptor and mixed media artist living and working in Brooklyn.  In Appetites, Raihl has arranged several freestanding and wall-hung sculptures to create a site of absorbed scrutiny of the body.  Cast foam blocks form pedestals supporting fabricated and modified objects such as cast rubber and plaster weights, exercise clothing, soap, and empty energy drink cans.  Some of the pedestals are coated in wax with textured patterns imprinted on them, while others have a roughened and scraped surface.  One of the blocks has been carved into, whittled away around the middle, and another has been bound with a plastic wrap so tight that it cuts into the foam.  Some blocks also sit on plump cushions made of towel or latex, gently settling into seemingly pneumatic bases by gravitational pull.

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Raihl’s play on texture is highly sensual.  The constraint of one block’s tightly wound plastic wrap contrasts dramatically with the unwrapped tactile eroticism of Peep, 2013, a raw and scratched block that sits on top of a fattened horseshoe-shaped pillow made of towel, with leather whip straps flowing out from its base and forming a soft mass of tendrils on the floor.  Works are scaled to the human body, corresponding to the height of the viewer’s knees, torso, and head, and further developing the viewer’s corporeal identification with the installation.

Objects are arranged sparingly and precisely on top of the blocks.  Weights and drink cans balance on corners and edges, and a bar of soap standing on its side holds up a plate of glass.  While solid and weighty, the sculptures also result from a delicate balance of seemingly precariously unbound objects that could be upset by a sudden shift in force.

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With the wall sculptures, wooden rods make shelves for additional cast and modified objects that are arranged with the same balanced meagerness.  Hung on the wall, these tableau, which, like the pedestals, contain items from the artist’s personal belongs, seem almost like they could be found in any person’s apartment: a towel drapes next to a bean bag that slouches over a bar; on the other side of the room, a drooping rubber weight hangs opposite an opened bottle of Listerine.

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Much of the power of Appetites comes from its incisive psychological tone.  The room is full of a solemnity embodied in the weighted and earthbound sculptures.   Works are strategically placed at a distance from one another so that their heady presence can give full issue.  And, despite occasional bursts of neon, the palette of the exhibition is overall muted.  The walls are a blank white, and an initial glance at the room suggests a thick atmosphere of stasis.  But the installation is not just about serene formal beauty.  In the balance of objects, there is a quiet tension that threatens to burst out into the open.  If the tiniest movement were effected, the composition could fall apart, its solidity vanquished.  What we see, therefore, is not inertia, but rather the latent possibility for action, contained in a seemingly immovable form.

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I appreciated Appetites because I think it speaks to a very contemporary way of looking at the human body.  That is, the tension inherent in the works is very much like the mix of emotions with which we view our bodies: there is wonder, devotion, and arousal, but there is also a competing sense of disgust.  And in an age of numerous and often conflicting nutrition and exercise regimens; occluded food production systems; extreme focus on body image in pop culture; and politicization of the individual’s body, sexuality, and reproductive rights, it’s no wonder that confusion toward the body is so prevalent.

The word ‘appetite’ summons up a range of references, including hunger, gluttony, lust, passion, eroticism, and carnal satisfaction.  Food and sex, two basic and natural human needs, typically receive schizophrenic treatment in public, seeding both hedonistic indulgence and puritanical shame.  In Appetites, Raihl adeptly presents these two needs in their contemporary forms.  A dog dish on the floor holds a lump of a glistening, gelatinous fat-like substance, and in imaging a person on their hands and knees consuming it we can envision not only the basest kind of animalism, but also see references to the contemporary confusion over what constitutes proper food anymore, and the public attention affixed to what women consume.  In another part of the room, an erotic t-shirt with an image of a scantily clad young female body is bound to a foam block with plastic wrap.  In the same vein as the tactility of the installation, the t-shirt references the inherent sexuality of the body, but it is just as distorted as the food in the dog dish.  The t-shirt’s image is a cartoon, not a real body.  It is headless.  It is transfixed and frozen behind the wrap, and it is bound, but it also on display.  Here, the work calls forward the dichotomy of public and private, of what is presented as ‘normal’ versus how people live, of sex as simulacra, and of the unequal expectations assessed to female sexuality.  Eating and sex are two of the simplest needs of the human population, yet Raihl’s installation captures perfectly how these needs have been corrupted.

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Raihl uses the symbols of the body well: the consumed energy drinks, exercise paraphernalia, and materials such as latex, wax and foam bespeak the installation’s central physicality.  And Appetites’ underlying psychological tension and exploration of basic human needs frame this physicality perfectly in the contemporary landscape.  This is the body as inorganic, augmented, fragmented, adulterated; in short, this is the value of beauty that has supplanted the natural.  Considered in the art historical context of sculptural representations of the body, I think Appetites is an incredibly current self-portrait rendered in non-figurative form, and is representative of the growing group of artists now working in dissembled, fragmented, and abstracted portraiture.

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There are some weaknesses in Appetites.  The works can be too literal at times, as is the case with Final Attempt, 2013, in which a cast doughnut hangs chained to a block of foam, ostensibly referencing the way that food can be both a physical and psychological weight on the body.  Furthermore, I wonder whether the works are all strong enough individually to stand on their own, or if they need the surrounding cast of sculptures in order to produce their full effect.  I contend that most of them would lose a significant amount of their power if they were separated from the rest of the installation.

Despite these drawbacks, however, I do recommend seeing Appetites.  Raihl’s synthesis of cultural commentary with both the composition and physical materials is intelligent and calculated, and it points to a deep, critical engagement with the philosophy of the body.  Moreover, even with all of the allusions to tension in the works, Appetites has a quiet beauty and a rich sensuality that is alluring and even a bit hypnotic.  Using an economy of means, Raihl has created an installation with full-bodied intonations of rootedness and self-satisfaction – this is no small feat.  Call me a sucker for puns, but, with so much food for thought, the levels of visual and critical meaning in Appetites leave the viewer feeling satiated.

As a post-script, please also check out the group exhibition in DODGEgallery’s back room, Balls to the Wall.  Tim Davis’ video installation Upstate New York Olympics is wonderfully funny and self-effacingly charming.

All photos are by the author for thisisnotartcritique.

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