Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Melissa Ichiuji, Nasty Nice at Irvine Contemporary

Although the exhibition has already been reviewed by my fellow grads several times, the extension of Melissa Ichiuji’s exhibition Nasty Nice at DC’s own Irvine Contemporary gave me the opportunity to experience the show first-hand. And I am glad that I was given this last chance for there was indeed something intriguingly nasty and nice about Ichiuji’s soft sculpture.

Most of the works, which depict young women and animals, are fashioned from diverse media such as nylon stockings, human hair and latex in addition to the more traditional thread and cotton. The mediums certainly enhance one message conveyed by the work; it doesn’t matter what you do to your outsides because your insides stay the same. In other words, the prettiest girl isn’t the healthiest, smartest or most interesting. Ichiugi is suggesting that women spend too much time on the physical self and perhaps neglect the more important areas.

There was an inside-out quality to all of the characters, a torture or dismembering enhanced by the obviousness of the stitching, the constraining tightness of the pantyhose, the, well, nastiness of the human hair sprouting from these fetal, eyeless creatures. For example: a young girl opens her legs to reveal blue eggs in her feathered crotch that she is hiding from a desirous snake. The eggs are part of her, her ovarian eggs and her unborn children. She is a vessel waiting to be impregnated by the phallic snake hissing eagerly over her leg. What does it mean to present women as these vessels? Creatures in other works physically wear their intestines on their outsides, such as in The Optimists who literally wear their beaded hearts sewn on their chests. It’s too bad their faces are made of dried, shriveled fruit. Perhaps the prettiest don’t have the best hearts. Perhaps we shouldn’t always trust the book with the prettiest cover. I like The Optimists. I am one. Ichiuji’s works say that we are all full of blood and guts and nastiness, despite the pains we take to make ourselves look nice on the surface. We can still die like the little, tortured animals at many of the sculptures’ feet. Which leads me to:

My first observation concerned how accidentally cruel we can be to others and ourselves. Many of the sculptures were young girls who were accompanied by a dead, dismembered animal at their feet. Each girl had obviously killed her pet, whether out of curiosity, accident or spite. I am reminded of my brother and cousin killing lizards when they were little. They did this out of ignorance and curiosity, not purposeful malice. However, there was a kind of excitement in killing, in the doing of wrong. Most people get over this instinct. Some don’t. Other works, such as Chorus Girl, a sculpture of a blind ballerina taffetaed in red, has cut into herself with a knife she is still holding. Parts of her insides are strewn on the checkered ground around her. I think: Poor girl lopped off her toes trying to make herself a better dancer. This piece speaks particularly of ambition and the desire to succeed no matter the cost. In a sense, all of these works speak of fitting into an ideal of beauty and not stopping to consider the harm done to ones own body.

It is a difficult exhibition to stomach. Not only does it seem as if the disturbing characters come to life the minute you leave the room, but as a girl, I am very aware of the way I attempt to beautify myself in order to be accepted socially. Women love to feel like the prettiest girl in the room. It is a disturbing realization and Ichiuji’s sculptures will not let you forget it. Furthermore, the works speak about praise from an Other in power. It feels as if these girls are performing for someone else. For the viewer perhaps? It does put us in an odd position. This performance to please is reiterated in one of my favorite pieces in the show Garden Party. In this work, three out of four character’s attempt to attach soft-sculpture penises to their soft-sculpture selves. These characters want to change to be in the position of power. Of course I could “put on a different hat” and say that these are women that don’t need dicks because they already have their own. Who knows? All I can say is that Ichiuji’s exhibition made me consider ideals of beauty and power that are often easy to ignore.

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