Organized by Thaw Curatorial Fellow Janet Dees, ”One on One” reveals an eye for terrific drawing and an overall visual sensibility that is heated. Not frenzied, but fiery nonetheless, with the stability of intelligence keeping the elements from getting out of control. In fact, the only failures in the show are those of self-assurance; when Dees and/or her artists seek to present a level of elegance, the whole thing cools like a dying campfire. Yet vital sparks remain, and this viewer would prefer to dodge hotspots than witness the cold ashes of style.
The premise for the exhibition is sheer mania: each of the five artists involved presents us with their obsessions. Terry Allen’s “Ghost Ship Rodez” is a staged installation cum drawings, all about the madness of the French writer Antonin Artaud (1896-1948), and how that madness has driven Allen to his own compulsions. Hasan Elahi, suffering post-9/11 profiling, catalogues every trace of his daily life in his “Tracking Transience: The Orwell Project” — a web-based collection of over 40,000 images to date, making the technology of surveillance a new art medium. The biracial, husband and wife team McCallum & Tarry examine themselves within a social context through video, portraits, and an installation featuring House of Wax-like busts of themselves. Finally, Kaari Upson lets her crazies run wild in an entertaining, disturbing, and astonishing installation of her “involvement” with a man named Larry, whom she never met, and about whom she has discovered way more than one person should know about another, or at least admit publicly.
Ultimately, that’s what “One on One” is about: how and why we know what we think we know about an individual, and how that mirrors what we believe about ourselves. It’s about intimacy, obsession, and the constructs of our fantasies in relation to others. As a topic, there is no room for playing it safe; and the art is, for the most part, appropriately unsettling, disconcertingly powerful, and quite beautiful.
The exhibition opens with the beautiful: works by Bradley McCallum and Jacqueline Tarry, whose merged family-crest motif wallpaper, in shades of cream, olive, and silver with cartoonish maroon blood platelets, frame the LED screen that shows “Exchange.” The video features the two artists, injecting one another’s veins in an exchange of bloodlines. They look at one another very sensuously, with the depth of longing exclusive to people in love. The video plays on the intimacy of their relationship as it repudiates racial taboos (she is African-American; he is Scottish). Unfortunately, although the rest of McCallum and Tarry’s installation is gorgeous, it is so self-absorbed that it comes across as overly mannered. “Cut,” in which they chop at one another’s hair with a straight razor, references the shame of being shorn as punishment for breaking cultural proscriptions. “Topsy-Turvy,” a video featuring the two tumbling in sewn-together eveningwear, is as stylized as a Matthew Barney film, though without his redemptive narrative. Love is exhaustively, painfully intimate, yes — but these two are hardly unique in having experienced it, despite what their solemnly attractive art might suggest.
The disturbing intimacy that Upson brings to her work is frighteningly potent, naked in its mania. The story she tells in her exhibition is, briefly: A man she calls “Larry” (to protect his privacy, legally as well as ironically) used to live in the neighborhood where she grew up. She found some of his personal effects while she was still in school at Cal Arts — diaries, photographs, and other possessions. When his former “14-room fake mansion” burned down, Upson set about in earnest to learn anything and everything she could about Larry, creating not only his persona but her own matching — and equally contrived — character, a sex doll-like blond. As intrusive as Sophie Calle, Upson depends upon her own fantasies rather than her subjects’ reactions. She conceived of the Larry project in three phases. First, a honeymoon period, for which she created a Larry doll based on his physical description as written up in a police ticket. Then the grotto, where Upson recreated a Hugh Hefner-inspired chamber, complete with videos of herself as a Playmate. Her identity here became fused with Larry’s history as the quintessential Playboy-reading, bikini-partying bachelor. The final period, the fire, features a video, taken by a neighbor, of Larry’s former home going up in flames. This last chapter definitively completes the cycle of Larry and Upson’s intertwined identities; through the fire, he is freed from her obsession, and becomes less surveilled than a minor celebrity. The whole installation pushes the limits of decency with striking artistry; Upson’s drawings alone are worth the price of admission. Her grotto, videos, the ashes-and-was sculptures of Larry and her as if burned on a sacrificial pyre — all of it is like the act of stalking as performed by Hannibal Lector: perfect, and deadly.