Doreen Garner, Doctor’s Orders
Larrie, New York 21 May – 18 June
ArtReview // September, 2017
One’s attention could be drawn in one of two directions. To the left is a modest tattoo-parlour setup – with inks, sample drawings (mostly simplified versions of medical illustrations) and a padded table where the artist administers, per the exhibition’s press release, ‘needle and ink as treatment, and authentic interaction as cure’. To the right is a confrontational, tumorous sculpture: Big Pussy (From the Back) (2015). Laid out on a mirrored plinth, the clear glass work is stuffed with polyester fibre and adorned with such objects as teddy-bear eyes, brass screws, Swarovski crystals, condoms, dentures and a hair weave.
Doreen Garner has become known for ghoulish, sexualised objects that address the dark history of medical experimentation on people of colour. Her practice draws on such texts as Harriet A. Washington’s Medical Apartheid (2007), which details the practice of doctors like J. Marion Sims, the so-called father of modern gynaecology, who innovated surgical techniques while conducting harrowing experiments on enslaved black women in the nineteenth century. There is a cruel irony to Sims’s life-saving work, which he performed on slaves without the use of anaesthesia, believing (as did many of his peers) that people of colour had a higher pain threshold.
In Garner’s work, femaleness and blackness become dissected and disembodied. At thirty years old, Garner seems to channel a new wave of feminist rage against the continued abuse of racial and sexual others. She rejects the surface of the female body as an easy object for consumption – even when transfigured through a ‘feminist lens’, as artists like Marilyn Minter have attempted to do, with her photorealistic canvases of models’ zits and eyebrow hairs.
Garner pushes her visual language to the extreme, with staging elements both dramatic and pedagogical. Some sculptures are titled for historical figures, like Reliquary for Henrietta (2016) (a golden skull resting atop a hairy red silicone mass, memorialising Henrietta Lacks, an African American whose cells were used without her permission to develop the HeLa immortalised cell line). The cold, spotlit illumination of the exhibition design recalls operating theatres. Her black-and-white Medical Study (2013–17) series depicts, with clinical exactitude, a sawed-off jaw with contemporary gold-capped teeth and a skeletal hand bearing colourful nail-art. A shelf of books includes her source material, from Medical Apartheid to Richard Barnett’s medical illustration compendium The Sick Rose (2014).
In developing a (morbid) genre of portraiture, Garner’s practice is the inverse of Kehinde Wiley’s. Where Wiley recoups traditional painterly styles to render black figures adorned with symbols of royalty and contemporary hip-hop regalia, Garner bedazzles the insides of tortured bodies, forcing viewers to examine their relationships to seduction and repulsion.
Interestingly, in a 2015 video interview for Brooklyn public-access BRIC TV, Garner explained with equal fascination and frustration how the personal gets mapped onto the artistic. “No matter what I combine, it’s going to look sexual, because that’s how we see objects and that’s how people see me, too.” She mused, “I wonder if the work would be read the same way if it was a white woman making it.” In the performance Observatory (2014), Garner positioned herself in a glass vitrine with her sculptures, making unceasing eye contact with what she described as a mostly white audience. With the heavily mirrored surfaces that pervade this show at Larrie, Garner turns the gaze back on the viewers themselves.
In the show’s most visceral moment, the sexual and the surgical come together. In the video Endoscopy (2014), a doctor’s spoken explanation of the gluteus muscle segues to graphic operating footage, possibly of a butt implant. The round lens of the surgical camera becomes conflated with the fisheye views of 1990s hip-hop videos, as footage switches between closeup shots of erotic dancing and operating gore. The music unnervingly shifts between hip-hop tracks and the theme to Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960), a reminder that body horror is part of our shared, white-washed cultural heritage.