In 1963 American artist Paul Thek traveled to the Capuchin catacombs of Palermo, Italy, a destination known for its macabre, open display of the dead. The stacks of corpses he encountered startled the artist—a visceral understanding of mortality that would change the course of his practice, leading to his signature work of the ’60s, the fleshy “Meat Pieces” made of wax and painted to hyperrealistic effect. The series culminated in Dead Hippie (The Tomb) (1967), a full-scale, ziggurat-shaped construction where Thek buried a latex cast of his own body. The sculpture—an abject figure with its tongue hanging out, with globs of glitter on its cheeks, and severed fingers strewn alongside—was an effigy of the artist and became a symbol for the time period, the artist as victim of the lost generation. After being exhibited in Cologne, attempts were made to return the figure to Thek who adamantly rejected ever seeing it again. Soon after, the sculpture was destroyed.
Installation view of “Gargle/Spit,” TBD, New York. Courtesy TBD.
Thek garnered a reputation for his often uncomfortable and always uncompromising vision, which lay far outside the scope of the commercial art market. It is this embrace of the unconventional and audacious that brings together his work with that of eight other disparate-yet-like-minded artists in a group exhibition at TBD.
The show’s title, “Gargle/Spit,” references Vito Acconci’s confrontational performance from 1970 (a photo of which is on display in the gallery) and also serves as a metaphor for the attitude that loosely links all the works, a homespun approach to define art outside of historical contexts and art world politics. As the first New York City exhibition in 11 years to be curated by gallerist and critic Kenny Schachter (who owns and lives among many of the works on display), the show is held together by the dialogue and discrete echoes emerging between the different artists.
What constitutes as “renegade” is defined by each artist through their vastly different practices. Katherine Bernhardt’s paintings bear reference to Pop Art through their subject matter—palm trees, cigarettes, Vogue models—and yet her gestural process (she often completes a painting in under 30 minutes) subverts the reference and becomes something reactionary. Instead of mechanical reproduction and identical copies, her repetitive motifs gain power through their sensual messiness and visible process. Several of Chris Burden’s quirky diagrams are shown, revealing his large-scale, kinetic sculpture proposals from the later years of his career. Spinning Dervish (2008), for example, depicts an unrealized idea for a massive maypole that would spin 400-pound metal plates, while his plans for a Sex Tower still seem like a poignant critique. It is the wit and conceptual punch of these pieces that allows them to linger and remain relevant, suggesting that a dose of humor and irreverence can transcend any institutional boundaries.