Project Series 9: Ashley Thorner
January 20 - February 25, 2001
Opening Reception: Saturday, January 20, 4-6 PM
For the last five years, Los Angeles-based artist Ashley Thorner has worked with plastics-vinyl, latex, liquid plastic, etc. In this exhibition she brought together for the first time the large-scale Beware of the Blob and four "chandelier" sculptures, Pink Love Lotus, Blue Love Lotus, Synthetic Green, and Neon Pink. With this work, Thorner furthers her explorations into plastics- glistening surfaces, appealingly artificial colors, and globular shapes.
Thorner uses nontraditional media in a body of work that explores popular culture and consumerism; reflects an interest in pop art, kitsch, and minimalism; and addresses the dualities of control and disorder, artifice and reality. Eva Hesse's process-oriented, "anti-form" sculptures, and Claus Oldenburg's playful alterations of the scale of manufactured objects, have influenced Thorner's development as an artist.
Thorner's work is influenced equally by such pop-culture sources as science-fiction cartoons and 1950s monster movies like The Blob, and by more philosophical approaches to life seen in the contemporary Japanese art of "Chindogu" and William Burroughs' "The Discipline of DE (Do Easy)." "Chindogu" are inventions to make life easier, but that have a tendency to fail-completely, but heroically and beautifully. Burroughs' concept of "Do Easy" comes from a chapter in his novel Exterminator! that explores a way of "doing" things in the world in the most relaxed yet most efficient manner possible. Thorner connects these ideas formally and conceptually by creating minimalist forms with excessive materials (vinyl, glitter, candy, latex, cow gut, and liquid plastic used to make fishing worms); by means of an intensely laborious technique (for example, using the head of a pin to place thousands of tiny dots on her chandeliers); and through shifts in scale from the miniature to the gigantic. At once gentle and subversive, humorous and obsessive, attractive and repulsive, her sculptures explore femininity, the body, sensuality, and popular culture.
Ashley Thorner's exhibition was the ninth in Montgomery Gallery's Project Series, an ongoing program of small exhibitions that brings to the Pomona College campus art that is experimental and that introduces new forms, techniques, or concepts. During each exhibition, participating artists work with faculty and students in relevant disciplines.
Encountering the work of Ashley Thorner is a curiously dislocating art experience. What appears to be an offering of brightly colored, child-friendly gewgaws reveals a dark undercurrent of Freudian creepiness, which, on more prolonged contemplation is reabsorbed into an enlarged, more psychologically balanced and substantial version of that happy first impression. Inklings of a hidden agenda of post-feminist sarcasm and rage reconfigure into a nonjudgmental reconciliation of divisive gender symbologies. And forms that are immediately reminiscent of both 1960s minimalism and contemporary Los Angeles abstraction (each noted for despising, in its own way, the hard-wired narrativising impulse of the art viewer), unfold a wealth of critical sidebars and associative story lines.
Much can be deduced, for example, from the genderific psychological implications of giant soft pastel blobs that threaten to engulf, of oversized, glassy-pointed syrup cones jutting from the floor, of quasi-minimalist "flesh"-colored vinyl Dorian Gray butts wrinkling over time, and of softly translucent globes formed from the literal viscera of a beef-beast. But Thorner's blobs are not three-dimensional articulations of a priori blabbity-blah, but rather manipulations on a more slippery primary symbolic level. The exuberance and friendliness of the artist's hybridized monstrosities thwarts their translation into mere finger pointing or apologia. The crocheted (dead) Angora Worm Bags, so comically tender, yet so grisly and detached, mock male and female archetypes equally, while flaunting embarrassment to embrace both.
Formally, the marriage of degraded materials-either socially frivolous, non-archival, or both-with high-modern sculptural tropes is a constant in Thorner's work. Here again, the vocabularies of schools of thought generally held to be in opposition are improbably merged into a rich and complex patois. Donald Judd on estrogen. In the recent work, slightly wonky tetrahedral sacks, meticulously sewn from clear vinyl and beaded on the inner face with an intricate scarification of condensate-like gel, are strung together with rubber tubing and suspended in chandelier constellations of vaguely medical tentlets. The severely formal spatial matrix of Lichtenstein's Ben-Day cubism is softly folded into an organic, Bucky-Fulleresque tetrahedronal architecture. Fuller's "minimum prime divisor of omni-directional universe" is melted into a more provisional architectural unit: a feather-caked, stained-glass igloo jutting like an ovarian cyst from the proper tundra of a Robert Ryman surface, metastasizing joyously and chaotically out of the seemingly sterile ashes of modern art.
The intricate dotting of the inner faces of these yielding molecular model kits simultaneously conjures the dew on the inside of a rose petal and the condensation in the IV bag of a dying beloved. The care in the execution of each cluster of soggy pyramids is amplified in the deflated macramé symmetry of its limp chandelierism, tattooing its own sacred geometrical aspirations with a fractal grunge that conjures millennia of folk-art and decorative craft practices, but without shame. The Insider/Outsider confusion of Kusama is inverted, the trauma cauterized with laughter instead of angst; the primal scene as enacted by Groucho Marxists.
It's funny I should think of the Marx brothers, because something about Ashley Thorner's work keeps reminding me of vaudeville. Or, more specifically, of burlesque. The feathers, the beading and plastics, the decoration, and the humor and sexiness-are all factors. But mainly, it's this work's similar ability, by an act of theatrical sleight of hand, to absorb and recontextualize an essentially patriarchal and misogynistic culture so that the very same symbols used to articulate that-aesthetic, if you will-come to signify its exact opposite.
There is, moreover, a sci-fi glint to Thorner's humanism. Like a futuristic anime of an Old West saloon hall: symbols of feminine allure as interpreted by aliens from the planet MOMA. But where in The Thing, or Invasion of the Body Snatchers, the alien's vegetative Otherness leaves an unbreachable gap between its own hive-mind pragmatism and foolish human emotions, thereby guaranteeing alien triumph, Thorner's aliens seem to be going native. Finding their self-consciousness inversely proportional to their newfound flamboyance, whole unsuspected vistas of sensory engagement are suddenly opened unto them. And they dig it.
Ashley Thorner makes visionary, oracular art as though the revolution was over and feminism won; why not enjoy ourselves? By employing the power of bawdy, humorous sensuality to subtend all neurotic critiques, moralism or material purism, Thorner posits a larger, more generous and accommodating structure to reality, one to invite the high-strung cold-war monsters in, to enclose them, massage them, and loosen them up; rendering them at least semipermeable, and open to negotiation. And to show them a good time.
Doug Harvey is art critic for LA Weekly, contributing editor and columnist for Art issues., and a multimedia artist.