Exhibition Review: Visual Notes of an Upside-Down World at P.P.O.W.
By Katie Heiserman
Visual Notes of an Upside-Down World has a clear and dauntless agenda. It is designed to disturb, to distill and represent today’s unsettling political realities. The mirror panel embedded in Hugh Hayden’s carved wooden sculpture, one of about two dozen works in the show, could rightfully serve as a metaphor for what the show as a whole works to achieve - holding a mirror up to what’s corrupt, backwards (or upside-down) in the world we live in.
While some of the works are unambiguously political, others are more opaque, and the show is clever in its heterogeneity. Curator Jack McGrath explains that every piece works either visually or conceptually with the idea of inversion, a reference to the symbolism of today’s protest culture, namely the action of hanging flags upside-down. Dispersed across the gallery’s four rooms is a diverse collection of works, wide-ranging in both media and period. 1930s black-and-white prints hang opposite a Jacquard tapestry made this year and perpendicular to bright digital c-prints. The eclecticism is forefront, though the show’s thematics run through every piece.
The show does not shy away from difficult content, and some pieces are unsparing in their representations of institutional violence. In a collaborative project by performance artist Ron Athey and photographer Manuel Vason, the artists stage a reenactment of an inquisition era rectal torture technique used on homosexuals. Carlos Motta also addresses homophobia and brutality in a video piece emulating Caravaggio’s Crucifixion of St. Peter. Motta worked with bondage artists in creating the video, and two of these men are shown binding and hoisting Motta into an inverted crucifixion pose. At the end, Motta hangs naked by his feet. Both erotic and full of pain, the work intends to indict the Church for persecuting same-sex relationships. Almost as jarring is Hans Haacke’s digital photograph Star Gazing, a satirical image of a man in a red shirt wearing a blue execution hood with white stars, a denigrating allusion to the American flag.
These explicit visual studies of social and political violence are echoed in some of the more abstract works, and become fodder for what we read into those subtler pieces. A small installation by Mona Hatoum, who is known for creating politically resonant art, forces metaphysical rumination on social progress and reversal. Suzanne Treister’s mirrored copies of well-known book covers evoke a feeling of disorientation and the corrupting of what we hold sacred.