The Body at Work: Sue Williams and Günter Brus
by Marya Summers
Palm Beach Institute of Contemporary Art's current exhibits, A Fine Line and
Günter Brus, walk that narrow tightrope between filth and art that has caused
many to shake their heads and wonder: What's become of beauty? When did
pornography and fetishism become art?
The two artists in question—New York's Sue Williams (first floor) and Vienna's
Günter Brus (second floor)—don't hesitate to incorporate the human body at its
most debased within their work. For both, the PB/ICA exhibit is their first solo
U.S. museum show.
Perhaps the more obviously disturbing, performance artist Brus makes his body
and its fluids his canvas and his medium. The brochure supplied in conjunction
with the exhibit explains, "Brus does away with traditional practices and
becomes the interlocutor by utilizing his own body in an existential and
expressive manner." In the name of art, this Viennese Actionist, whose "acts" of
the 1960s and 70s have been memorialized in photography and on video, cuts
himself with razors, smears himself with excrement, and drinks his own urine.
These acts "were meant not only to shock, but also to explore a deeper
intellectual curiosity and search for meaning through the use of the body."
Williams' canvases, in comparison, seem family-friendly. Their bold colors and
simple lines communicate a carefree whimsy. But closer examination of several
works reveals cartoon depictions of a virtual orgy of body parts. Many are so
cluttered with random anuses, penises, vaginas, breasts, feet, and hands that
they look as if Williams' captured still lifes of a sex-doll factory dumpster.
In a 1997 video interview with PB/ICA's director Michael Rush, Williams states,
"I don't know what kind of psychology it [her work] comes from. I don't like
analyzing paintings," and asserts of her work, "It's not erotic-sexual, but
anti-erotic—it's an uncomfortable sexuality they have." The interview is
projected for museum-goers on a wall in the Institute's airy main gallery.
Williams' early work was informed by the abusive relationships she suffered at
the hands of men. Most include disturbingly comic sexual acts. The 1996
"Chartreuse with Spots" uses black line drawings of hermaphroditic figures and
copulating couples, some of which have been rubbed into black splotches (hence
the "spots") on the painting's blech-green background.
During the last several years, the artist's work has progressed toward
abstraction. Sure, in "Spawning" (2000), you can see stylized cock-and-balls,
their bulbous tips dripping. But the images are so abstract, what you're seeing
could be the result of your own dirty mind. The canvas's dancing lines and
flourishes are as reminiscent of a ticker-tape parade as they are of sexual
abandon. But knowing Williams, what your dirty mind sees is exactly what she
intended. The dripping "penises" convey the aftermath of the sexual act as much
as the dripping paint conveys the aftermath of her own creative process.
In other works, like "Cutie Pie" (2001) and "Red and Purple Deal" (2000), the
limbs and organs have disappeared altogether. The bright swerving lines are
entirely abstract. These later pieces explore the artist's process and movement
as well as the relationship of color. The artist's process--covering the
entirety of a large canvas with acrylic paint (usually white) before applying
bold strokes of oil paint—allows her to "erase" lines that she doesn't like and
keep those that work.
On Friday, May 17, 2002, as part of the Institute's Mix It Up series, which
features other art forms as part of the exhibit, PB/ICA hosted a performance
poetry competition (known as a poetry slam). Some of the poets weren't so sure
the exhibits were "fine" at all—nevermind the titles. In response to Brus' work,
one poet read his work from a scroll wrapped around a toilet-paper roll. Another
poet claimed of Sue Williams' paintings, "I just couldn't get anything from any
But the evening's winning poet, Chris Bluemer, confronts the debasement
expressed within the exhibit's work in his own. His poem "Mainstream" uses
today's news as a springboard for societal and artistic criticism: "Is the
ugliness in art the subject or the object?" he queries in one line.
"What struck me about the art was that it was repulsive," Bluemer recalls. "But
then I began to think about the reality that it conveyed—the headlines everyday
are no different than that art."
Palm Beach Institute of Contemporary Art, 601
Lake Avenue, Lake Worth, FL 33460.
Visit their website:
www.palmbeachica.org for more.