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How Grotesque! How Grand!

By Blake Gopnik
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 25, 2004; Page N01


In a far corner of the Vatican, there is a marvelous suite of vaulted spaces where only pontiffs and the occasional art historian now get to stroll. Once, however, artists and connoisseurs would flock there from all over. In the years around 1517, Raphael and a dream team of assistants had covered these papal logge with a sprawl of decorative detail that's almost psychedelic. Twisting garlands sprout infants' heads and sphinxes' bodies before morphing into fantastical gazebos and pavilions, which then spew out every kind of bird and beast. Raphael's garlands took off from Roman paintings found preserved in grottoes underground and also took their name from them: They became "grotesques," and the word has come down to us to cover all the unnatural, extravagant absurdities we've since seen in art and life.

Last weekend, in a minor miracle of contemporary curating, New Yorker Robert Storr opened the fifth Santa Fe biennial, titled "Disparities and Deformations: Our Grotesque." Storr's show, held at a contemporary art center called Site Santa Fe, channels the unnatural elegance of Raphael's Vatican decor, almost 500 years after the Italian master's death. At Site's invitation, Storr has brought together 53 contemporary artists whose works speak to one another, and to how the ancient notion of the grotesque pans out today.

Providing a distinctly high-art version of peculiar shape-shifting: Thomas Schutte's eight-foot-tall "Big Spirit" figures, cast in mirror-polished bronze. (Blake Gopnik -- The Washington Post)


"Deformities and Deformations: Our Grotesque" is the fifth international biennial exhibition of Site Santa Fe, a contemporary art center that opened nine years ago on the edge of the New Mexico capital's historic district. It is one of the country's leading surveys of contemporary art, alongside the Whitney Museum's famous biennial, the Corcoran's older but smaller event and the twice-a-decade Carnegie International in Pittsburgh. (For once, all four have fallen within a single year: The Carnegie launches in October, while the Corcoran biennial gets underway in March.)

Guest curator Robert Storr has invited 53 artists -- 42 of them from the United States -- to participate in this year's biennial, the largest yet in Santa Fe. Painting dominates the show, but there are also works and installations in other media. Biennial artists not mentioned in the accompanying review include Francesco Clemente, Robert Gober, Jorg Immendorff, Mike Kelly, Paul McCarthy, Sigmar Polke, Susan Rothenberg, Jenny Saville, John Waters and Franz West.

The exhibition continues through Jan. 9. Call 505-989-1199 or visit www.sitesantafe.org.

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The biennial is one of a handful of big contemporary-art surveys held in the United States. Usually these events feel like agglomerations of whatever the art world counts as new and hot, or of some curator's all-time favorites. Storr's version, however, comes off as a tightly coherent, almost scholarly affair. There's not much new to see in it, except Storr's novel optic.

Storr started out as a painter and critic, became a leading curator at the Museum of Modern Art and recently moved on to the prestigious Institute of Fine Arts at New York University. His biennial, attractive and focused and brainy all at the same time, shows off his skills as aesthete, curator and art historian.

The artists in "Our Grotesque" include several of today's younger stars: Storr got Kara Walker to do her first video for him, and he's brought in work by John Currin, Lisa Yuskavage and Douglas Gordon. The show also features established names such as Jeff Wall, Bruce Nauman and Cindy Sherman, as well as oldish masters Jasper Johns and Louise Bourgeois. But you could say that veteran pop draftsman R. Crumb is at its heart. His bizarro illustrations have been influential since the 1960s, when he brought us Fritz the Cat, Mr. Natural and his famous "Keep On Truckin' " strip.

A wall of recent Crumbs, mostly doodled onto paper place mats from the artist's favorite pizzeria, shows his artwork pretty much unchanged. He gives us goofy surreal drawings that, as always, make the whole world look as though it's made of Play-Doh and badly needs a shave. The spirit of Crumb -- charmingly weird, à la Raphael, rather than horrifically grotesque, in our modern sense -- lives on in a lot of this show's art.

There are a few works that have close ties to Crumb's psychedelic wit: Canvases by Peter Saul are almost painted versions of Crumb's cartoon aesthetic; tiny, frantically detailed oils by Mark Greenwold have the same Haight-Ashbury punch. There's more than a crumb of Crumb in the weirdly morphing wooden shapes that Elizabeth Murray covers in cartoonish paint, and in Carroll Dunham's painting of a comically explosive sun that rains blobs onto a clapboard cityscape.

Ask around at art schools and you'll hear that a good many of their prospective students submit portfolios of wacky doodles. The grotesque has clearly trickled down so far that it's become the norm when art is meant to impress. Weird and comic transformation is the order of our day, right across the spectrum from art school to art gallery.

At Storr's biennial, we often get this metamorphic style at its best.

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