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.
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, a 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.
German artist Thomas Schutte gives us a distinctly high-art version of peculiar shape-shifting. His eight-foot-tall "Big Spirit" figures, cast in mirror-polished bronze, look like the Michelin man in an early fetal stage. Two of Schutte's figures stand in the exhibition's largest space, where their golden surfaces reflect the strange paintings hanging all around them. They somehow seem to stand for all us viewers: Dazzled by Storr's show but made wobbly by it, too.
In a piece called "Softy," American video artist Tony Oursler takes Schutte's static goopiness and makes it move. A chest-high biomorphic blob, like a giant melting marshmallow, has bits of a disjointed yellow face projected onto it. This grotesque head mouths whiny platitudes at us, as though it doesn't even know that it's all out of whack.
And then there's a cut-paper sculpture by another American, Tom Friedman, whose technique is as refined as art can get, the better to convey his gross-out subject matter. Working in brightly colored construction paper, Friedman cuts and folds and wrinkles it to build a life-size self-portrait -- which shows the artist's crumpled body after a fall from a great height, surrounded by a pool of paper blood. Wile E. Coyote never had it this bad.
The extreme refinement of Friedman's gory piece gets at a crucial paradox in almost all the works in this exhibition, and maybe in the grotesque as a genre. Despite weird, even disturbing content, there's a distinctly decorative feel to the whole thing. There's as much pleasure and fun in this show's gestalt as there is angst.
Storr has done such a beautiful job installing works in the show's airy warehouse space that he's softened any edge they might have. Which makes for a perfect parallel to Raphael's un-grotty grotesquery: Raphael injected strangeness into his grotesques to give exquisite ornament a bit of tooth, rather than to truly give pause to passing clerics. His sphinx-headed ivy and plant-footed babies aren't the focus of his decoration; they're subordinate components of it. In Storr's show, likewise, there are only a few moments when you're tempted to pull a single troubling work out of the larger ornamental sprawl that's all around it.
Projected video, since it requires its own darkened space and concentrated viewing, gets us to do just that.
To make a video called "Horror Chase," Brooklynites Jennifer and Kevin McCoy built a copy of the set for a chase scene in the film "Evil Dead 2." They shot a panicked actor running through the set, as in the film, and then cut the footage to make a seamless loop. A computer controls the screening of the piece, randomly rejiggering the camera angles, moving the action forward and running it backward, speeding up the chase and then slowing it down again, so that the poor actor's flight never ends and never repeats itself, either. The piece points out the extreme artifice involved in any horrific imagery. And by sheer repetition and manipulation, the McCoys invite us to become inured to it. They invite us to go from being bloodthirsty voyeurs to being removed connoisseurs of how the action works. (A clip from the McCoys' piece, along with other images from "Our Grotesque," are available at www.washingtonpost.com/museums.)
Another projected video, by African American artist Kara Walker, is the only work in the whole biennial that manages to transcend the grotesque's ornamental roots. If you buy Storr's notion that Goya, with his horrific scenes of nightmare and war, follows in the tradition of the grotesque that took off with Raphael -- and I'm not sure I do -- then Walker is the Spaniard's only heir in this show.
In the works that made her famous, Walker took the elegant silhouetted figures of Enlightenment art and used them to build pictures of the nightmare world of slavery. In her new video, she's given life to these same figures as marionettes in a racial horror show. In the eight harrowing minutes of "Testimony: Narrative of a Negress, Burdened by Good Fortune," we watch as the tables are turned in the antebellum South, with enslaved blacks becoming owners of rich whites. The newly empowered slaves first use their former owners, then abuse them, until the "cartoon" ends in an Armageddon of lynching and rape. The action is captured in the style of primitive black-and-white animation from early last century. And that makes you feel that it must have been crafted by a strange and twisted maker from the heyday of lynchings, rather than by a sophisticated artist of today. The piece reads as a kind of horrific found artifact, rather than as a slick and clever work of contemporary art. It feels powerful and real, rather than contrived and ornamental. (A portion of Walker's piece is also at www.washingtonpost.com/museums.)
When Raphael and his Renaissance pals reinvented the grotesque, they weren't aiming for the effects that Goya and Walker have achieved in it. The strangeness they built into their work was meant to serve a larger effect of gracious elegance and stylish ornament. It even underscored that elegance by giving it something to push against. Raphael's grotesque was a sheep in wolf's clothing. The weirdness found in "Our Grotesque" mostly works in the same vein: An image of Cindy Sherman posing as a rotting head, or the distortions of an Oursler or a Crumb, are moments of delicious wickedness emerging from a mass of lively decoration.
But there's also a crucial difference between today's grotesque and the Vatican example. Raphael's grotesque was ornament that crawled around a center of substantial art. His garlands were comic relief for the framed religious narratives that they surrounded in the logge and that filled the great reception rooms that led off from that space.
In the contemporary grotesques on view in Santa Fe, the oddities are set off only against the elegant, empty expanses of the biennial's modernist white cube. But then, maybe that hints at this art's missing center of gravity: The clean lines and white walls of the warehouse, left undisturbed by Storr, stand for all the sober abstract art that this work isn't, and that it has deliberately put aside. Our current grotesque revolves around the officially important modern work of the 20th century, as represented by the grand traditions of the Museum of Modern Art -- where Storr used to work and whose refined aesthetic underpins the hanging of his current show. Our grotesque is trying to break free of that art's pull.
Like Raphael's version, today's grotesque is comic relief -- but relief from a grand seriousness that few of us buy into anymore.
The grotesque once worked as a lively antidote to the high order that ruled everywhere else in art. Now all that order's gone, but we're still asked to enjoy its cure.