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Talking Head: Goss-Michael Shows Marc Quinn's Work

by Jerome Weeks 23 Sep 2009 10:20 PM

Groundbreaking British sculptor Marc Quinn comes to Dallas, courtesy of a first-time collaboration between contemporary art collectors, the Goss-Michael Foundation and the Rachofsky Collection. Their show is a quick survey of 15 years of Quinn’s work: bloody, frozen, classically reserved and all-too human. Jerome Weeks reports.


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The Goss-Michael Foundation was established by Kenny Goss and his partner, pop star George Michael. For the first time, their gallery is collaborating with two other noted Dallas collectors of cutting-edge contemporary art, Cindy and Howard Rachofsky. Together, they’ve opened a show by a provocative British artist — the first time Marc Quinn’s work has been given a gallery exhibition in Texas.

[humming sound]

Perhaps as a result, there’s a sound in the Goss-Michael Foundation that one rarely hears in an art gallery – it’s the hum of a custom-built refrigeration unit. It’s not chilling any canapes or white wine. This one keeps nine pints of Marc Quinn’s blood frozen in the shape of his head.

Quinn was one of the YBAs, the Young British Artists. They made names for themselves in London in the ‘90s, thanks to super collector Charles Saatchi, who promoted them in his gallery in a series of exhibitions, titled, of course, Young British Artists. In 1991, Damien Hirst presented his famous tiger shark preserved in a tank of formaldehyde. That same year, Quinn created his first frozen bust. It’s officially titled Self but it’s often called simply Blood Head. The second version — from 1998 — is the one the Rachofskys’ own, Self II, and it’s the one currently on display.

Blood Head may seem a gross-out stunt, a shock tactic. But in person, Quinn is quiet and thoughtful, not what one might expect, some pop-culture maestro orchestrating maximum provocation and media celebrity. His works, he says, investigate what fascinates him – in particular, the fleshy contraptions we all live inside.

QUINN: “I’m interested in what it means to be a person in a body. You know, why is the chair I’m sitting in inanimate while my hand is animate? You know, the mysteries of life.”

art_quinn_04_04The dozen works or so on display at Goss-Michael contain several of Quinn’s greatest hits from the past 15 years. It’s clear he’s fascinated by the body’s materials, its flimsiness. It’s possible to appreciate Self as an interestingly crystalline-looking, reddish-clay bust — without knowing what it’s really made of. But obviously, what it’s made of (and how it’s sustained) is very mucjh the point of the work. A second frozen head, Sky, for instance, is made from the birth placenta of Quinn’s son (below). Previous exhibitions of Quinn’s have included delicate metal casts of details from butchered animal carcases — the latest in the long line of art that has used meat as a subject. Another piece at the Goss-Michael is made from cloned human DNA preserved in agar jelly. It looks small and completely minimalist, just a pale yellow, encaustic-looking rectangle in a steel frame.

QUINN: “I love the idea that something that looks just slightly kind of beige is in fact the most realistic portrait of somebody you could have because it contains within it the instructions to remake the whole person.”

sky3In other words, Quinn plays with paradoxes. The statue is an image of dying meat but it’s actually long-lasting metal; it’s industrial and up-to-date but it’s a traditional bust. It’s abstract but it’s really highly detailed and individual. It’s frozen but it’s ephemeral.

Four years ago, he topped his signature piece, Blood Head, by nearly bringing London to a standstill. In Trafalgar Square, there are four plinths or tall stone columns. Three of them are topped by conventional, heroic statues. Since 1999, the fourth, empty plinth has seen a rotating collection of sculptures and protesters. In 2005, it was Quinn’s turn with Alison Lapper Pregnant, a giant marble nude. It depicts Lapper, an artist who was born without arms and with truncated legs.

This means, Quinn says, that in real life, Alison Lapper’s upper torso physically resembles the ancient Greek statue, the Venus de Milo. Even with her arms missing, the Venus is admired as a paragon, a model of beauty. Yet paradoxically, many people who feel that way, Quinn says, would probably feel uncomfortable in a room with Lapper.

QUINN: “So you have that strange thing of what is acceptable in art but unacceptable in life.”

Alison Lapper and Parys

There is a smaller, more recent version of Lapper in the Goss-Michael show, Mother and Child (Alison and Parys). Another marble nude (above), it shows her with her infant son. And another classic tradition is invoked: This time, it’s clear Quinn is drawing on the familiar Madonna and child images.

But Quinn has also headed in the opposite direction when it comes to physiques and portraiture. He has made several, life-size statues of supermodel Kate Moss — including one in solid gold (none are represented at Goss-Michael). In this, there seems to be more than a trace of tongue-in-cheek mockery or Jeff Koons-like pop send-up. Quinn dignifies Lapper; he makes Moss — a supposed sexual and aesthetic and certainly a commercial goddess — into an over-the-top, yoga-contorted idol. It seems an instance of icon-making and icon-breaking in the same gesture.

For all their shock value, most of Quinn’s statues deliberately look calm, reserved, even serene.  This is one aspect that separates them from the sculptures of, say, Kiki Smith, which can also feel mortality obsessed with her tactile use of skin and blood and hair. Quinn’s statues clearly recall Greek and Renaissance works – which only heightens their sense of fragility. Without constant care, most won’t last — unlike those masterworks, which have.  Instead, they’re more like us, highly dependent on electricity. Two-life size nudes at Goss-Michael are even kept in a separate, darkened, curtained room — they’re made entirely of wax and would melt in the Texas sun (top, Nicholas Grogan-Insulin). Quinn has also been making his blood heads into a series, a new one every five years – much like the self-portraits that Rembrandt used to chronicle his own aging face.

As one might expect, the blood heads present unique, modern challenges, challenges that it took Quinn years to solve. The blood head is kept frozen and, in effect, sealed in liquid silicone – yes, the same material as in breast implants. This way, the blood won’t get freezer burn, like old hamburger meat. When it comes to traveling, the head is actually melted. The silicone and liquid blood are then transported in separate containers.

_40957896_quinn_203At its new location, the blood head is re-assembled.

WEEKS: “So this in effect is a – “

QUINN: “Reincarnation.”

WEEKS: [Laughter.]