Shaman of Slough

At First Thursday this month, a number of artists who paint came by Blue Sky for our opening, and several commented on the fine, painterly qualities of photographer Danny Treacy's work. In particular, Portland's Hayley Barker was so taken with Treacy's series, "Them," that she jumped at the chance to guest-blog about the exhibition for us: Danny Treacy’s show, “Them,” is a cross section of various types of Others: the half man/half woman, the scapegoat, the faceless worker, and the biologically ambiguious. I meet Danny Treacy’s work as a painter and as a fellow aficionado of all types of monsters: those that we construct to house our fears, to project that which is repugnant onto, and also those hybrid, unclassifiable life forms whose ambiguous edges threaten to disrupt the boundaries of our selves. How appropriate then that this show called “Them" is more about “us” than it is about “them.”

A little background on the artist’s process: Treacy, a London-based artist, collects discarded clothing and materials and constructs costumes from these clothes. He then photographs himself wearing the costumes. He considers these photos to be self-portraits wherein the self has been eradicated.

Focusing on the photos hanging in the main gallery space, I noticed a few commonalities. All of the works are printed so that the figures are “life-size.” They meet us in a fully frontal position; their bodies are facing us and so we stand almost face to face (if they have faces?). All of the faces are covered, though not headless. In every photo the “feet” almost touch the bottom of the composition.  Each incarnation of the artist is pictured in a completely black space—a space that sometimes encroaches on the edges of the figure’s silhouette, and at other times creates a crisp edge that defines the being’s fuzzy hairs or contours. Almost every costume is “dirty,” and some more than others. And every costume allows for a multitude of projected identities: no discrete skin is revealed.

Each photo in this show has a story to tell. Them #5, 2005, is the mouse-like one. I see in it the king of the mice, a scruffy ruffian mouse lord; the only one that almost could be adorable but escapes cuteness upon closer examination. In it we see Treacy wearing a mouse costume constructed from a few pieces of clothing. He looks to be wearing the arms of a coat as pants. The coat is a faux fur coat with a gnarly red velvet lining, sticky in parts. The fur mask covers his head and one eye type form is barely visible. Anyone who ever has visited what is lovingly referred to as “the bins” knows this kind of article—the bins is where all the crap that Goodwill cannot sell in its stores goes: the dirty, the broken, the worn-out, and the misshapen. This is what Treacy is wearing. Up-close viewing is where a physical repugnance comes into play. You can almost smell the sweat, the moth-balls, and the grime. You can see the dark bits of what looks to be coal or gravel. The fur on the coat is matted, visibly soiled. The mouse’s paws are mismatched: coming from the torso we see one orange hand that resembles a sock puppet with a red mouth. His stance is resistant, almost proud. He looks ready to take you on. He is abjection made proud—a whole made of cast-off parts.

Then there is Them #1, 2002. This is the one that is most obviously gendered, both male and female. The seat of an old pair of jeans engulfs the head, which is an elongated, flattened shape that looks too slender to enclose a real head. The man half is wearing a work boot; the woman half wearing a red pump. Across its chest is a patchwork of tough and soft fabrics, sewn with some edges frayed and others lovingly folded under and stitched—“clean seams” as my grandma would say. The most disturbing aspect of this portrait is the wrongness of the placement of the seams. One can only imagine the body for which this was made. Imagining it—it is a body that moves very differently from mine: perhaps the right leg hinges back at the hip instead of forward. It must move very haltingly. Think of every alien in every scary movie you have ever seen. They move differently than we, too slow, too fast, too different. Also important is the way that they edges of this form disappear into the background. It is an “open form”—one without hard edges. This technique makes one think that there could be more to this form, beyond what is in the light, beyond what we can observe from this vantage point. Perhaps something even more horrible?

Thinking in painterly terms, I am reminded of others who have treaded this territory. I think of two Spanish painters, Velazquez and Goya. Velazquez for his portraits with very dark backgrounds and Goya for his so-called “Black Paintings,” works picturing monstrous and fearful beings.

Looking at Velazquez’s “The Dwarf Sebastian de Morra,” c. 1645, is an interesting counterpoint to Treacy’s work. This portrait shows an elaborately dressed dwarf, sitting, legs outstretched, intelligent eyes meeting ours. We see a man who in his time was a court jester, a man who was marginalized and most likely ridiculed for his stature. That said, the portrait is complicated by the fact that the dwarf, Sebastian, is given an opportunity (via the painter’s composition) to look back out at us, and through connecting with his gaze we somehow get closer to knowing him and what his life experience was like. He becomes specific, contextualized: a real man. This portrait works very differently than Treacy’s portraits, in that his faceless beings never get to make eye contact. Treacy’s “Them” are physically incapable of looking back, denied the ability to stare back, mostly eyeless, and so we can only look harder, hoping to get a glimpse of some kind of articulation of self or expression of individuality. They are the Other, almost completely defenseless yet proud somehow. Even when completely bound up, Treacy’s selves remain defiant. Eyeless, their bodies feel full of vigor. They, like Velazquez’s Sebastian de Morra, will not shrink if you stare too hard. Resolutely not “Us,” yet caught up somehow in our power structures and our systems of valuation, the violent systems that make just a few powerful and most others degraded.

Which brings us to the last I’ll focus on, Them #20, 2007. It is the one that looks like a stingray from afar. The structure or body beneath the cloth has been completely redefined by the draped fabric covering it. It is a massive triangular life form. It is grey with dark marks that resemble a strange batik: Rorschach tests, x-rays, bat wings. This is the most ambiguous form. It could be microscopic or it could be massive. It almost has eyes, little dark smudges where his head could be. And it makes me think about the way that these re-configured materials have had a life prior to the costume.  There are psychic traces from previous uses. In all of these works, the immaterial is made physical: the history of each item, its erotic life, has been revivified, re-embodied. I think of a coupling between 2 unlike species, a conjuring. Treacy’s intimate engagement with these discarded skins is what I found most unsettling and most intriguing. I sense that the grimier the raw material, the better. If history can leave traces on objects, than Treacy is an archeologist of these traces. He is a shaman of slough.

Hayley Barker, September 2010[br] "Them" closes at Blue Sky on Sunday, October 3. Mark your calendars for Hayley's show at Charles A. Hartman Fine Art next door to Blue Sky in May 2011.