Gloves off at Artpace 

If you value your eyebrows, you don’t want to get too close to Katie Pell’s tricked-out appliances in her Bitchen exhibition at Artpace. Consider the dangers faced by characters in Pell’s oversized comic book, which accompanies the souped-up stoves on display at the show. During a “flame-off, accelerants were permitted and people got hurt.”

Also called Bitchen, the comic book starts with the private thoughts of a group of women who win a large settlement from a class-action discrimination lawsuit against Allmart, a fictional discount-store chain.

As Bitchen’s narrator, Pell fantasizes about rocket-fired blenders, stoves with hop-and-dance hydraulics, and chrome toasters ejecting “super-sprung stunt toast.” The Allmart windfall helps those dreams take root.

“I was the first to take my Bitchen appliances to the low-rider show,” the narrator says. The customized appliances are a hit, the women score an appearance on a home-improvement show, and the shop gets busy with orders.

“It turns out my Mom has an incredible knack for pinstriping,” the narrator says, adding that she now makes a lot more per hour than she ever did as a discount-store greeter at Allmart.

It doesn’t take long, however, for Allmart to pounce on the new trend, with its own “Customize It!” line of souped-up appliances for its discount stores.

“This department alone paid for the class action settlement in 18 months,” the Bitchen narrator says, wryly noting the mass craving among Americans to express their individuality.

The most interesting appliances at the show are tricked out with hot-rod styling. There’s a candy-striped clothes dryer with plush leopard-print upholstery, and flame-shaped designs lick the front and sides of the oven with low-rider hydraulics. (You can make it jump by pushing the buttons on a hand-held mixer.)

But not all the Bitchen concepts are about flames, danger, and raw She-power. A sky-blue vacuum cleaner pays tribute to “hot-rodliness” on one side, “cleanliness” on the other, in a decidedly feminine script. A chrome toaster reflects on feelings of love and hate. And a stovetop in the comic book exhales bubbles as it plays “All I Need is the Air That I Breathe” by the Hollies.

The largest appliance, a stand-up freezer with woodland scenes painted on the sides, departs farthest from low-rider styling and is probably the weakest piece in the show. But it’s redeemed by Pell’s inspired decision to light the interior with a small crystal chandelier instead of the usual refrigerator lightbulb.

The current exhibition, on display through January 14, continues Artpace’s practice of showcasing local, national, and international artists who live and work on premises for two months. The fruits of their local labors are then put on display for another two-month period.

Pell, from San Antonio, is the native Texan represented at this show. The other two artists, Allison Smith and Chiho Aoshima, are from New York City and Tokyo. The guest curator is Tom Eccles from Bard College (Annandale-on-Hudson, N.Y.).

Of the three artists, Allison Smith’s What are you fighting for? is the most political, and shares the closest affinity with the separate exhibition in Artpace’s Hudson showroom upstairs, the politically charged Nothing is Neutral by Andrea Bowers. `For a review of Bowers’s show, see The Art Capades, November 1-7.`

Fusing elements drawn from civil-war reenactments, folk art, and contemporary performance art, What are you fighting for? starts with a video of Smith atop an 8-foot high hobby horse, decked out in a Civil War-style uniform. In the video, Smith sings the tune of “When Johnny Comes Marching Home,” with lyrics updated to question the wisdom of the continued battle in Iraq.

“You know we’re living in divided times when no one can define the battle lines,” she sings, parodying the childish march to battle as she keeps rocking away. But she seems to question her own ability to exert change with the closing refrain. “This woeful little battle cry is my own ambivalent lullaby … what am I fighting for?”

Chiho Aoshima, the artist traveling farthest for her residency, created a mural during her stay that incorporates many of San Antonio’s local landmarks, dominated by the Tower of the Americas. But if Aoshima’s mural seems at first to celebrate the swelling pride of each building, that hubris could easily be laid low by the dual threats of man-made poisons and natural disasters.

Exemplifying Japan’s love for both futuristic technology and time-honored traditions, Aoshima combines computerized images with traditional rice paper, and connects the modern buildings with watery forms evocative of traditional tsunami woodcuts. Manga-like faces appear on each building, giving viewers a window into the spirit of each structure, and the facial emotions range from delight to fear, sleepiness, and ennui.

If the watery tsunami shapes don’t look especially fearsome, the toxic green fumes draping the skyscrapers give the mural a sense of foreboding. And Aoshima’s preliminary sketches are even more disturbing. One of the most striking forms in her initial sketch is a skeletal figure that seems half Hello Kitty, half Grim Reaper. This figure of doom emits the same toxic breath that drapes the skyscrapers, but it is curiously absent from the finished mural.

Aoshima’s notes, written in Japanese, talk about the enduring power of nature, and how storms can awaken an excitement that replaces the boredom of our daily routines. But she also notes the enduring power of man-made toxins, which can destroy mankind just as readily as any natural calamity. And her outlook is bleak. In the end, man-made chemicals will probably prove to have far more staying power than humankind itself.


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