Oddities and Curiosities / Rockford Art Museum

Published fall newsletter 2014, Rockford Art Museum

Oddities and Curiosities is a new exhibit of seven pieces by five artists from the RAM Permanent Collection that investigates the idea of the American Sideshow – not as a venue for disfigured people or outlandish acts but as a place that puts the paranoia of the Modern age, often defined by the 1950s, on center stage. This exhibit considers the meaning of “being different” in modern American society, inverting the idea of who or what is represented in a sideshow. For the subjects of Oddities and Curiosities, it is the nuclear family on display, it is their paranoia of the people around them, it is the television in every home, it is workers in suits, it is the idea of pondering the threat of death at any moment by an invisible Cold War while cooking out in suburban backyards.

Ken Warneke’s untitled plaster head is large, awkward and, most importantly, raceless. The skin tones are more representative of the rushing of blood or urgency, than a calm sunset. The quick brushstrokes on the face are unconcerned about defining depth and realism but instead represent the human experience, creating tension through drawing and mark-making rather than real representation. Also on view by Warneke an untitled painting on paper of five characters, each reminiscent of the plaster head. 

Nina Levy’s Curiosity is a 10-foot resin sculpture of a strong arm on feminine legs, separated by a tutu – a creature that signals danger and mystery for the modern family. Its gender-blurring is contained—safe to gawk at—by a metal cage tough enough to resist the strong arm, which is forever raised in defiance, almost referencing an invisible sickle or hammer in its hand. Levy’s Smile is also included in the exhibit, a grinning white protrusion emerging from the corner of the gallery.

Scott Roberts’s video installation, Viola, confronts the viewer with a mirror that reveals an image of his grandmother rather than one’s self. Her face challenges the viewer’s reflection, creating an anxiety steeped in confrontation. Viola won the 2002 Dean Alan Olson Purchase Award during that year’s Rockford Midwestern Biennial.

Legion, Tony Oursler’s digital projection on fiberglass sphere, watches the viewer enter the gallery as it simultaneously watches television. The eye is wide; one can make out a scene in the reflection of its iris. “Help... help!” screams out from the audio – but from whom?

Ken Hoffman’s Possum Man seems to be gazing (with his tongue out) at Warneke’s plaster head. Are modern workers nothing but animals in suits? Has Warneke’s plaster head figured that out, as he looks back in terror of the possibility of becoming Possum Man? Ironically the only creature that appears to be calm in Oddities and Curiosities is not human at all.

- Jason Judd