I have a soft spot for art that, in terms of subject matter and material, is in bad taste. It’s art that pushes against psychological and social expectations, that tries to transform decay into something generative, that is replicative in a baroque way, that isn’t about progress and wants to -- as Walt Whitman put it -- "contain multitudes." I am not talking about messiness, schlock, theatricality or ambition. I am thinking of Paul McCarthy’s excremental installations, Peter Saul’s twisted painted figures penetrating one another, Kara Walker’s race wars of sex and violence, and the Nazis in hell of Jake and Dinos Chapman, art that almost seems too much to take or even to look at, that resists esthetic metabolism, that exudes a sort of poetics of apotheosis. It’s the way Andrea Fraser slept with a collector on camera, calling it art, and somehow the work escaped being silly academic nonsense or brainy porn. Many artists work with bad taste, but they do so in such conventional ways that their art ends up being predictable and gratuitous but little else. As for pornography, if it isn’t made in a particular way, it doesn’t do what it’s supposed to do; in this way porn is almost like Egyptian art, in that it hardly ever changes. What shocked the art world about Jeff Koons’ porn work was that he so fully and bizarrely crawled into its conventions that it seemed to sprout new conventions.
The name I came with for this stylistic tic came up in a conversation with two artists who sometimes fall into the category, Carroll Dunham and Carl D’Alvia. Talking about the rollicking mockumentary Tropic Thunder, we were stupefied by the observation Robert Downey Jr., performing in blackface -- already off the charts in terms of bad taste, but somehow perfect -- made to the Ben Stiller character. When acting, he said, "never go full retard." He meant that an actor should never go too far when portraying anyone mentally disabled lest he lose any chance at claiming an Oscar, citing Dustin Hoffman and Tom Hanks for their holding back. In other words, Hollywood needs some sort of decorum, tradition or halfway measures to hang on to. (The movie caught a lot of flack for that scene.) Thankfully, the art world isn’t much like Hollywood, because I like art that isn’t afraid to go full retard.
At the moment the 30-year old Swede Nathalie Djurberg has stepped into this fraught category in a magnificently raucous but charming way. Djurberg’s art conjures a place where the center does not hold and things fall apart. It’s a place inhabited by wraithlike beings with malleable features, where hysteria is common and death wishes come true. Djurberg’s short colorful Claymation animations, starring little figures doing strange things in strange places, are in direct opposition to the work of a number of well-known contemporary artists. Whereas Takashi Murakami, Andreas Gursky and Olafur Eliasson make art that is highly produced, polished, ordered and immaculate, Djurberg orchestrates arias of annihilation and boundless perversity. Her figures are haunted by desires they don’t understand; they copulate with, devour, flay and decapitate one another. But they do all this with touching ease and in beautiful hallucinogenic color. Djurberg’s demented yet innocent world has the frenzy of Greek tragedy and the luridness of porn by way of surrealism, the Brothers Grimm, Gumby, and Ken and Barbie, as scripted by the Marquis de Sade.
In previous films, Djurberg has depicted a girl having her rear end licked by a tiger as a thought balloon reads, "Why do I have the urge to do these things over and over again?" It’s hard to say if it’s the tiger speaking, the woman or Djurberg. Regardless, it’s a great all-purpose Freudian question. Djurberg has given us children crawling back into their mother’s vagina, a baboon born from a man’s derriere, a lady giving birth to a rhino, naked natives devoured by alligators and Swedish society women having sex with a slave. It’s anyone’s guess where all this comes from, although Djurberg once told an interviewer that she saw her first explicit imagery when she was 12: "A girl in my class brought a hard-core porn film to our biology class" and after "watching group and anal sex. . . I think I was in shock." Yet Djurberg also seems to be channeling something that may eternally swirl around the cosmic collective waste trap. Either way, her perversity is so carefully orchestrated and rendered in such magically captivating part-by-art fashion that her crazed subject matter gives way to something like an exploration of the collective id.
Though Djurberg’s second exhibition isn’t as good as her 2006 New York debut, her vision remains complex. In I Found Myself Alone, a tiny black ballerina dances by herself on a large tabletop filled with sweets and tea sets. It’s a Nutcracker from the female dark side. As she dances, she tips over dishes, plates and glasses. It’s a wreck of sugar and spice and everything nice, girl-world gone bad. The main room of the gallery has been transformed into a re-creation of the film; Djurberg has smeared chocolate-like paint over the walls and hung curtains, and is exhibiting the disheveled tabletop in the center of the space. In the other piece in the show -- a short charcoal-drawn animation, Of Course I Am Working With Magic --Djurberg gives us her version of a female crucifixion and a rape by nature. A naked woman in the woods is grabbed by the two trees and held aloft, pinned in space. She does not go gently into this wood. She twists and turns; the flesh falls off her bones; she tears off her head. Although the animated drawing isn’t as effective as the Claymation because it lacks color, dimension and the believability of the sculptural process, the whole show still leaves you impressed that someone is so willing to go so far in sharing her secret life. Djurberg is mining psychic worlds that need mining, that are always there whether they’re mined or not. Her art, however immoderate, suggests that because there are more things than are dreamed of in our philosophies, there’s no such thing as going entirely, completely "full retard."
Nathalie Djurberg, Dec. 11, 2008-Jan. 24, 2009, at Zach Feuer Gallery, 530 West 24th Street, New York, N.Y. 10011
JERRY SALTZ is senior art critic for New York Magazine, where this article first appeared. He can be reached at email@example.com