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Maria Petschnig:

by Elisabeth Kley
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The New York-based Austrian artist Maria Petschnig (b. 1977) has a taste for kink, esthetically speaking, that is. She likes to tie herself up with homemade fetish wear for videos, photographs and live performances, partially exposing her body in ambiguous states of bondage that are informal and a little bit modest.

She typically presents these images as part of mundane, even repressed domestic settings. In “Greater New York” at MoMA PS1 in 2010, Petschnig framed some of her sadomasochistically inflected snapshots and arranged them on top of a chest of drawers in a living-room installation that included a couch and a TV.

Hers is a post-feminist enterprise, then, with aspects that are libidinal and reflexive both.

On first impression, “Erolastica,” Petschnig’s new exhibition at Candice Madey’s Orchard Street gallery On Stellar Rays, is relatively restrained. Along one wall are five small color photographs of a model -- somehow, you suspect it may be the artist -- in DIY cheesecake poses. Playing on a monitor on the back wall is a video, featuring fragmented scenes of an older man working with several glamour models in a cramped apartment. Again, the effect is very homemade.

Our amateur pornographer, it turns out, is Viktor Segeda, a Slavic New Yorker and a kind of artist-photographer who makes and sells his own erotica at a flea market on Manhattan’s West Side. After tracking the man down, Petschnig enlisted him as a collaborator in her quest to become a pinup as well as an artist.

The result is the five photos, each titled Christmas in Bed, Christmas in the Bath (2010). Petschnig is pictured naked and naughty, bedecked with ribbons and posed on her back with her legs up in front of a Christmas tree. She’s also seen nude in a bathroom with a mocking expression on her face, wearing a green Santa hat. Bits of soapsuds are teasingly placed on her shoulders and bare torso.

In the video De Niña a Mujer (2010), Viktor can seem creepy but gentle, or appealingly eccentric, depending on your point of view. In a non-narrative series of quick segments, Viktor is shown gently arranging colorful costumes and setting up shoots with three young Russian models.

Here, the making of softcore is an intimate occasion, with friendly interaction between photographer and models, and pauses for snacks and watching TV. In addition to providing brief flashes of skin, Petschnig’s camera lingers on the cozy clutter of Viktor’s apartment, which includes cat-shaped pillows, a cross on the wall and plenty of kitschy art.

At one point Viktor poses playfully wearing a woman’s wig. The sense is that he could show us more, if circumstances allowed.

And in fact the exhibition is kicked up a notch in the gallery basement, a dimly lit, windowless space accessible via steep and banister-less stairs. Literally invading the gallery’s hidden lower body, the viewer enters a kind of bedroom office, illuminated only by a computer screen, a wall monitor and a desk lamp. Otherwise, the place is a mess.

Clothing is strewn on an open sofa bed with sheets and blankets spread in disarray, and empty coffee cups, cigarette packs and beer cans are scattered on a desk and a table. The room is repulsive, a troll-like stranger’s intimate inner sanctum. It feels like a cavern of dirty laundry.

133 Orchard, LL (2010), a two-channel video, plays on the computer and on a wall monitor hanging in front of the bed like a TV. On one screen the camera peers into bedroom windows at dusk. The second channel tours the inside of an immaculate dwelling that is lavishly adorned with what look to be found photographs, including snapshots of little girls in costume, topless young women and the interior of a church. 

With this installation, Petschnig turns the viewer into three kinds of peeper: invading someone’s untidy bedroom, peeking in through random windows, and perusing a stranger’s intimate pictures.

It has been more than 30 years since Lynda Benglis defiantly published that famous nude self-portrait-with-dildo in the pages of Artforum in a controversial challenge to the male-dominated art world. Though we’ve come a ways since, today as then, identity-based assertions of marginalized sexuality can very closely resemble erotica designed to show off sexy young bodies.

Human nakedness is fascinating, with a little bondage or without, but the real interest of Petschnig’s work lies in her dialogue between personal exposure, illicit looking and the disappearance of privacy.

The photographs start in price at $1,300, while the basement video is $8,000.

"Maria Petschnig: Erolastika,” Feb. 5-Mar. 20, 2011, at On Stellar Rays, 133 Orchard Street, New York, N.Y. 10002.

ELISABETH KLEY is a New York artist and writer.