Since President-Elect Barack Obama's victory last week, I've been slowly, tentatively overcoming my usual skepticism and allowing myself to give in to hope. (Yes we can!) And even beginning to (sorta) enjoy it.
TOUR DE FORCE: A detail of Wiharso's Unspeakable Victim.
I mention this because of Entang Wiharso's "Black Goat Is My Last Defense" at 5 Traverse (5 Traverse Street, through November 22) and Christopher Forgues's "Hell" at Stairwell (504 Broadway, through November 23). When I saw the exhibits a couple of weeks back, they seemed to channel our dark late Bush era worries, traumas, and alienation. And surely they will feel perfectly suited to our time again one of these days. But this week, they feel so yesterday. Thank goodness. That's not to say I don't recommend both shows.
Wiharso, who lives in North Kingstown, fills 5 Traverse with a harrowing dance of demons in black silhouettes and ruddy flesh (well, charcoal, acrylic, enamel, and spray paint). The scenarios seem right out of 15th-century painter Hieronymus Bosch.
Threatened depicts a bald head in heavy fleshy pigment with four (walleyed) eyes and a thorny vine that wiggles disconcertingly toward his ear. Wiharso tells me that four eyes, for him, symbolizes multiple identities — in his case, American and his native Indonesian.
Upsidedown Landscape is a large tryptic featuring three figures in a white field below an upside-down landscape — two Batmen (one has a long penis with a lobster claw head) and a fleshy woman whose body is blurred and scrubbed away with solvent. Lots of little goblins scurry about. Wiharso says the topsy-turvy world symbolizes the contortions of self-censorship required when living under a dictator like the late Suharto of Indonesia.
Wiharo's tour de force is Unspeakable Victim: The Story Behind Superhero and Black Goat, Part 3, a mural filling three walls of the gallery's garage that he spent three days drawing and painting. He has a quick, ragged, urgent style well suited to his subjects. Most of the figures are tar black — as if burned, but also recalling traditional shadow puppets. A Batman has a long snaking neck. His penis is a wire or root or vein that plugs into a meaty red decapitated head. Wiharso says his surreal sexual symbolism addresses the pleasure people find in violence.
Smoke pours from another Batman's ears as if they were chimneys. A third Batman has been decapitated; an orange flame jets from his neck. A sad woman with sausage limbs chokes. A man with a long flaccid penis stabs himself in the belly. A naked lady dances. A body reclines in chambers inside the belly of a black goat. Wiharso calls the animal a "self-portrait" symbolizing the outsider, the black sheep, the scapegoat. Most of the figures are twisted and bent and wounded. But perhaps most striking is a meaty red fellow covered with gashes. Surrounding characters (including a severed head) lick him. It's the sort of visceral vision that jolts and haunts you.
At Stairwell, Providence artist Chris Forgues's neat pencil drawings (some augmented with watercolor and gouache), paintings, collages, and screenprints show strange mutant monsters, fights, and bizarre sexual visions, like a lady perched atop an erect penis emerging from a woman's leg. A green figure with orange hair lurks atop a tower. The images seem like cryptic reports from strange wandering journeys through distant esoteric lands.