November 23, 2019 – January 12, 2020
The living plants housed in the aquariums and vases in Odessa Straub’s makeshift environmental sculptures, constructed around chairs and lounges, are kept alive by LED grow lamps aglow in the neon hues of a red-light district. These works, as well as Straub’s accompanying collaged paintings, are erotic not simply through their overt signifiers of sexuality—occasional glass butt plugs or animal-print underwear—but through the tactility of their materials: ribbed fabrics shaped into life-sized silhouettes of the human form in fleshy reds suggesting the body’s interior; lubricious resins that glisten like lacquer; long strips of deconstructed velvet handbags hanging from canvases. In her recent writings on maternal eroticism; or what she calls “reliance”; the famed French philosopher and psychoanalyst Julia Kristeva argues that the sexual drive and the drive to care are two manifestations of the same life-affirming libido (a reality obscured by the West’s trope of the desexualized Virgin Mother); in “an ‘open structure’ related to others and to the environment” this libido never stops orienting itself to the urgency of life. Although not necessarily maternal, Straub’s work highlights this libidinal continuum between sexuality and care, the latter through her sustained efforts to nourish the plants.
To the side of the bright yellow sine-wave-shaped chaise lounge titled Supplemental Soul Suppository (2019) lies a barely recognizable human silhouette, composed of lush purple ribbing Straub made by sewing velvet over concentric nylon cords. The figure is possibly spent after an erotic or autoerotic encounter suggested by an emerald green glass butt plug resting on back of the chair along with a dangling pair of tiger-print underpants. A small tabletop sprouting from the side of the chaise hovers above where the hips and genitalia of the figure possibly would have been and supports a glass aquarium affording life to two submerged leafy plants rooted in purple pebbles. As with all four aquarium sculptures in the exhibition, two glass pipes provide water intake and outtake to a transparent, cylindrical pump casing revealing strata of orange, blue, sea green, and black substrates filtering and continually restoring the water—an in-and-out movement of fluid suggesting both an erotic exchange and a placental nurturing. This literal circulation in Straub’s work parallels its circulation of affective energy within a libidinal economy whose borders move beyond the body. The seductive work Venom—Voiding—Vessel (2019) exudes passion with its pulsating crimson silhouette lounging on a low-lying chair that resembles the rib cage of a large prehistoric creature and stands on four feet shaped like the profiles of stiletto heels. The silhouetted figure nestles with an aquarium surrounded by an aura of red paint and containing among its three plants a Marimo moss ball, whose texture resonates with sensuous velvet found throughout the exhibition.
Fostering Freedom of Filth (thong༄ ƃuoɥʇ) (2019) subtly renders the vulnerability of life and the libidinal drive to preserve it. A ribbed silhouette sits up on a coarse wooden corner bench within an open vertical scaffold, resembling a seated telephone booth. Across from the figure, a taut leopard print sling made by sewing two thongs together—as suggested by the title—cradles a glass vase containing aquatic plants. Two shelves support a pump and a yellow crystal glass butt plug with a protuberant pineapple texture whose aesthetic and fragility resonate with the delicate state of the hanging vase and the plant life growing within it.
Straub explores relational narratives even more overtly in her paintings of dreamlike biomorphic forms. An open grave of bones, all the phosphorescent white-green hue of glow-in-the-dark material, haunts the foreground of Bone Meal For Cherries (2019) while a bone nub also protrudes from the leg of a rust-colored figure cast to the margin of the canvas. Collaged next to that figure in the center of the painting is a piece of magenta velvet shaped like a vase, corset, or feminine torso. White and pink plumes of paint erupt from its head and then, in an act of tenderness, which Kristeva argues is the basic affect of “reliance,” settle on the injured companion offering amelioration.
Throughout the exhibition the restorative and sexual relationships evoked in these works reveal a fragile yet perseverant Eros. Vessel’s Content Awareness (2019), one of the many smaller works on paper included in the exhibition, allegorizes the urgent need to maintain the vitality of this Eros. On the left, the profile view of a pregnant vessel painted in yellow-green acrylic suggests a head or enlarged breast and a womb gestating an intense warm yellow orb. They are grounded by their elliptical, earthy brown base, but their counterpart to the right, a clay-red figure shaped like a ginger root, has had its leg violently severed from the rooted tree trunk from which it had been growing, as if by striving to transcend nature it has irreparably harmed itself and its environment. The link between the many lifeforms in this exhibition—which include not only plants and humans but also cilia-lined unicellular organisms, and even cephalopods in one sculpture whose four cascading ribbons of velvet recall tentacles—and the work’s sexuality is critical; but to understand it means repudiating the idea of sex as an act of doing something to, or getting something from, another, and instead as a circulation between beings. Straub’s artwork reconceives sexuality as an intimate mode of living that is receptive and responsive, tender and creative, and as vulnerable as it is giving.