SCOTT SPEH GALLERY

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RACHEL NIFFENEGGER | press

Chicago Tribune. Ise, Claudine. "Rachel Niffenegger's drab, brilliant 'Flesh Club". September 26, 2013

It can take years for an artist to develop a consistent aesthetic style that is also consistently memorable. Rachel Niffenegger figured out how to do this earlier than most. Even before she graduated with a Bachelor of Fine Arts from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in 2008, she was making art world waves with horror-themed watercolor paintings of disembodied heads and mixed-media sculptures that looked like mummified body parts.

By all rights, such grotesqueries should have been revolting, but in Niffenegger's hands they were, and are, strangely alluring. This is largely due to the artist's gifts as a colorist. Her sculptures take monstrous forms, but their palettes are lovely and often unexpectedly girlish. Niffenegger favors ash-grays, pale pinks and charcoals, mauves, cobalt blues. She doesn't hesitate to use iridescent paint. Her works are not hard to look at because they're obviously not real. They're like movie props or theater sets.

Niffenegger went on to earn a Master of Fine Arts from Northwestern University in 2012 and has continued to mine her own macabre fascination with decay and abjection. Now, for her second solo show at Western Exhibitions, she's unveiled three excellent new sculptures along with six small watercolors and four abstract expressionist-style fabric paintings, three of which hang off gleaming metal rods in the back room, with a much larger one stretched taut against the wall in the main space. The conceit behind the show's installation is that you've just walked into an edgy and exclusive nightspot — hence the show's title, "Flesh Club" — but you have no idea what the club's freaky members are up to.

"Flesh Club" sounds like the name of a strip joint, but what have been stripped bare here are the sculptures' forms. Gone are Niffenegger's earlier pulpy, corpselike creatures embedded with teeth and tufts of hair, though vestiges of them appear in the watercolor paintings displayed on stanchions and in the office space. Instead we see three lithe, bone-white, severely attenuated and decidedly unfleshy beings — or nonbeings, as the case may be — formed from steel and clad in epoxy clay, watercolor and powdered pigments. Think of classical Greek statuary pared down to its armature, and you'll get the idea.
Two reside atop "Sloughed Dance Floor," an artwork consisting of several conjoined sheets of glass laid over debris culled from the artist's studio floor. One sculpture appears to recline; the other stands, its single "limb" curved languorously upward. A third, with a long, drooping chain connected to it, crouches near the entrance.

Niffenegger has titled the three sculptures "Vivie," "Aryiel" and "Meriem," which suggests that the "flesh" under scrutiny here may be feminine. Further hints come from the collage on a nearby wall, which contains an image of a pretty, blond, heavily made-up young woman, and from the three fabric paintings — Niffenegger calls them "shrouds" — displayed in the back room like boutique fashion items.

Like the young woman in the collage, the shrouds are pretty enough, but they don't hold your attention for long. The back room also holds two Lucite chairs and an installation, called "The Borealis Room," consisting of a large white curtain with pink and purple lights flickering behind it. It's meant to suggest a members-only enclave, but to me it looked like a coat room. None of the works in this section match the eerie grace of those bare-boned sculptures, which appear to be dancing on the grave of their former corporeality. They are the shining stars of Niffenegger's show; everything else here feels like a backdrop.

Presumably, some of the gravelly stuff under the glass stage is excess material "sloughed" from Niffenegger's works during the fabrication process, much like dead skin cells. Something about its crumbly texture and the fact that the material was under glass made me think of a cosmetic compact, the eye shadows, lip colorings and pressed powders with which women (and occasionally men) "paint" their faces to infuse dull complexions with illusory vitality and veil wrinkles and age spots. For some, nothing is more horrifying than the sight of growing old.

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