Nathan Censullo managed to singlehandedly lift what appeared to be half of bovine carcass wrapped in a clear plastic sheet out of his pick-up truck. It was one of the hottest days of the summer, but he next carried the ostensible carcass across the street to and up the stairs of the Pierre Menard Gallery where he is Director.
Without wholly denigrating Censullo’s physical fitness, it is safe to conjecture that the object in question, despite its likeness, was not real meat. What he carried was a sculpture composed of polyester stuffing, wire armature and bits of red, pink and white fabric - old clothes, shredded blankets and upholstery - rendered in a scale model of a cattle carcass. The work was Abacus (2008) by New York-based artist Tamara Kostianovsky, who has several faux carcasses in the show.
Kostianovsky is one of 10 artists in a show titled “Meat After Meat Joy” currently up at the Pierre Menard Gallery in Harvard Square. Heide Hatry, who curated another anatomically oriented exhibition at Pierre Menard in 2006 titled “Skin,” takes that body reference a few steps deeper to concentrate on the denser, bloodier flesh we call meat.
“I think any of the work has difficult time finding a show,” said Censullo, referring to the lack of opportunity an artist who uses meat as a subject may have in finding an exhibitor.
“Meat After Meat Joy” stands as an experiment in meat as a medium. Hatry doesn’t want the meat in the show to be seen as a spectacle, however. To her, meat symbolizes “annihilation,” because its only reference to the organism whence it came is that organism’s death. There may be something lost in the meaning of 28.1 billion pounds of beef, which the USDA reports the United States consumed in 2007. That is 28.1 billion pounds of flesh that was sliced and sawed from the bones of cattle with the highest efficiency providable by today’s technology.
Hatry chose artists that exploit meat’s physical qualities to transcend its rather bland existence. Zhang Huan’s Meat Suit, (2002) a full body suit comprised of raw beef that resembles the cartoonish physique of a body builder, is a metaphor for the vulnerability of anything stretched beyond its capacity.
Betty Hirst’s phallic Homage to Schwarzkogler (2005) appears to be a up rolled piece of meat, vaguely resembling Jacques Lacan’s Grande Signifier and referencing performance artist Rudolf Schwarzkogler’s rumored death by penis amputation. The work plays on one of the many nicknames of the male genitalia, but also strips the member of meaning by taking away its form and recognized sensual feature, its skin.
Carolee Schneemann’s Meat Joy (1964), a performance the gallery will project throughout the exhibition, features a group of half naked men and women rolling around outdoors while tossing around and biting a dead chicken. It is also the work from which Hatry implies the other works in the show owe their aesthetic: they are “After” Meat Joy.
Meat Joy’s daunting inaccessibility will intimidate many visitors to the gallery, but the very spectacle of meat, which Hatry wants to avoid, may prove welcoming. “Meat is such a wonderful aesthetic subject.” said Phil Dmochowski, the gallery’s assistant director, “[Its] textures, color variance, striations, marbling [are]very seductive, really. There's such a great history of painting meat” he said, mentioning Rembrandt, Van Gogh and Bacon.
A version of this article originally appeared in the June 25 2008 issue of Boston's Weekly Dig.
"Meat After Meat Joy" is on view through July 20 at Pierre Menard Gallery.
All images are courtesy of the artist and Pierre Menard Gallery.