The Romantic Grotesque in the work of Lauren Mikols and Elaine Cameron-Weir

by Kim Neudorf 

        In ‘Phenomenology of Perception’, Maurice Merleau-Ponty describes a ‘pre-objective’ perception of an object wherein the physical body of the viewer will inherently “trace out from a distance the structure of the object”, and in this tracing, the body ‘enacts’ and ‘resembles’ the object. Merleau-Ponty explains that this tracing is about “potentialities already mobilized” and the ‘situational’ possibilities of objects in space. For writer Istvan Csicsery-Ronay Jr., this is “a gap shared by the object and the perceiver…between the past form of a thing and what it is becoming, its particular evolution”. This phenomenological tracing of potentiality and its role within the context of the romantic grotesque can be used as a methodology for reading the recent work of two emerging artists – Lauren Mikols and Elaine Cameron-Weir. Both artists explore campy base material in order to critique the material’s innate projections and extend their physiological potential. While Mikols’ work focuses on recognizable fragments of figuration within the animal, Cameron-Weir’s work has focused upon ornament and symbolic ‘body’, wherein proximity and repetition speak to an equally interesting extension of ‘body’.

Mikols' early work involved paintings and drawings on vellum alongside theatrical and creaturely sculptures. The surface, thickness, and sense of weight of the sculptures associated dried meat and pelts and the kind of artifacts of clothing, leather and wooden objects which otherwise might sit solemnly and bewildered in glassed-in museum displays. The drawings had a style that carries into her more recent work, focused on several friendly-looking furry creatures somewhere in between muppets and illustration. Her drawings have since moved into a focus on the living forms of these creatures, their bodily and facial appendages added as independent growths which seem inherent in the texture of the forms rather than dependent upon 'figure' and its conventional structures, stretching the bodily boundaries of these creatures into a very intimate focus. Mikols’ sculptures have also changed, moving towards another version of this boundary-less growth of texture and focus upon the index(es) of figuration; this seems to give her more freedom to explore resemblances and multiple identities of texture, such as hair, fur, gnarled wood, and most recently honeycomb-like nodules within arm-like protrusions which coil, fold back and extend toward the viewer. Associated sub-text references the museum artifact, relic of the body, and occult icons related to ritual, shrine, sacrifice, and presence. Mikols writes about her interest in the similarities between animal and human emotional states in an artist statement: “The idea of longing is one such relation; an animal longing is similar to my own longing...The occurrence of sudden death syndrome in animals…reveals how non-human beings share similar sentiments”. Mikols talks about a fascination with narratives of death and suicide within “a dreamlike mind frame that involves imagination and the unconscious”, particularly the “transitional states…and residues of occurrences.”

Cameron-Weir uses the wall-piece consistently in her practice, often working with a large drum-like shape, half-mound, or box shape, each hung several inches apart like paintings. There are several variations of ‘drums’, each exposing a flawless surface which acts like a threshold or skin for meticulously arranged pockmarks, orifices, and protrusions of self-contained ornamentation. One surface resembles the switchboard of an early 1980s control room, its sleek and orderly pattern pointing towards aesthetic rather than functional (even if fictional) design. Another surface is a play on classic optical illusions in metallic-silver, black, and white cubes. Other surfaces reference the embedded jewels and glass of Art Nouveau design, but in the colors of futuristic sci-fi, housing chunks of crystalline shapes in various transparencies. Several of the drum-shaped pieces are draped or wrapped in either fabric which mimics their ‘facial’ patterns, or campy belts, chains, and large tassels, some which loop back up to connect to the ‘face’ like piercings, while others are subtly protected with material such as a knitted lavender-grey casing. While these pieces reference the serial, coherent arrangement of the jewelry case and fashion line, they suggest unique and independent deviations from what at first appeared to be the seamless ‘body’. While some of the pieces provoke these deviations like immediate one-liners, pieces like We’ll Bare Our Arms We’ll Turn Our Heads 3 seem humorously withholding as pointed, dagger-like crystals jut out of carefully prepared holes lined in red; the narrative of bodily extension as teeth is truncated by the cartoony logic of each carefully crafted hole. Similar to Mikols’ octopus-like growths of fur, Cameron-Weir’s sculptural pieces resemble the stoic immobility of marionettes or instruments in storage, signaling bodily gesture while holding back narrative. Cameron-Weir’s interest in alternative bodies within tangible spaces of fantasy is explored in an article by Anne Petrie: “the swelling shapes, the splashes of red and the genital folds of her early work speak more loudly of the primitive, often frightening nature of emerging female sexuality”.

Csicsery-Ronay Jr. talks about the early romantic and modernist roles given to the romantic grotesque in the science fiction genre:

[Science Fiction’s] characteristic sense of grotesque wonder is the response to new, boundary violating phenomena that are either discovered by scientific observation or synthesized by scientific invention…rather than appearing as mere anomalous individuals that can be expunged from the human record, [grotesque bodies] constitute alternative populations, civilizations, and competitors for the human niche. Each of them, even the pathetic Beast Men, are 'hopeful monsters'— they have agency and a place in the imaginary history of the world…for imagining the improvements that humanity might make for itself through auto-evolution. The Wellsian emphasis on evolution as the overarching master narrative, and on organisms as its usually hapless agents, naturally led to exuberant fantasies of biological transformation.

Science Fiction television and filmic scenes from the 1960’s to the 1980’s often combined early puppetry and animatronics within contexts of dumbstruck blocks of switches, buttons and controls which seemed to stare out in expressions of bug-eyed incredulity and marble-mouthed credibility. In the earliest pre-effects examples, an actor in sagging fabric costume might be ‘in character’ throughout the head and hands, its body gliding into the room as if on tracks, its features frozen in splayed, stiff attack. Together, the costumed ‘monster’ and boxy technology stole the scenes from actors’ hammy delivery and retreats altered to suit the pacing of the stiff monster-mobility. Full frontal monsters evoked a generalized anxiety of the dreaded body, while close-ups often exaggerated transformation effects, altered to suit the speed (usually grotesquely jerky and cumbersome) of the transforma-technology of the times. Csicsery-Ronay Jr. posits that these science fictional bodies are grotesque: “The grotesque…introduces mythic thought in a nonmythic context, 'contaminating' the pure aspirations of rational thought with the fluctuating, metamorphic, class-defying world picture of the sacred.” Lauren Mikols has similarly placed grotesque fantasies of form and texture in unsettling proximity in installations, particularly when involving creature-like references either in full splayed approach or resembling heads upon twisted spikes. Cameron-Weir’s sculptures use seemingly readymade ‘costumes’ of technology and fetish material to position manufactured expectations alongside an ornamental proximity to our fantasies of those expectations. While Mikols’ work seems to hint at a need for tangible access to the base artifacts of a dreaded fantasy, Cameron-Weir’s work places equal and more austere focus upon those immediate links alongside her extensions of their base material.

While both artists understand the staying power in narrative potentiality over immediate readings, how does this translate within the depthless surfaces of a postmodern reading? Both Mikols’ and Cameron-Weir’s rewritten bodies link to what Csicsery-Ronay Jr. describes as “a creature that has no organic origin, and so need not buy into the legitimating mythologies” of gender and status. He continues that a postmodern concept of such bodies lacks “the formal confusions of the grotesque and the metamorphic flux of the sacred” in the romantic grotesque, and can have “the side-effect of making the entire body into a fetish object” within an “uncontrolled proliferation of body-versions”. Cameron-Weir explains in her artist statement an interest in placing fantasy within a ritualized space of order, suggesting a leaning towards the romantic grotesque’s introduction of the taboo within a context of reason; she describes this as “a strategy to enter into the unfamiliar by bringing order to the unknown and allowing the attempt at physical capture of the indefinite”. Mikols describes her “transitional states…and residues of occurrences” as simultaneously “in a slowly growing, sleeping and deathly state”. Within these contexts, both Mikols’ and Cameron-Weir’s work reference the romantic grotesque and its clumsy bodily containments, its slapstick stiffness, its marble-mouthed grin of techno-aesthetics, while allowing the potentialities of ‘body’ as lived through its constant ‘becoming’.

Works cited:
1. Merleau-Ponty, Maurice. Phenomenology of Perception. Routledge; 2nd edition (May 3, 2002) (pg 91)
2.  Merleau-Ponty, Maurice. Phenomenology of Perception. Routledge; 2nd edition (May 3, 2002) (pg 121)
3. Csicsery-Ronay, Jr., Istvan, On The Grotesque in Science Fiction. Science Fiction Studies #86  (March 2002)  (pg 77)
4. Mikols, Lauren, qtd.
5. Mikols, Lauren, qtd.
6.  Petrie, Anne. Their World: The Work of Elaine Cameron-Weir, Current Projects Journal of Contemporary Art & Design, issue 7 (April 2007) (pg 7)
7.  Csicsery-Ronay, Jr., Istvan, On The Grotesque in Science Fiction. Science Fiction Studies #86  (March 2002)  (pg 72-73)
8.  Csicsery-Ronay, Jr., Istvan, On The Grotesque in Science Fiction. Science Fiction Studies #86  (March 2002)  (pg 78)
9.  Csicsery-Ronay, Jr., Istvan, On The Grotesque in Science Fiction. Science Fiction Studies #86  (March 2002) (pg 76)
10.  Csicsery-Ronay, Jr., Istvan, On The Grotesque in Science Fiction. Science Fiction Studies #86  (March 2002)  (pg 74)
11. Csicsery-Ronay, Jr., Istvan, On The Grotesque in Science Fiction. Science Fiction Studies #86  (March 2002)  (pg 75)
12. Cameron-Weir, Elaine, qtd.
13. Mikols, Lauren, qtd.

     [Distillate © HA&L + Kim Neudorf  |  {from bios} -- the course of a life.]