Humor and the Abject

View Original

Doreen Garner's "Doctor's Hours" is an Exhibition, Tattoo Shop, and School of History

Doreen Garner, Reliquary for Henrietta (2016), mirrorized skull, silicone, 16 x 11 x 12 inches. Image courtesy of Larrie. 

Doreen Garner is an absolute force. Her latest solo exhibition, Doctor’s Hours, on view at LES gallery Larrie through 18 June, evidences her multifaceted technical prowess in a variety of media. Garner’s signature organ-like blown glass and mixed media sculptures are present, encapsulated in mirrored vitrines. But in a novel departure from her stellar fall 2016 solo show at Essex Flowers, Removing the Veil: Vanity as Material for Incision, those works now exist in the company of pieces created by numerous other material approaches mounted within a model of presentation that solidifies her unapologetic, researched critical framework.  

Framed photographs by Doreen Garner (clockwise from top left, all 2014 and 11 x 16 inches): Diamond; Swoop Bang; Onika; Bisect. Photo by the author.

Four dense color photographs from 2014 depict Garner cradling the aforementioned works that she’s known for, including two, Onika and Swoop Bang, that are exhibited physically in the space. I’d not previously seen Garner’s photographic iterations of the three-dimensional work, and her understated presence in them subtly collapses the space between the alluringly abject sculptures and the living body that worked them into existence.

Doreen Garner, Medical Study 7-9, ink on paper, 5 x 8 inches each. Image courtesy of Larrie.

Nine intricate, framed anatomical drawings showcase Garner’s steady hand. Each is titled Medical Study, numbers 1-6 from 2013 and numbers 7-9 from this year. The delicate line work and her clear command of anatomy reward multiple viewings, allowing one to marvel at the labor-intensive process involved in their production. The earlier pieces include a skeleton’s hand adorned with manicured nails, and museum-tagged skulls with gold-crowned teeth. Considering the drawings in relationship to the small, though highly-specific, reading library Garner installed in the exhibition, these accoutrements are anything but arbitrary.

Garner's library, installed above a sculptural vitrine. Books included (L-R): Doreen Garner's Ether & Agony; Victoria Pitts' In the Flesh; Richard Barnett's The Sick Rose; Harriet A. Washington's Medical Apartheid; and Rebecca Skloot's The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. Image courtesy of Larrie.

Included in the library are Harriet A. Washington’s Medical Apartheid and Rebecca Skloot’s The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, amongst others. The former traces the troubling history of medical experimentation on Black Americans from slavery until the present day. The latter is about its titular subject, a Black woman who died from cancer in 1951 at the young age of 31. Samples of Henrietta Lacks’ cells were harvested without her consent during treatment, and later became foundational in biomedical research as the HeLa “immortal” cell line. Her descendants have never been compensated, despite their own medical histories being released to further the advancement of biological research. It’s worth noting that Garner was part of a traveling exhibition aimed at giving voice to Lacks’ legacy, HeLa, that was installed at venues including the National Museum of African American History in Washington, DC and the National Center for Civil and Human Rights & Culture in Atlanta. Thereby contextualized, Garner’s drawings, photographs, and sculptures, in presenting expertly rendered facsimiles of mortal tissues, assert deeply her position of charged critique. When Robert Gober presents an amputated leg or a block of cheese growing hair from a science experiment gone awry, one might chuckle at the slapstick inherent in much of horror. In Doctor’s Hours, Garner has explicitly framed her work as tied to a history that affords little space for viewers lazily projecting slapstick.

Doreen Garner, Onika (2014), glass, teeth, Swarovski crystals, hair weave, polyester fiber, glitter, petroleum jelly, 5 x 5 x 7 inches. Image courtesy of Larrie. 

There's strength and energy in this exhibition that demands attention. It is not a show to casually “catch,” as Garner is not an artist whose research and work one can explain conveniently in casual conversation. She’s earned, tenaciously, countless accolades including fellowships at Wave Hill and Socrates Sculpture Park, residencies at Skowhegan and Pioneer Works, a Franklin Furnace Fund grant, and far too many others to list. Encountering her work permits one of those rare moments where one can remember that art can, indeed, be a true force. To describe Garner as industrious would be a massive understatement. Rather, she is better described as an aspirant model for not only a generation of artists concerned with practical politics yet to come, but for a generation her senior who have grown relaxed in their own politics and ingenuity. In a piece for Artinfo, artist Kenya (Robinson), with whom Garner hosts the #trashDay podcast, posited squarely, “Excellence is the refusal of bullshit and making a way out of no way. It is demanding a standard of rigor individually, from our peers, and from our platforms… It’s Doreen Garner excising medical histories in silicone and glass.”

Doreen Garner, Breast Plate (2017), silicone, dressmaker pins, 11 x 11 x 13 inches. Image courtesy of Larrie. 

Garner’s own rigor is exemplified in the multilayered reads her work affords to viewers. Too often, when artists produce startlingly realistic simulations of dismembered bodies, conversations turn to the reductive binary of beauty versus the grotesque. The exhibition’s press release takes this false-false equivalence to task, stating, “Doreen Garner’s practice is committed to revealing medical histories and fortifying the significance of womanhood—all while challenging the imposed dichotomy of beauty [versus] the grotesque.” Doctor’s Hours succeeds in its confrontation of, and refusal to buckle to, impositions; the historical and current impositions upon women’s bodies and Black bodies, the aesthetic and conceptual imposition of sacred and profane upon an artist’s work.

Doreen Garner, Big Pussy (From the Back) (2015), glass, polyester fiber, Swarovski crystals, Swarovski pearls, hair weave, teddy bear eyes, silicone, electrical parts, condoms, latex tubing, acrylic dentures, rubber gloves, glitter, brass screws, 24 x 16 x 16 inches. Photo by the author. 

Doreen Garner's flash art for tattooing, and her tattoo artist license. Photo by the author. 

The inclusion of the small tattoo shop syncs harmoniously with her previous work and research. Despite its cultural ubiquity at this point, something examined critically in another library text, Victoria Pitts’ In the Flesh, the exchange of a tattoo between artist and recipient is deeply personal. Visitors can trace the lineage from Garner’s drawings of the body to her elaborate physical constructions of body parts, then back to their own as she permanently embeds her work on their skin. It’s an extreme studio visit of sorts--both more intimate than most works of relational aesthetics and less clinical than most tattoo shops--and one can exit owning an affordable piece of Garner’s work that is inherently archival. From a strictly capitalist perspective, the tattoo parlor is an ingenious way to guarantee income for the artist. Instead of relying on hypothetical gallery sales, Garner has embedded a means to effectively compensate herself. From a perspective strictly concerned with the technicalities of tattooing, she also happens to be really fucking great at it.

The A-frame sign at Larrie beckoning the public into the exhibition. Photo by the author. 

There is, to say the least, a lot to take in at Doctor’s Hours. It’s worth meditating on the pieces; no doubt Garner already has generously. Like the illustrated, cubed cross-sections of skin on the walls of a dermatologist’s office, her pieces provoke simultaneous curiosity and discomfort. The video work, Endoscopy from 2014, careens back and forth unsettlingly between appropriated surgery footage and dancing women’s asses with highly psychedelic filters applied to them. It begins with a narrator, presumably a medical professional, clinically discussing the structure of the buttock. The salacious dancing clips made me painfully aware of my own gaze as they were interrupted by scalpels slicing into skin and endoscopic cameras winding through someone’s digestive tract. It asks me plainly: what do I think that I am looking at? Other human beings, with distinct lives and stories to tell? Or anonymous bodies I think I’m entitled to consume? The inclusion of mirrored platforms or back walls in the sculpture vitrines, something that usually feels didactic, here feels thoughtfully confrontational. As I gazed at the works, I saw myself reflected in them, reminding me of my own wonkiness and mortality. However, unlike a ham-fisted device to show the viewers themselves in the work, here it acts powerfully, implicatively. These are not parts of my own body, they are representations Garner has generated of bodies that have been imposed upon--primarily by people who look like me. What I, as an individual, find beautiful or grotesque is intrinsically tied to how I perceive, value, and act upon the bodies of others.

Still from Endoscopy (2014), video, 7m 52s. Image courtesy of Larrie. 

In Doctor’s Hours, Garner not only labored over the works on display, but actively chose to engage in emotional and pedagogical labor. I left with an important bibliography, one that no college professor ever offered, and a more robust understanding of my own complicity in the furthering of impositions upon others. This is what I meant by describing Garner as an absolute force. She has no personal responsibility to educate me, or any other viewer, and yet her generosity and conviction drove her to do so. For that, I have to thank her.

Doctor's Hours is on view through Sunday, 18 June at Larrie, 27 Orchard Street in New York. To schedule a tattoo appointment, email:

Garner has also curated a group exhibition, Stranger Things, at Outpost in Ridgewood, on view through 7 July. The exhibition includes work by Jes Fan, Tamara Santibañez, Kenya (Robinson), Nakeya Brown, Ted Mineo, Erik Ferguson, and Elliot Jerome Brown, Jr.