With the work of Brooklyn-based artist Dasha Shishkin, the Museum of Contemporary Art Santa Barbara (MCASB) has made a bold statement in its first show as a museum. Shishkin’s erry icket exhibition combines virtuosic traditional contour drawing with a devilishly transgressive sensibility. Even as one admires the artist’s extraordinary facility with line, the aesthetic pleasure of these brightly colored, incident-filled scenes becomes complicated by the sense that their content consistently crosses over certain lines of everyday decorum. In other words, many of these pictures are what we now refer to as “NSFW” (not safe for work). Although it can be hard to imagine what could possibly be shocking in a post–Mapplethorpe, post-Jake and Dinos Chapman, post-pretty-much-everything art world, these insinuating images manage to sneak past our first line of defense with their seemingly innocuous palette and style. Take for example the 2007 drawing “HE IS BOB EAGER FOR FUN.” From a distance, and at first, this simple pastel green composition appears to be a picture of three rather conventional deciduous trees. Upon closer examination, though, the trunks extend upward from the midsections of three reclining figures, thus bringing the notion of Bob’s being “eager for fun” into an anatomical perspective. The image isn’t realistic enough to be obscene, or even clearly sexual enough to register as aggressive, but there’s a lingering sense that nothing’s sacred in Shishkin’s Garden of Eden.
The artist supervised this intriguingly eccentric installation, which leaves much of the wall space in the MCA’s main gallery bare, choosing instead to occupy several corners and to create a maze-like sense of discovery as you follow the waist-high blue line that encircles the space. Elsewhere in the same big first room, a tiny, recent, untitled drawing done specially for this exhibition previews the genitalia face, a signature feature of Shishkin’s imagination that can be found in abundance in the larger pieces housed in the back and side rooms. In this initial image, cartoonish figures sprout phalluses where one would expect their noses to be. In fact, if I had to identify one aspect of Shishkin’s approach as her primary tendency, it would be the proliferation of the phallus, or perhaps the “pseudo-phallus.” It shows up everywhere, sticking out where it doesn’t belong, at times even appearing with facial features such as eyes. After a certain point, this genital fixation recedes as such and becomes just another way that Shishkin communicates; a kind of shorthand for desire or the “eagerness” of the milieu.
In “PETE IS A PRINCE OF A MAN” (2013), the large (120″ x 252″) drawing that occupies two walls of the gallery’s back room, the viewer encounters another phallic forest, this one contextualized as part of a bacchanalian scene that includes some Toulouse Lautrec–style dancers, people in skirts smoking cigarettes, and dozens of passages that demonstrate Shishkin’s eye for the details of geometric spatial representation. Born in Moscow and raised partly in Russia and partly in New York, Shishkin has said that her difficulty with the English language has rendered her an acute observer rather than a full participant in much of American life, and she has connected this sense of voyeurism to her choice of drawing over painting. Inspired by Henri Matisse’s great 1911 painting “The Red Studio,” the artist pursues a visual impact in her larger works that’s highly dependent on her bright pastel palette, the relative transparency of the Mylar surface that she often paints on, and her control of the density of the marks throughout each piece. Taken together, the work’s intricate visual stimulation and cascading, uninhibited approach to content pack a powerful one-two punch. Drawn in by the beauty, one stays for the orgy — or whatever it is that’s going on here.
Even the title of the show, erry icket, with its deliberate sense of incompletion, casts the same kind of tensed-up spell between the intelligibility of English and something mysteriously other. In “Death, where is thy sting,” a crowd has gathered in what appears to be a swanky modern restaurant or nightclub, but, as in the background of “WOW, BOB, WOW” (2013), where figures resembling hospital staff suited up for surgery carouse with lit cigarettes and cocktails, there is an undercurrent that derails any attempt to pin down the locale to a specific type of place. All of these pictures would seem to be metaphors for society as a whole rather than takes on individual aspects of our culture. Seen from this angle, the leggy chorus girls of “my baby is cooking in another man’s pan” (2012) form a kind of yin/yang of spectacle and desire in tandem with all the male members on display. Inevitably, this show will fascinate some and frustrate others, as the clear answers it provides are few in contrast to the many questions it provokes. Come see for yourself what the fuss is about.