I scream 

Play and contradiction in the art of Elisha Harteis and Michael T. Workman

In Elisha Harteis' ceramic installation, "The Only Emperor Is...," a boy sticks his head inside the open stomach of a giant bunny from which piles of ice cream cones appear to spill out. Other children play nearby, ice cream cones scattered around their tiny feet. The scene seems as playful as any nursery rhyme, but the way Harteis has glazed the children in blues and greens and dirty yellows makes them seem feral and ghostly. On further study, one girl is crying and a boy is running away. And even though there's almost nothing more innocent than a bunny, the installation hints at danger.

The tone makes sense when you hear Harteis' story, which is that she was a child of abuse, neglect and poverty. Childhood play was inextricably linked to brutality, she says.

"We didn't have much," she says, "and we didn't even have much adult supervision. It's kind of like Lord of the Flies. You just do what you want to do, whether it's right or wrong—you don't know."

Harteis is remarkably straightforward when talking about her past. When she was very young, her mother married a man who abused her and her older siblings. A friend's parents finally reached out to help, and Harteis, with support from her mother, moved into a group home for kids. Though the damage and pain is still keenly evident, her installation feels less like a way to reconcile what happened to her and more like a bold attempt to challenge the viewer and the silent nature of abuse.

"It's really important to talk about the issues," she says. "People hear you're a group home kid and they're scared of you. But you were there to be safe."

click to enlarge Elisha Harteis’ “The Only Emperor is…”
  • Elisha Harteis’ “The Only Emperor is…”

"The Only Emperor Is..." is part of the University of Montana's BFA Senior Thesis exhibit located in the Gallery of Visual Arts, which currently showcases 22 student pieces through mid-May. Harteis' title is a tribute to Wallace Stevens' dense and mystifying 1922 poem called "The Emperor of Ice Cream." In the kitchen, the narrator experiences the sensuality and gluttony of eating ice cream. Later, he enters the bedroom to see the exposed corpse of a woman, but even a sheet can't cover up the reality of death.

It's a good poem to understand how Harteis envisions the opposing feelings in her piece.

Harteis has used bunnies in her art before. Sometimes they represent lack of parental supervision, sometimes an abuser. It's a theme she continued with, even when other people discouraged her.

"I feel like I've been pushed toward making more digestible stuff—that my teachers wanted something different from me," she says. "But I decided I wanted to make a huge bunny. I decided to stop doing stuff made to be received well and see what I can do when I go all in."

On the other side of the gallery wall, Michael T. Workman has made a satirical installation using the concept of mass production. The BFA candidate created plastic casts of his index finger to take the idea of "the artist's touch" in a literal direction. "This is Not a Trend" uses two television screens to pretend to sell a product—the finger—as if it were unique, even though Workman has made hundreds of them. On one screen, a waxy finger rotates as a narrator with a clinical, hypnotic voice says, "Ladies and Gentlemen. The sky is the limit." Each phrase and cliché is followed by a pause, like a carefully directed infomercial made to embody the feeling of "the future."

"This is not the same as what you usually get," the voice says. "Think about the value."

The other screen shows a rubbery but surprisingly realistic hand on a white table as someone saws off the index finger. There's no blood, but it's cringeworthy, nonetheless. Next to that screen is a vending machine where you can pay a dollar in quarters to get your very own finger.

"I wanted to place all the importance and value in that single human touch," Workman says. "But I wanted to also contradict that by making it totally not unique and just a replication of something, so there's no actual touch present.

"It's absurd and I think it's funny," he adds, "but it's dry. It's not overtly humorous, but it is humorous to me."

During last week's reception, Workman enlisted some people to stand by the vending machine and encourage people to buy. Whenever the vending machine got low, someone would restock it, continuing to devalue the artist's touch. (The vending machine now has an "out of order" sign on it.)

Workman's art runs the risk of coming off as pretentious, mostly because it is a commentary on the pretentiousness in the high-art world. But even after spending time with his work, you can start to get a feel for how funny he really is. A recent series, "multiforms," uses severed wasp heads pinned in a uniform manner to create clean-cut shapes. He picked wasps because they are generally loathed (unlike bees, for instance) but he offers their heads in an uncomplicated and acceptable form: a piece that could, at first glance, look safe and uncontroversial anywhere. He sold several of those pieces.

click to enlarge Michael T. Workman’s “This is Not a Trend”
  • Michael T. Workman’s “This is Not a Trend”

Workman is particularly fascinated with artists who use their celebrity to add value to their art. Thomas Kincaid, in an effort to raise the stakes on his "art product" of cozily lit houses nestled in peaceful snowscapes and such, started putting his own blood in the paint. And Marina Abramovic's The Artist is Present, where hundreds and hundreds of people stood in line to sit across from her at a table in the MoMA and stare into her eyes, could only have really happened because she had built up her own celebrity as "the artist."

"I think she is one of those people who gets so far into that artist-as-celebrity role that her art has become definitely about her name more than her actual work anymore," Workman says.

In many ways, Workman uses the same high-brow methods used by the high-brow art world he's responding to. But, of course, he's playing around. His work might be about mass production, but it doesn't embrace it. After each project, Workman likes to move on to something entirely different, as if to avoid the type of pinning down his wasp heads endured.

"I like working in the gray area of art," he says. "I don't like things to be black and white."

The BFA Senior Thesis exhibit continues at the Gallery of Visual Arts at UM's Social Science building through May 15.

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