Dirty: Jessie Lehson and Heidi Neff at SBA Studios

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Opening Reception June 9, 6-8 pm
Sub-Basement Artist Studios
118 N. Howard Street / Baltimore, MD

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Lehson ‘Dirt Floor VII’

American Dirt
Jessie Lehson, Heidi Neff and the Making of “Dirty”

By Justin Gershwin

One afternoon when Jessie Lehson opened her mailbox, she found a package of dirt inside. Somebody had mailed it to her. It was securely wrapped in a garbage bag, sealed with duct tape, and bore an address label.

To anyone else in America, receiving a package of dirt in the mail would likely be an unpleasant surprise – the U.S. Postal version of getting “t.p.’ed,” perhaps.

But this wasn’t a prank. When Lehson removed the package and returned inside, she held it to her chest like a newborn infant, gently shaking it, even smiling.

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Lehson ‘Dirt Floor V’

It was fresh dirt from California – reddish soil she’d requested from a friend, and which she now planned to use for a new artwork. Lehson, 28, is an installation artist. Her choice medium is dirt. She collects dirt – from as many different cities and places as possible. Friends, family and even strangers send her packages on an ongoing basis, each containing a good heavy sample of local soil.

To step inside Lehson’s studio is to enter a kind of strange, dank laboratory where bucket after bucket of dirt is kept on tool shelves. At a glance these wide plastic tubs seem arbitrary, like scraps leftover from an old renovation project, suffused now by the science fiction of a dim Hampden basement.

But each bucket is unique – as separate in Lehson’s mind as the colors in a fresh supply of oil paints. In fact, they’re labeled. Each one has a name.

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“That’s Heidi,” she says, pointing up at a tub of soil taken from the front yard of close friend and artist Heidi Neff.

Lehson works by first deciding, conceptually, which set of places or people she’ll include in her installation – what kinds of dirt she’ll use, in other words, and how she’ll combine the different soils to fit an overall iconography. Then, when she installs, she carefully sifts the dirt for hours, until it has a thin and almost spice-like consistency. She uses tape to measure out a square, multiple squares, onto the floor or surface where she’s installing, each square bordering its neighbor just so. Finally, she fills this outline with dirt, smoothing it and removing the tape.

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What begins as raw soil becomes a precisely measured field of color with a hidden structure of meaning. “Hidden” because unless you happen to know Lehson, you would never begin to guess the meaning of her installations.

For example, in one recent work, Fill (2006), Lehson filled four recessed floor cavities with four distinct iron-rich soils. The dirt was chosen less for its personal identity – who gave it to her – as for its iron content, which she measured with the help of a research lab. The precise percentage of iron in each cavity was then included in the work by way of wall text, a secret reference to the iron deficiency Lehson has struggled with for years. She has a disease that slowly depletes her body’s iron content. This allusive reference gave the reddish dirt of Fill a morbid and bloodlike aura, transforming the otherwise sterile geometry of the work into subtle, emotional flotilla: burial plots in a private cemetery.

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Lehson ‘Fill’ Detail

It’s difficult to stuff Lehson into a single art-historical pigeonhole. It is tempting to label her work as orthodox Minimalism, but this is only a superficial way of handling it. Lehson’s intricately geometric dirtscapes have all the rigid planarity of Carl Andre and Donald Judd, sure, but at times she veers toward Eccentric Abstraction, a neurotic battle of order versus chaos. Then, too, there’s a touch of Earth Art. One can easily imagine Lehson spending a drowsy afternoon alongside Andy Goldsworthy, setting leaves onto a lake’s quiet surface.

In Lehson’s current installation, Fountain (2007), reddish dirt is once again used as a means of representing her own body. It is cinnabar, a type of soil whose rich history can be traced back to Mayan civilization, where it was used as a symbolic source of blood in royal burial tombs. Here a pump cycles cinnabar from floor to higher level and back again, as if it were a bloodstream in a beating heart.

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As in Fill, the installation of bloodlike dirt is a means of exposing Lehson’s “dirty secret” of disease. The cycling stream of cinnabar is a reference to her bodily need for iron-rich blood. But where in Fill the recessed cavities of reddish dirt are like burial plots, here the dirt is locked in spiritual alchemy. Cinnabar is a toxic form of red mercury used in alternative medicine to “fight poison with poison.” When mixed with water, it alchemically transforms into a healing substance.

In this capacity Fountain is a memorial, whose kinetic frieze is a portrayal of the endless struggle to balance toxicity in Lehson’s own cycling bloodstream. It is a “dirty picture” of the private self, a portrait of the artist in cross-section.

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It’s fitting, then, that this show at Sub-Basement Artist Studios, “Dirty,” includes painter Heidi Neff, 34, whose pornographic headshots of women having orgasm make for another, more explicit “dirty picture.”

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Neff ‘Shazam’

Head Project (2004 – ongoing) consists of a series of face portraits Neff made of women with closed eyes and gaping mouths, getting fucked, throwing back their heads and shouting silently. The stench and thrill of pornography is everywhere in these pictures. One can almost hear the cheesy backdrop of jazz in-between the steady moans and phony cries of pleasure here, the rattling clink of jewelry, the careful spacing of “Oh yeah”s and “Uh-huh”s. Neff captures the dead-ended stars of low-budget porn with such revolting, absurd precision that sex itself becomes revolting and absurd. It’s the unspoken disgust that settles over an innocent kid watching his first dirty videotape in someone’s basement after school.

But that’s the point.

Neff grew up in a devout Christian family. On Sundays, she went to church and sat through long, dry sermons, staring up at the colorful vignettes of Christ in stained glass. She hated church. Today, what she hates most about religion are the strict requirements surrounding sex.

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Neff ‘All God’s Children’

“The bastardization of something beautiful” is how Neff describes it, noting that sex and religion, their built-in conflict, is the single driving force behind much of her work. Funny: she could just as easily be discussing the porn industry, where sex – “love-making”? – is forced through the requirements of Hollywood’s profit machine and reduced to a cliché. Can religion fit the same template?

Neff thinks so. In a series of so-called “Ceiling” paintings, heaven is reduced to a histrionic mêlée of people having sex.

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Neff ‘Glory Hole’

In Glory Hole (2002), for example, Neff creates the illusion of a domed cathedral ceiling fresco from the High Renaissance. The view faces dead-upward, as if the viewer is an American tourist who has wandered into a small church in Italy to tilt back his head and gaze up at the ceiling. But instead of showing the kind of high-minded religious scene one might expect of this context – angels cavorting through the golden dust of heaven – Neff shows a gaping golden glory hole with encircling rings of cavorting, fellating, fornicating nude people.

It’s “Girls Gone Wild” for the Renaissance set, with the difference that men are naked too. The only person who appears to be fully clothed is a priest in brown friar’s coat, teetering at the edge of the balustrade, holding out his hand to keep from falling. The glory hole at center spreads open like a devouring mouth upon thousands of tinier nude people who are entering celestial orgasm.

It looks like a scene from the Rapture. God is whisking his followers from the end of the world and taking them elsewhere. But these naked hedonists aren’t going to Heaven. No, by entering the “glory hole” they must be entering the same faked orgasm that consumes the pornstars of Head Project. The open mouth of those moaning, sweaty women is alluded to by the glory hole itself, which expands as sexual climax peaks. Heaven becomes a low-budget studio set in Los Angeles, Calif. That’s the punishment, it seems, for mixing sex and religion. When you die, you go to Los Angeles – the glory hole of America, the capital of the phony porn industry – even as your fantasies of religious salvation crumble.

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Neff ‘Washington’

Neff’s amusing, satirical ceiling paintings are a post-modern poke in the ribs at Michelangelo, inviting us to tilt back our heads, reconsider the piety of a Sistine Chapelesque fresco and discover that, well, that the whole thing is a big sham: religion, God, the notion of sex as holy communion. It’s all a circle-jerk.

Satire of this caliber is hard to pull off. But Neff has been painting church-ceiling scenes of sex for too long, too skillfully, to shrug it off as mere satire. When asked to explain how she arrived at these “holy” images of blowjobs and threesomes, Neff laughs and says, “I watched a lot of porn.”

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Neff ‘Rescue’

This willingness to saturate herself in the explicitly “dirty” is a hallmark of Neff’s sensibility as an artist. Her newer work (2006-7) substitutes the pornography of hardcore magazines and videos for the equally dirty images of American politics.

In Iraq (2007), for example, a sad-looking young Iraqi man carries what might be the bundled corpse of an infant to the picture’s foreground, while others behind him carry caskets. A gallows strung with dead bodies appears at top in the center of a small, shapeless body bag. Death is everywhere.

The crudity of such images – their in-your-faceness – is just as explicit as any of the facially contorted, eyes-shut, moaning pornstars of Head Project. Death is a fetishized commodity in Iraq, a thing to watch and masochistically enjoy. There is a media-style caption at top center, referring to “underreported violence” and, naturally, to the unseen presence of the American military, who fuck over Iraq as skillfully as the men we never see in Head Project. “Dirty politics” indeed.

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Neff ‘Iraq’

Iraq belongs to Neff’s so-called “Manuscripts” genre, a body of work focused on media-hyped natural disasters, global warfare and national tragedies. There are images here of a Pakistani earthquake, the flaming Twin Towers of 9/11, nuclear testing in North Korea, Typhoon Durian. Each painting is made to resemble an old illuminated manuscript, with bold colors, flat detail and intricate lettering.

Among the pages of this violent – “dirty”? – American manuscript, our history is forced into a broader history, sealed into fate, made to repeat itself over and over again as we flip through it, as if it were a videotape we could watch and rewind.

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Lehson ‘Dirt Floor VI’

And so the Dirty of this astonishing new show at Sub-Basement Artist Studios is equal parts physical and metaphoric. Below, underfoot, is the installed geometry of Jessie Lehson, whose autobiographical work exposes “the dirt” of her own life in such naked literalness it forms a pornography of the private self. And above, on the walls, are the political and pornographic works of Heidi Neff. The power of this show is the space in-between, the area we traverse as viewers, where the bridge from Neff’s history of dirty politics to Lehson’s portrait of dirty secrets is satiric tribute to America’s public and private fascination with filth.

“Dirty” runs from June 9 to July 15, 2007, at Sub-Basement Artist Studios.

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