New York Photo Review
Volume 4 Issue 14 March 27 to April 2, 2013

The Genetic Wars by Barbara Confino

Campus Capers
Melanie Bonajo
 by Melanie Bonajo. Source:
Melanie Bonajo

“So, does this hippy crap really work?” is Melanie Bonajo’s unifying question in her current show at PPOW, “One Question, Three Rooms, 44 Possible Answers”. The show is the photographic equivalent of those wry and insightful novels where the protagonist is a wry and insightful college professor trying to navigating through the steamy jungles of a dysfunctional English department. Melanie Bonajo’s jungle is that same college’s Art department. Both the people she photographs and the issues she is concerned with could only survive in that hothouse of sex, drugs, youth and theory. Fortunately, being both wry and insightful herself, she delivers a few interesting thoughts and pictures along with a blockbuster image that could be her signature work in the years to come.

Let’s start from the third and last room to watch the mandatory video. It’s dark. No seats. Two video projections abut each other in a corner. In one we see two lightly bearded, sensitive looking men, communing with a series of domesticated animals, goats, baby ostriches, and, I think, guinea pigs or maybe rabbits. In the most effective scene the two men sensually stroke the rabbit fur, over and over again. On the competing screen are three naked women who are rolling around on the floor coating each other with pottery mud. The most effective scenes here are close-ups of repetitive stroking and pressing of the mud against bare skin. But, don’t get your hopes up, it’s not likely that these folks will ever get together as these poor souls are trapped in endless loops. Unless there is some uber-loop that lets them break out and get together, your stepping out of the room is as much of a climax as will likely occur.

But then you find yourself in Room 2. In the center are some rather flimsy-looking, wooden sticks, stuck into the same pottery clay you just saw, and holding up a set of photographs of animals. The color, wildlife-style pictures could easily have been found on the Internet, but surrounding each animal various colored lighting effects have been layered on, almost adding a touch of cheap spirituality to each image. In the same ‘spiritual’ vein a single picture by the wall shows a naked young woman, coated with a layer of clay into which a few dozen candles have been set and lit, lying on her back across some sort of kitchen refrigerator-stove-counter thing.

Genital Panik by Melanie Bonajo. Source:
Melanie Bonajo, "Genital Panik" 2012

Leaving that poor woman to remove the mud herself we move on to the first and biggest room. There are several sets of work here: mostly traditional photographs on the wall, along with some large cardboard placards, deep questions hand written across them, “Do we let patterns of conceptual convenience leave unsuitable marks on our perception?”, “Are patterns of the heart motivated by megalomania?” and “Are women human too?” among others.

Designed to look like posters, one set of ‘answers’ uses accumulated images that, again, could easily be found on the web and are overlain with questions or slogans in white. More interesting are the pictures actually taken by the artist herself. One set has people of all types (that is art students and their extended families) holding up various cardboard signs in different situations (one for example shows a woman being drowned by a wave holding aloft a sign reading ‘Progress’.) The clay theme is carried forward with notable images of a tripod and camera caked with mud, and another of, yet another naked woman, seated this time, with a large erect tower of clay extending from her crotch, she seems to be actively stroking or molding. I’m sure this must mean something, but not really being immersed in critical theory, I can’t really be sure.

Just as you begin to wonder if the real question of the show is: ‘Is there life after graduate school?’ you encounter “Genital Panik”, the largest, best framed picture in the exhibit. Here is a traditional school picture, with students lined up facing the camera. In true avant-garde style they all have cut the crotches out of their pants to show off their brightly painted pubes. Unforgettable! (Though after a while you realize that they all have rather ordinary, art-student-like faces.) Whether this becomes an iconic image rests partly with the students themselves, although it undoubtedly will become a future embarrassment for their teenage children. And it definitively answers “No” to the question of whether or not there is life after MFA.

Oh, and that hippy shit question? Well, As we used to say, “Yes––Far fucking out!”

Melanie Bonajo

535 W 22nd St 3rd Fl
Chelsea         Map

Thursday, February 28 to
Saturday, March 30, 2013
Hours: Tues-Sat, 10 to 6

Making Caribbean Dance by Susanna Sloat