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Artist's work addresses femininity, childbirth issues

| Saturday, Nov. 9, 2013, 7:02 p.m.
'Graft,' 2013, by Janine Antoni
'Graft,' 2013, by Janine Antoni

In case you missed it last month at the Mattress Factory on the North Side, Manhattan-based Stephen Petronio Company performed “Trevor,” an excerpt from its critically acclaimed dance performance “Like Lazarus Did.”

Drawn from gestures captured by a sonogram of a fetus in a womb, in it dancer Nick Sciscione wriggled and writhed like a newborn child in front of the base of “Graft,” a massive installation piece by Brooklyn artist Janine Antoni made from the trunk of a maple tree.

Amazingly, the trunk literally runs through two floors of the Mattress Factory's 1414 Monterey Street Gallery, and “Graft” is a major component to Antoni's solo exhibition, “Within,” on display there.

So, too, is the video piece “Honey Baby” on display on the third floor, which, much like Sciscione's performance, features a dancer writhing and wriggling, but in a honey-filled tube.

“The way it's filmed, you can't tell the gravity of the person, because he's just moving around in it,” says Michael Olijnyk, the Mattress Factory's co-director.

Antoni took part in “Like Lazarus Did,” and she says much of the work in “Within” was inspired by her collaboration with Petronio. “I made a piece for him where I cast all my body parts inspired by the movements of the dancers. And I suspended myself over the audience, in a helicopter stretcher, with my body parts hanging above me,” Antoni says.

“I laid there completely still through the whole performance,” she says. “So, I had about 14 hours in that stretcher looking at my body parts. Some of these ideas (in the exhibit) came to me during that time.”

One of them was to create “milagros” (religious folk charms), which visitors will find on a table attached to the upper portion of “Graft” on the second floor. The milagros also have been grafted onto the roots of a maple tree that, curiously, punctures the ceiling of the first-floor gallery. Above, on the second floor, the maple table seemingly grows out of the trunk. And that's where, on top of the table, visitors will find the milagros as well as pre-Columbian-looking pots that have been impressed with female human hipbones on another table in an adjoining room.

Milagros are traditionally used for healing purposes and as votive offerings in Mexico, Portugal, Spain and Brazil.

“If you have an ailment, you go to the store and you buy these in wax,” Antoni says. “Then you take them to the church. And they fill the entire ceiling with these. I first saw them in Brazil and could never get them out of my mind.”

Antoni's milagros are made from cast resin, and each combines different body parts, sometimes with each other, as a hand with an ear, and sometimes with animal parts and other things, like a snake intertwined with a ribcage.

A dancer herself, Antoni says she realized the connection of various parts of her own body, one to another, not too long ago.

“It's become a revelation,” she says. “These milagros, these moments, are about that kind of connection. The idea that we can move through the world in a totally embodied way and not feel like we're just a head walking around, because I feel, as a culture, we kind of behead ourselves.”

Antoni says each one of her milagros has its own story. One in the form of a leg with another leg bone crossing through it relates to an aunt who would have tea parties with Antoni when she was a little girl and tell her to “cross your legs like a lady,” she says.

“I had some idea that this gesture was about my femininity,” Antoni says. “These are fused together. Even when you look inside, you see that (leg bone) going through. So it's impossible to uncross them. It's the future and the present fused together.”

Another milagro includes a breast fused with a mouth.

“With this, I was thinking about the breast as a kind of vessel, and if you just take that form and turn it on its side it becomes a cup,” Antoni says. “So, every time you drink from a cup, it's like bringing the breast to the mouth and remembering our first drink, basically.”

In yet another, an ear appears as if moving through a chest cavity as a means to represent the act of listening to someone's heart.

“You put your head to someone's chest, and it's almost like their ribs become kind of like a pillow,” Antoni says. “There is no heart in there. So, this person is trying so hard to listen to the heart that the ear has bled right through the ribs and comes through the other side.”

Also on the third floor, the piece “Crowned” completes the exhibit. Made from the cast of a human female hipbone that has been dragged, literally, through plaster to create run-in-place crown molding, it culminates with casts made from two female hipbones in one corner.

“This piece is about the mother's hip bones as a collar,” Antoni says. “It's about that moment of birth when the child is coming out of the mother and the body is still of the mother and the head is of the world. As a sculptor, I am really interested in the negotiation between the skull and the hipbone because that means that there's a successful birth.

“All of my work is about what it means to be a woman,” she says, “and I've been trying since I had my daughter nine years ago and learned about crowning, which is when the baby turns around and literally uses the mother's hip bone as their crown, it's such a beautiful notion, that means it's ready to come out. For nine years, I've been trying to make a piece about crowning.”

Antoni is perhaps best known for her work “Gnaw” (1992), in which she gnawed at two 600-pound cubes, one made of chocolate, the other of lard, then used the chewed-out bits to create chocolate boxes and lipstick tubes.

Kurt Shaw is the art critic for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at

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