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October 1997 | Updated Monthly

Under the Skin:
A Graham Stamets Retrospecive

Some may find the idea of a Graham Stamets retrospective a bit off-putting; for someone whose art depends so much on trickery -- and disease -- seeing it again for the first time might not be such a hot idea. But give the Judy Martling at Hallwalls in Buffalo credit for trying. She can't really recreate the installations -- too many people were in on the joke, and some of them could cause legal trouble -- so you don't have to worry about your face peeling off, or being sent into a drug-induced spasms. But given videotape, and a few of the orginal artifacts, she's done a pretty could job of selecting and documenting.

The exhibit starts, fittingly enough, with a photocopy of the incident report that got Stamets kicked out of medical school. Stamets had pulled pranks before, but this one seemed almost designed to get him thrown out: the day before an anatomy lesson, he broke into the room with the corpses and surgically altered one to look like the cancer-ridden wife of his professor; then, he sunk small eyelets through the skull and wrist, threading them with fishing line, so that he could make the corpse sit up and wave at the beginning of class.

It's a cliche that beginnings contain the seeds of what is too come, and here that conclusion is straining so hard at the leash one almost want to put it to sleep. But it's true, probably, not only in the event itself, which sketches out the themes that dominate Stamets' work -- disease and the mutabiliy of the human form -- but more subtly in his ambivalent reaction to the aftermath. From the eyewitness accounts, it seems like Stamets could have avoided getting caught -- except that he brought a Polaroid camera to document the good Professor's reaction, and the pictures were all over his room when the campus cops came to chat.

The retrospective skips over Stamet's tentative post med school years, launching right into what made first got him some attention: the 'illusion of beauty' installation. It was part of a multi-artist show, a seemingly innocuous row of face-shaped indentations in a wall. Looking inside each indentation revealed a series of faces -- some of the most beautiful known to man (Audrey Hepburn, Cleopatra vintage Elizabeth Taylor, and Rudolph Valentino are duplicated here) alternating with faces in various stages of decay. The last indentation in the series was just a mirror; the final face you saw was your own. Big deal, eh? Sounds like a C- undergrad art studio semester project. It left the observers distinctly unimpressed -- until they woke up the next morning and looked in the mirror. Stamets had designed the indendations to coat the faces of observers with an enzyme that caused their skin to peel off in sheets overnight. A few irritated patrons came by the next day to figure out what was happening, and Stamets was happy to explain. It's all here on videotape, too -- the scenes of Stamets nodescriptly trying to give a bio-chem lecture on a whiteboard while the enraged art scenesters formerly known as the beautiful people try to place the event in the context of their art theory classes makes the show worthwhile all by itself. You can almost see the "It was worth it to be a part of art history -- I bet this'll help me get laid, too" lights going off above their heads, one by one.

Although the art community found this sophmoric and maybe even a little irresponsible (but who can tell, really?), it got him some attention -- attention Stamets was able to parlay into shows at more and more prestigious venues. But as his reputation grew, Stamets had to grow trickier and trickier to achieve his desired effect. In the next major installation represented here, "Spasm" from the N.A.M.E. Gallery in Chicago, patrons sipped complimentary beverages as they wandered around a room littered with vine-like robotic arms that rose out of the floor to flail and snap like angry snakes. No one could figure out what was happening until three strobe lights, off-sync and placed in an equilateral triangle, went off.

Stamets had spiked the beverages with various psychoactive chemicals; Those who chose bottled water got 4-TASB, an Shulgin-derived compound that produced uncomfortable erotic urges and epileptic spasms. Those who chose wine or regular soda got small amounts of psilocybin and just stared, hypnotized. Those who were lucky enough to drink diet soda got diet soda, nothing more, and stood around confused by the behavior of their dates. Just think of all the poor models.

In addition to the obligary videotape, the arms are here; you can get pinched by them if you want, and you can press a button to activate the stroblights. Unfortunately, there's a disclaimer explaining that the gallery can't encourage illegal drug use.

That one actually got Stamets in trouble; there was a civil suit brought, and a criminal investigation. Stamets did what every good fugitive would do and fled to Japan to work on art direction for avant-garde pornography. That ground has been too well trod for me to go over here; I'll just say that although both the Tanaka-inspired "The Plague Years" and his crypto-Lovecraftian tour-de-force "Casing Layer" are present in continuous video loops, I would have liked to have seen something from his clinical period as well.

After his return, he he spent more time toying with his image -- when, at the height of virus-mania, he announced an installation called 'ebola' to be held as PS 1 in New York, no one walked into that gallery without at least a tinge of worry. In the leadup to the exhibit Stamets went out of his way to portray himself as a man with nothing to lose -- planting rumors of drug abuse & an abortive stay in a psychiatric ward, staging a frantic breakup with his girlfriend that was virtually a performance art piece in itself.

The exhibit itself was almost an anti-climax; probably anything short of having someone crash and bleed out on the gallery floor was sure to disappoint his hard-core fans. Not that he didn't give them their money's worth: he dressed the patrons up in Level 4 bio-hazard suits and ran them through an amusement park of faux dangers. There was a corridor filled with test-tubes, each filled with an oily liquid and suspended about waist high, swinging back and forth, for the patrons to evade; a room with an entire wall of what seemed to be caged monkeys, crying out in pain as their bodies seemed to decay in real time; and for the finale a tour of a simulated plague-ridden African village, re-created for the current show.

Stamets had rigged the suits to start springing leaks & falling apart at his command; so as the patrons orderly filed through the devestation, they could literally feel their protection from the environment collapsing around them, exposing them to air that Stamets had filled so full of charnel rot that they panicked and stampeded -- again, on videotape for your viewing pleasure. Later, in an interview, Stamets explained that it took him five weeks to get that smell right. Lucky you, it's avialable at the gallery giftshop.

Inevitably, it was impossible to duplicate the atmosphere of fear and loathing Stamets devoted both his art and personal life to creating; you have to settle for re-creations and videotape. It's just that nature of his work. It's too bad we haven't heard anyting from him for a couple of years; like Dada, he seems to be painting himself into a corner. Many are betting he'll take the low road, and just splatter so much blood around no one will notice his stealthy escape; but I hope he finds a way to surprise us all once again.

-- Beth Moog


Copyright 1997
James D Thomas