Los Angeles-based artist Tanya Batura juxtaposed perversity, pathology, and beauty in the photographs and ceramic sculptures in her unsettling exhibition, “In the Eye of the Beholder.”The works (all 2016, except for a pair from 2015) were dynamically installed in Hap Gallery’s small but versatile space. Seven untitled ceramic sculptures of human heads-which Batura, nodding to Neo-Classicism, calls “busts”-held court on a Maplewood table eleven-feet-long by three-feet-wide. Made of fired clay but not heavily glazed, the pieces are sheenless and flat; they could pass for porcelain or plastic. Some are airbrushed with red acrylic paint around the mouths and tongues, lending a dash of garish color to a monochromatic white palette. The heads are androgynous, bald, and bloated, with protruding tongues and eyes closed as if asleep or in a coma. (The faces were inspired by photographs Batura saw at the UCLA library, showing plastic-surgery patients under anesthesia.) One figure has a mass of tumor-like bumps growing from the back of its head; each bump appears to have an eye. Another figure’s face is covered by a cloth cinched with a neat bow, as in an erotic-asphyxiation scenario, while another covered face seems to be vomiting a balloon. This is the stuff of BDSM, freak shows, and horror films, and is easily the most outré subject matter yet exhibited during Hap’s three years of programming.
Batura continued her exploration of the grotesque in the gallery’s installation alcove, with a series of five clay works, each titled Still Life, in glass bell jars. They depict Gene Simmons-length tongues in sundry contortions: rippling, looping around, tied up in knots, and impaled upon a spike. As with the busts, these works decontextualize body parts and offer them up for clinical inspection. By contrast, three photographs, Portrait no. 1, 2, and 3, depart from the overarching bizarreness with an unexpected showing of tenderness. In one image, two faces inch close to one another, as if preparing to kiss. In another, a head lays back, lips delicate and expectant, recalling Antonio Canova’s Psyche Revived by Cupid’s Kiss. Finally there is the photographic print called Eyes, in which two artificial eyes, unnervingly breast-shaped, float before a black background. By divorcing body parts from their anatomical context, Batura has again conflated attraction and repulsion, challenging viewers to determine where beauty ends and deformity begins.