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Mystery! Science! Theater!

Exhibition Embraces Laure Drogoul's Multifaceted Creative Labors

"The Workshop of Filthy Creation" (Still)
"Scentorium (Olfactory Factory)" (installation view)

By Bret McCabe | Posted 2/11/2009

Follies, Predicaments, and Other Conundrums: The Works of Laure Drogoul

Through March 15 at MICA's Meyerhoff and Decker galleries

A hot-pink shag-carpeted womb-like chill-out area. A giant kewpie doll. Jars and jars of smells. A plethora of nipple designs. Singing to earthworms. A clown-like prison. An array of road-kill photos. A ridiculously large ball of twine. It's difficult to cite one purchase/entry point into the works Laure Drogoul gathered at MICA for the first ever large-scale retrospective of the Baltimore artist, if only because each piece is such a daft, delightful brain bomb. Drogoul, who has lived in Baltimore since 1979, has become part of the city's underground art fabric through her 14 Karat Cabaret that she started in 1989 and her many, many performances-qua-interactive projects and sculptures, which have been staples at Artscape for many years and are instantly recognizable to the Drogoul-familiar eye.

What makes Follies so rewarding, though, is that it gathers such a dense and diverse array of Drogoul's visual output together in one place. This curatorial scope--the show was organized by George Ciscle's Exhibition Development Seminar at MICA, with MICA director of exhibitions Gerald Ross serving as curator, MICA Environmental Design and Art History department member Glenn Shrum serving as seminar instructor, and 18 students doing majority of the exhibition's heavy lifting--presents an aperture opening peering into Drogoul's singular realm, a view that offers a slightly different perspective on the artist. Throughout Follies accompanying catalog, a series of essays--from curator Ross, City Paper contributor Rupert Wondolowski, artist and Link co-founding editor Peter Walsh--reiterate Drogoul's inescapable Baltimore connections, but it's a disservice to consider her, strictly speaking, a local artist. Because as much as Baltimore may want to claim her as another Charm City eccentric, Drogoul's work explores a profoundly personal universe that has more to do with who she is rather than where she lives.

To calibrate the brain, start with the Meyerhoff's rear gallery, where a cursory history of the 14 Karat Cabaret's history is installed. Black-and-white photocopied flyers against one wall capture the early days, where a flabbergastingly diverse roster of performers--bands (early '90s Baltimore art-damaged rock project Cloaca; superb pre-Riot Grrl all-gal Columbus, Ohio, trio Scrawl), performance art (Annie Sprinkle, Tim Miller's My Queer Body), film (Danny Mydlack), writers (Duplex Planet's David Greenberger), and, quite often, delicious amalgamations of all of the above (super heroine Jennifer Blowdryer)--while some full-color poster designs capture the Cabaret's more recent years (from 1999 into the current decade). In the back, the Cabaret's actual AIDS altar has been installed, the place where, in the early days, the fallen fabulous were honored--Charles Ludlam, Ethyl Eichelberger, Baltimore favorite daughter Cookie Mueller, Derek Jarman, Ricky Wilson--and, more recently, Cabaret friends/family who died of other causes have been duly honored (Peter Zahorecz, Dawn Culbertson). A video plays a loop of various Cabaret performances, along with some Martha Colburn animation.

This low-key gallery best represents the many, many, many concurrent creative energies that have run into Drogoul's artistic vocabulary: insouciant use of so-called low-tech tools, body transformative drag culture, underground theater's infectious spirit that anywhere can be a stage, downtown New York's 1980s performance zeal that freely blended not only the personal and the political, but the educational and the preposterous, subversively silly appropriations of pop idioms (music, film, television, etc.), and a mirthful energy that never wanted to let on where the art ended and so-called reality began. Drogoul's output easily straddles multiple genres and ideas, and how she so successfully interacts these worlds is what gives her works their philosophical edge.

Duly primed, take note of the exhibition's complimentary toy magnifying glasses--because Drogoul is as much of a taxonomist as she is a creator.

Where you go from here is entirely up to which part of the brain you want to titillate: sensory sensors, higher-level brain functions, the funny bone? Why not give all three a run in Drogoul's "Fugue Chamber for Amnesiacs"? This 1995-96 mixed-media installation features a circular hallway enclosing a small circular room. Hot-pink shag carpeting wallpapers the hallway, on which hang framed words offering benign advertisements-qua-psychobabble: pleasant, warm inside, subtle. An unseen soundsystem pipes in bubbly mix of ambient relaxation music, sort of what you imagine a shrink would have in the waiting room if he had to share office space with the National Aquarium. The enclosed small room offers two white seats, where you can take a load off, close your eyes, and be calmed by the soft, womb-like environs and tranquil sounds. When you open your eyes, you'll see the sage advice this chamber offers its visitors: nothing is more relaxing than being stupid.

Just around the corner stands Follies most remarked-upon piece, "Dolly." This 1997 mixed-media sculpture takes that paragon of creepy cute, the kewpie doll, and inflates its proportions, yielding something like a cross between a monumental sculpture and Godzilla. Its pink paper skin--sheets brandishing 1950s-ish advertising slogans such as "I can talk!" and "giggles and coos"--is illuminated from the inside, giving "Dolly" a rather eerie glow. An unseen speaker provides the gurgling, almost Regan MacNeil-maniacal laugh. Throw in the piece's name itself--either a child's cutesy slang for a doll or cheekily alluding to two females who share it: the country singer of comic-book pneumatic proportions and the late sheep who was the first mammal to be cloned--and "Dolly" becomes this constantly mutating cultural object, an unsettling mound of child-like naivete realized as the return of some Golem-like repressed id.

Such is the alluring alchemy of Drogoul's better works: a seductive surface that might playfully include imagery or ideas lifted from old sci-fi flicks and toys, an early vault of the comfortable familiar wrapping a troubling undertow that burrows into the very core of how humanity defines itself. And to get a hint of what Drogoul has to say about who we might be can be found in adjoining Decker Gallery, which includes a small array of the items Drogoul has collected over the years. These include photographs of road kill, catcher's masks, and figurines, and echoes of their visual qualities and architecture you can see in other aspects of her output. But the collecting impulse is also worth noting, as it informs her "Scentorium (Olfactory Factory)" and "Nipple Project." Each is an exercise in taxonomy--the former to collect scents and people's impressions of how smell defines where they live, the latter a project to design new areolae for the artist's reconstructed breasts following a late '90s double mastectomy. Both are extremely intimate concerns turned into social interactions--a person's most basic memories and the body--and both have produced fascinatingly plainspoken results, viewable in their online components (olfactoryfactory.org and cultofmarms.org/nipple/index.html).

But it's the vaguely scientific approach to both endeavors that's so interesting. Classifying items is an organizational method of discovery and learning, an attempt at understanding by breaking down recordable evidence. It's a search for meaning and how it's created. And in various ways, Drogoul's visual creations are theories in their own epistemological pursuit, places where what is true and what is believed condenses into what's socially accepted as knowledge.

Nowhere is such a rigorous pursuit--and Drogoul's work, despite its often cute patina, is extremely heady--more in evidence than in the video documentations of her performances on monitors that dot the Decker Gallery's walls. Whether Drogoul becomes a mono-breasted Miss Construct beating eggs with a modified sledgehammer and slicing butter with chainsaw or completely dismantling reproduction and gender conventions in 1996's "Workshop of Filthy Creation," these productions are arguments that articulate Drogoul's ideas about the body, contemporary thought, and so-called reality, ideas that change and morph in her work as the years go by. Drogoul's is a fascinatingly unique world--where, for instance, historical re-enactments are just as valid as history itself--and organically evolving world, one that can feel merely odd or weird after one encounter. And Follies offers that rare opportunity to try to get a handle on it for yourself.

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