I've never seen so many uncomfortable people in an art gallery on a Saturday night. RO2 Art's display of Joachim West's Mother Earth Is a Dirty Whore had people crowding around his drawings, pointing at penises and asking questions like, "Is that her ass?" or "He's licking her where?" Some onlookers were looking for the cleanest looking person in each piece to exclaim, "That looks like us." But if they'd looked even closer, they'd see even the smiling couple in the corner of "It's Just Business" wore shit-eating grins -- the man's name tag reading "Hello, My name is Satan." But there really is no way to misunderstand West's work, he's not obscuring rosy messages in grotesque images. His shadowy depictions of the world's seedy underbelly are lucid portrayals of the abject nature of living. And while you might hold the nose of your mind to keep it from seeping in or peek through your fingers at much of it, you'll likely find yourself sucked in like the rest of us, seeking out fellow gallery visitors to process, as one onlooker put it, "this crazy, fucked up shit."
West's grotesque art elicits reactions of disgust, performative utterances signaling to anyone proximate that you don't approve of the precarious scene or scenario. That large dick spiraling from the bowels of a man into and around a McDonald's? Yeah, you're not into that, you want people to know, as you take a step closer.
The immediacy of a viewer's gut reaction isn't accidental. You've been through years of training to get that way. It's how we organize the world, there are insiders and there are outsiders. But what West illuminates in his graphite drawings -- his black and white monuments to savagery -- isn't the dark side of the world. Nope, what he's drawing are the systems we debase ourselves for on a regular basis. The darkness of the things we accept. Which, if you're willing to see it, makes your gut reaction hilarious. One piece, filled with violence and macho posturing, West describes as a depiction of the art world. But within his explanation hundreds of smaller narratives pop up, stories you were building anyway about why she's on her knees, or why he's gnawing on the other guy's ankle.
What's difficult to reconcile is how to walk away from West's drawings, not simply because there's so much to see, but because they weigh on you -- they become personal. You see infants suckling milk from a metal spout, while a milk jugged woman rides the cow, and wonder who am I in this gallery? Which image do I belong to and how can I live with myself there? Not every piece will make you queasy or overrun you with self doubt, and maybe none of them will. Maybe you'll walk away with your own shit-eating grin because West drew an array of black and white dicks for your viewing pleasure. I kind of doubt that will be you though. You'll be standing with me in the corner of the room in a state of beautiful self-loathing. Beautiful because it's honest, and because a few pieces of art containing people on whom you look down just became about you, and now you're the one who has to change.
See Mother Earth Is a Dirty Whore at RO2 Art, 110 N. Akard, through Feb. 1, 2015. More information at ro2art.com.