The Macabre Beauty of Ari Richter's Skin Art

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The most surprising aspect of Ari Richter's skin art -- aside from its unorthodox canvas, of course -- is its unexpected beauty. Richter guided me last Thursday through the white drywall maze of CentralTrak to his summer studio, where he was putting the finishing touches on what will open on Saturday evening as The Skin I Live In, an exhibition composed of pigmented human skin on glass, "tails" meticulously constructed from an amalgamation of collected hair and delicate curving sculptures built from the artist's own crescentic finger- and toenails.

Beauty, one might rightly advise, resides the eye of the beholder. Last week, we showed you a few of Richter's designs.Trust me on this one -- the photos don't do them justice.

In person, Richter's "disembodied tattoos" are ... pretty. A simplistic descriptor, but a sufficient one, no less. They are bright blue and red with bold black outlines, which -- as Richter himself noted -- have a certain translucent quality reminiscent of stained glass. From the initial photos, I was intrigued. Curious. But not expecting beauty. After all, what kind of person anxiously culls a daily, if limited, supply of skin from his own inner cheek, only to mount it and manipulate it into shapes of Freddy Kruger and Leatherface?

As Richter tells it, that was CentralTrak director Heyd Fontenot's gut reaction as well during early correspondence regarding Richter's residency. Despite the fact that CentralTrak is, perhaps, an unorthodox home, it is a home, no less. Would the new family member be hiding a few ... skeletons in his closet, among his drawings (literally) made of pubic hair?

In reality, at least from our brief meeting, Richter is funny and personable, if a bit jittery at times. (Though the fact that he'd been traveling and was still rolling his suitcase in from his trip might have tipped the scales on that front). As he graciously led me through his studio -- a Woody Allen book on his coffee table, cigarette lighter on the bar -- he showed me the odd and astonishing pieces that will make up CentralTrak's next exceedingly unusual exhibition.

As one should by now understand, The Skin I Live In explores the body and compulsion in a "tongue-in-cheek" manner, if you will, which Richter describes as "anxiety made form" reworked and reevaluated into a transformative beauty. It takes the profane, the anti-sacred and anti-divine -- the literal essence of humanity -- and subverts the idea that art seeks to represent (or manifest) perfection. Sometimes it is imperfection that is most informative of human experience.

But that is not to suggest that Richter's collection is abstruse to the point of inaccessibility. Many of us, even if we are not "super cool" as the artist puts it, are fascinated by body art, at least in the form of literal tattoos. Richter's skin art -- and his hair and nail art to a certain degree -- draw from rich and amusing pop cultural references that are, on one level, absurd just for the sake of fun. His favorite piece at the moment (probably because it was most recently finished)? A rendition of Regan MacNeil from The Exorcist with the words "Eat Me" etched across a comic word balloon. That sums it up.

Join Richter and the CentralTrak crew for an opening reception on August 25 from 8:00 to 10:00 p.m. at 800 Exposition. More information here.

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