Hartford Courant Lifestyle

October 18th, 2005
From Chocolate To Mascara, Artists Use Various Media To Create Intimate Imagery
It Was Only A Kiss … Or Was It?


Alfred Eisenstaedt’s photograph of a sailor smooching a nurse in Times Square on VJ Day, as well as sculptural kisses by Rodin and Brancusi, are iconic.

The kiss – simple, direct and unadorned – has been a subject of Western art since the ancient Egyptians. Yet it’s the kiss as metaphor that appears on feisty display at the University of Connecticut’s Contemporary Art Galleries. 

The fall exhibition “When a Kiss Isn’t Just a Kiss,” on view through Oct. 28, gathers the work of 18 artists, among them, Roy Lichtenstein and Andy Warhol and such current names as Janine Antoni, Mark Chamberlain, Patty Chang, Lyle Ashton Harris, Nikki S. Lee, Jennifer and Kevin McCoy, Vik Muniz and Bruce Pearson. 

The show demonstrates the many ways the subject can be handled. Film, print – even chocolate and mascara – are among the media. The art touches on gender, AIDS, appropriation and President Bush. The purely romantic, traditional kiss also has a turn, although from an unlikely source.

“The issues in the show are a reflection of what’s happening in our society,” says Barry A. Rosenberg, the exhibit’s curator. “Artists mirror. Sort of in the same way as the coal miner’s canary, they’re sensitive to things around us.” 

Rosenberg, who fancies his gallery as a classroom for the university community as well as the public, has taken on corporate scandal, Freudian analysis and male body image in past shows. He is former director of the Aldrich Museum of Contemporary Art in Ridgefield and director of visual arts at Real Art Ways. This is his third year at UConn.

For “The Kiss,” the gallery’s walls are painted a hot pink and filled with plasma TV screens, picture frames and other projection devices. Against one wall, a self-described “portable sculptural viewing station” by the McCoys uses William Hurt and Kathleen Turner’s kiss from the 1982 film “Body Heat.” Continuously replaying and seen out of context, the kiss develops a life of its own.

The plaster sculpture “Kissing George Bush” dominates one section of the art space with the monumentality of a Daniel Chester French sculpture. The artist Rachel Mason is sucking face with the president. The wall label includes this explanation by Mason: “[George Bush] is a wildly passionate man who consumes my will. My love for him is deep and frightening. The more he hurts me the more I love him. …”

“Kissing Doesn’t Kill: Greed and Indifference Do” is the message of a video segment by Gray Fury. Commissioned by ABC, the safe-sex infomercial with its kissing couples of various genders and races was deemed too controversial by the network and never broadcast. 

Gender and identity issues also are explored by performance artists Janine Antoni and Nikki S. Lee. Lee, who assumes different personas and then takes snapshots of herself, is here as a lesbian with nose-ring, passionately kissing another woman. 

Antoni is represented by two works. “Mortar and Pestle” is a digital photograph of her tongue thrust into the eyeball of her artist husband. “I wanted to know the taste of his vision,” she writes. 

“Butterfly Kisses” is mascara on paper, the result of the artist applying Covergirl Thick Lash Mascara on her eyelashes and winking directly on the page. “On the page, I wink my eyes. On the right side is my right eye, on the left is my left eye. Each side has 1,254 winks,” she writes. A commentary on the obsessive stereotypical routines of women, the drawing has a peculiar elegance, evocative of Chinese landscape painting.

In Ruiz’s photograph “The Kiss,” the artist re-creates Rodin’s sculpture of the same name but uses chocolate. The artist then records the replica in a photograph before it melts. 

Mark Chamberlain’s use of appropriation has been controversial. In August, his homoerotic watercolors of Batman and Robin were on display in a New York gallery. DC Comics demanded their removal, citing copyright infringement. A couple of Chamberlain’s provocative pictures are included in this exhibition, one with Robin imploring his superhero pal: “Kiss me as if it were the last time.” 

Bruce Pearson’s graphical image of a kiss with its blown-up red, yellow and purple dots is part Op Art, part abstraction. Fittingly, it’s next to a Lichtenstein. In another example of appropriation, Rosenberg has on the other side of the Lichtenstein a cut-out from a recent New York Times magazine, obviously influenced by the pop artist.

Warhol’s early tender etching of a kiss between a man and woman might seem the most shocking just because it’s the most traditional. For the show, Rosenberg says he tried to find other conventional representations of kisses, such as between parents and children. 

Yet in the politically charged world of contemporary art, they were hard to find.

“There’s usually a political message because the artists are dealing with issues in their own lives,” he says. “What I try to do is create an art space that has a lot of possibilities. But I’m not telling visitors the answer.”

“When a Kiss Isn’t Just a Kiss” is on view through Oct. 28 at the University of Connecticut’s Contemporary Art Galleries, Fine Arts Building, first floor, 830 Bolton Road, Storrs. Hours are Monday through Friday, 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.; and Saturday., noon to 4 p.m. Admission is free. Information: 860-486-1511