With his well-publicized recent powwow with Hamas in Syria Jimmy Carter may have been attempting to maintain his position as the most incendiary rabble-rouser in his family, but the former president’s granddaughter, Sarah Chuldenko, is not going down without a fight.
Instead, she sees her grandfather’s goofy-smiled “>carousing with terrorists and parries back with a small solo exhibit of paintings at Fake Estate in Manhattan entitled Casualties of Beauty, described in an accompanying press release as a “provocative collision of buoyant breasts, carnivorous plants, topographic flesh, oil slicks, and roadside IEDs” which “simultaneously depict phoenix totems of creation and destruction with a hint of irony.”
Setting aside whether a collision of breasts, topographic flesh, and IEDs can ever be anything but provocative, as well as ignoring what will surely be the most contentious parsing of “irony” since the grammar police took on Alanis Morissette back in 1995, I recently made my way to a large complex in Chelsea to examine these Casualties for myself.
The Fake Estate is housed in a former utility closet, which meant that there was only room for four casualties/paintings, and also that I spent much of my time balancing claustrophobia with an irrational fear of an angry janitor showing up and demanding to know what I was doing in his closet with all these pictures of breasts. Nevertheless, even from the limited sample it is clear Chuldenko’s work has improved substantially since John Simon critiqued her illustrations for Jimmy Carter’s (“plain as Plains, Georgia”) Always A Reckoning and Other Poems as “two steps above stick figures” a dozen years ago. “It is good to know that not only talent but also its opposite can be inherited and published,” Simon wrote then, seeking a silver lining. “It widens the field.”
If not banished, Chuldenko’s stick figures are at least on vacation these days. The first of her Casualties of Beauty paintings looks like what silicon breast implants probably see when they dream of Heaven: Large, unwieldy piles of breasts, painted to suggest the consistency of plastic grocery bags filled with Cool Whip, slide on and off of one another in a world of their own kind, unsure what to do with the free will that comes with jettisoning the body. “The imagery, while loaded, does not intend to correlate with specific incidents or events,” the helpful accompanying Fake Estate statement related, “nor does it seek to convey a specific political message.”
This mammary dump, in other words, had nothing specific to teach me. I moved on to the second painting, a darker piece with smoke rising from the promised IEDs, charcoal toward the bottom, flesh toned as it rises from the solid black blotch “oil slicks.” A fading Arabian city block provides a gritty backdrop for good measure. The release coos: “It’s a meditation on the state of the world from a distance, filtered through the artist’s own imagination and images she absorbs from the media,” but leaves you wondering exactly which strange satellite channels she’s “absorbing” this bizarre bonanza from. South American soap operas crossed with Amy Goodman’s Democracy Now! perhaps?
The third painting, “Love and Rockets,” was a more complete amalgam of the previous two — jaunty liberated floating breasts, smoke, fire — combined with less predictable elements such as…corn stalks and orchids. There is a method, however, to the madness of this “polymorphic mass.” It is, we are told, “like a black tornado…in a state perpetual flux, spurning debris, and constantly feeding off of itself.” The breasts, it seems, feed bovine-like on corn, even as the corn plants its orchid garden in the doughy, fertile topsoil provided by mammary storm debris. This all makes more sense when one arrives at the final painting of Casualties of Beauty, wherein several Venus flytraps grow out of a bed of breasts while what appears to be — please, Lord, don’t let this be a Freudian slip — a giant penis leans languidly against a building. Fire, of course, burns in the distance, and the penis’s cavalier attitude toward the mini-apocalypse is disturbing on several levels.
Or perhaps it is ironic? Who can really know? The task of the artist, much like that of the ex-president endlessly striving to prove post-White House relevance, is to be provocative by any means necessary — whether via a black tornado of breasts and orchids, or cheap, easy allusions to Improvised Explosive Devices or a Venus flytrap farming penis. These are the phoenix totems of creation and destruction, one presumes, with a hint of irony. Get hip to it.
On my way out, the woman watching the Fake Estate door looks up from her book briefly and nods at me to take few free postcards advertising the show. On the front, two giant breasts float in a cloud of black smoke, the nipple-like porthole of a giant flesh spaceship. It’s the kind of imagery her grandfather’s rather stern Muslim friends in the Middle East typically frown upon, but I take one to be polite.
Don’t expect Grandpa Jimmy to relinquish his nettlesome crown just yet, though. He may not be the skillful, feisty artist his granddaughter is, but his reach and influence are obviously much greater. “We joke because he sold his last painting for $150,000,” Chuldenko ” told New York magazine. “He’s like, ‘How much do you sell yours for?’ And I’m like, ‘Nothing.’”
Thus, the world’s foremost expert on giant, free-floating boobs maintains his dominance.
— Shawn Macomber is a contributing editor for The American Spectator.