Unflinching examination

Ryan Wenzel

With the summer festival season in full swing, there’s plenty for kids to do. Fair-going children can enjoy cotton candy, game booths and, perhaps the most innocent of carnival attractions, pony rides.

Visitors to the Museum of Contemporary Art, 220 E. Chicago Ave., will also find the familiar pony ride turnstile.

But this one isn’t for kids. The suspended steel cross, decorated with foam animal parts and a video screen showing a fox being skinned, is artist Bruce Nauman’s “Hanging Carousel (George Skins a Fox).”

The MCA combined Nauman’s piece with others to form “Trials and Terrors,” an exhibit that uses photographs, paintings, sculptures and large-scale installations to explore sinister phenomena and transformation through hardship. The exhibit opened July 23 and runs until Sept. 25.

MCA associate curator Dominic Molon, who organized the exhibit, said he chose the themes of hardship and terror to make use of the museum’s collections.

“Our collection doesn’t really effectively tell the story of art since 1945,” he said. “One of the better ways we can work with our collections is to use them thematically.”

But Molon admitted that his own artistic interests influenced the exhibit’s direction, as well.

“I tend to be inclined toward things that are darker or have an existential sensibility,” he said.

The first work visitors see is American artist Mike Kelley’s “Craft Morphology Flow Chart,” which deals with the loss of childhood. In the piece, 114 dolls and stuffed toys are rigidly aligned on cafeteria tables. Sixty black-and-white gelatin screen prints of toy animals next to wooden rulers hang on the surrounding walls.

“These are objects a lot of love and care went into,” Molon said. “He arranges them in a very detached, clinical way, like an archeological find. I think of it as mass morgue.”

Some of the exhibit’s pieces explore tensions and problems of American history. Cady Noland’s sculpture “Chainsaw Cut Cowboy Head” shows an archetypal cowboy, but with holes in right eye, left ear and teeth. A box of Marlboro cigarettes hangs off the sculpture, criticizing the cowboy’s negative role in mass media.

“The cowboy often stands for America’s presence within the global scene,” Molon said. “And the president is from Texas.”

Other elements of “Trials and Terrors” deal with more specific aspects of history. Kara Walker’s ironic “Presenting Negro Scenes Drawn Upon My Passage through the South” confronts black stereotypes from the time of slavery with black silhouette figures. One female form is shown having sex with a horse, and another appears to be defecating on a dung heap.

“Walker’s presence within the African-American community is often very divisive,” Molon said. “Some people think the imagery should be more positive, but others feel that it’s important to keep revisiting this history.”

British artist Gillian Wearing explores tensions within families in her photograph “Self-Portrait as My Mother, Jean Gregory.” In the larger-than-life, black-and-white photograph Wearing dons a wax mask and a wig to recreate a preexisting photograph of her mother.

“She’s interested in the fusion of personality with family members and does it in an unsettling manner,” Molon said. “Her masks always have a creepy nature.”

Chicago native Jenny Johnson said she found the exhibit “weird and abstract” overall, but that she easily related to parts of it. She said the piece that touched her most was Wearing’s self-portrait as her mother.

“I related to it because I’m turning into my mother and my father both,” she said.

But Brian Riggenbach of Chicago said the exhibit was poignant and emotional. Riggenbach said he was most struck by Walker’s “Negro Scenes” because of its daring approach.

“It’s humiliating, but in a good way,” he said.

Reach Ryan Wenzel at [email protected].