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Nail contemplates the heady combination of beauty and danger
It is a rare and thrilling experience to feel an immediate physical response to an artwork, even if that response is disgust. Atlanta artist Bo Zhang can count herself lucky for inspiring such a visceral reaction, when so much art struggles to convey any sensation at all.
Like Jeffrey Beaumont's discovery of a solitary, hairy ear in a vacant lot at the beginning of Blue Velvet, body parts are not meant to separate from their moorings and when they do, the consequences are usually devastating. Even something as incidental as fingernail clippings or the shaving stubble that collects in a drain prompts revulsion at the body's bizarre operations as a growing, productive machine whose detritus remind us of biology's willful, stubborn, ceaseless ways.
Aptly and simply titled Nail, Bo Zhang's solo show at ArtSpot is an extended, often profitable exploration of what that simple body part can convey when mixed with the seltzers of culture, race and gender.
Zhang's nail sculptures operate on two levels — most immediately on a visceral one of revulsion at body fragments so realistically recreated in resin and fiberglass. Upon entering the gallery, two large fingernails — taller than any man — dangle from the ceiling, their scaly, grungy appearance when separated from the body convincingly crafted by Zhang.
"Earthy Fingernail #1" has the yellowed, translucent appearance of a molted snakeskin. Reasserting that serpent analogy, its posture is coiled on the floor and rises in a threatening pose to the ceiling, resembling a cobra about to strike. That suggestion of threat seems intentional in a show that often suggests the menace lurking beneath beauty.
But Zhang, who is Chinese, also aims for intellectual provocation in her two-pronged attack. On a wall facing those nail spirals are two sets of fingernails flanked by fabric banners silk-screened with vintage photographs. The images feature a Chinese woman with her own dagger-like nails set against a luxurious silk gown.
Seen through Western eyes, there is a taint of menace in these disembodied nails and the image of a stone-faced woman with killer claws. It is hard not to think of Sinophobic stereotypes of cinematic dragon ladies like Anna May Wong and pulp magazine villainesses, with their combination of vampy charms and scheming brutality. Zhang's show conjures up visions of Tokyo Rose and other ugly Asian caricatures of daggers hidden beneath come-hither smiles and silk gowns.
The mix of sensuality and menace proves an apt commentary on both the allure and the repulsion of the Other. Western culture, after all, has spent as much time eroticizing other cultures — black, Asian, German — as it has crafting them into nightmares in racism's weirdly sadomasochistic fantasy life.
Though Zhang's cultural commentary never quite hits the mark, she has begun to plumb rich territory in seeing the thin line that separates seduction and death in the potent icon of the dagger-length fingernail. It is in this strange collision of the feminine — and of beauty and threat — that Zhang's show becomes most beguiling. But a crucial focus is lost when the artist begins to weave masculinity and animals into the cultural stew.
A sense of threat is made far more obvious in the upstairs gallery where Zhang has arranged groupings of short, jagged, blade-like fingernails, which project from the wall like tusks or weapons and are flanked by more silk-screened images of coiled dragons bearing half-beast/half-human faces. These nails, with their clearer sense of menace, are a male call and response to the female claws on the first floor. Had Zhang perhaps left Nail at that — as an investigation of how differently threat is read when it comes from women as when it comes from men — the show might have proved more effective. But Zhang's work in Nail seems to be in the exploratory phase as she tries out various strategies and ends up treating more topics than she can persuasively connect.
On a low table, Zhang has arranged another grouping of clear and firetruck-red nails called "Cat Claws," which jut from a table also topped with a cloth banner bearing a red dragon. The tiny spires are remarkably similar to the mica-like texture of shed cat claws, but a cat clearly has none of the specifically Asian associations shared by the women and dragons that convey the ideas of ethnicity and threat.
Zhang returns to interesting forays into decoration and femininity in "Fingernail with Landscape," a flat nail disc with a characteristically Chinese scene of weeping willows painted on it in muted pinks, reds and browns. Like a piece of delicate porcelain decorated with some quaint, unthreatening idyll, the work suggests ample potential for investigation of how decorative objects can allow us to embrace a culture we might otherwise fear.