Art of the Repulsive
Acclaimed Digital Sculptor John Slepianto Debut at New York 's P.S.1 Art Show
By Joshua Kors
Anyone who walked down San Jose's South First Street this spring is no doubt familiar with John Slepian's penis.
Eight feet tall, flaccid and prone to snoring, Slepian's highly provocative computer creation stood in the window of the San Jose Institute of Contemporary Art every night, from March to May, its head hung in noisy slumber. It didn't matter whether you were a grandma or club hound, priest or pornographer — walk past its window, and the phallus awoke for you. With a startled grunt it would lift its head and look in your direction, following your movement, maintaining eye contact (so to speak) with the use of motion-tracking equipment.
Oh the stir that it made.
“I was flooded with emails and phone calls,” said Cathy Kimball, director of the of the art institute. Some were delighted by Slepian's theSpectator 2.0, others sickened. One pedestrian was so disgusted, he spit on the window, then returned on successive days to repeat his display of displeasure.
“We had to clean the spit off the window,” said Kimball, “but you know what? That's fine with me. I'd rather have people reacting in some demonstrative way.”
Generating reactions has never been a problem for Slepian. The 38-year-old ex-advertising executive ventured into the art world less than three years ago and has already earned the respect of top curators and critics.
“He seems to be using digital media to invent other forms of being, alien life forms,” said Kenneth Baker, longtime art critic for the San Francisco Chronicle. “They're repulsive-looking things. But they're not just grotesque — they're grotesquely funny.”
“His work is unmistakable,” said Baker. “I've never seen anything like it.”
It's that imprint of originality that has catapulted Slepian from a 2002 graduate of the San Francisco Art Institute to a respected figure on the verge of national renown: This June Slepian became one of only seven artists in the nation selected for a residency at New York's P.S.1 Contemporary Art Center, one of the most venerated modern art facility in America.
Museum coordinator Rachel Zur explained that a jury of six reviewed Slepian's work and found it highly compelling. Beyond that, however, Zur said the art speaks for itself and that her museum routinely refuses to offer comments on its artists' work.
What P.S.1 has offered Slepian is a rent-free studio in lower Manhattan . He has also been granted a coveted spot in the gallery's art show this April, when New Yorkers will get their first taste of his fanciful creatures.
Sitting at his Macintosh Thursday, in a Manhattan art studio whose walls are void of art, Slepian was already hard at work at creating those creatures. As a mist from the broken radiator blew past his minimalist goatee, he clicked his mouse and gave a tour of his previous creations. It was like perusing a freak show: There was theSpectator 2.0, with its veiny testicular base; Digital Forms 1-5, which look distinctly like they should be flushed; and Incommunicate, which one critic called “a plucked chicken with an anus for a mouth.”
In a video clip, Slepian showed how the anus-mouth moans and how the being's like-bodied friend moans back.
Theories abound on what all this means.
“I think the sense of the work is to convey the eeriness of the world we see today,” said Doug Hall, who taught Slepian in four graduate seminars at the San Francisco Art Institute. “These blobs have personality. We recognize a bit of ourselves in them.” In that sense, said Hall, Slepian's work comments on the human body, making common genitals appear bizarre, turning the growth of human hair into a repulsive event.
Slepian's wife Stacey has a slightly different take.
“I think what he tries to do is make people question their preconceptions — from what makes something cute to what makes something human,” she said. “What is the smallest possible interaction that will elicit (a loving reaction).” One of his pieces, she recalled, was “a fleshy blob that looked like a tumor, but people reacted to it because it made baby talk.”
Unlike many artists who play coy when asked the meaning and inspiration of their works, Slepian is quite philosophical about his art. He has done a lot of thinking about where in the recesses of his mind these beings were generated. Ultimately, he traces them back to his childhood, growing up in Philadelphia.
The artist's parents split up when he was six, sending Slepian shuttling back and forth from the city, where his father lived, to the suburb of Broomall, where his mother had moved. Slepian was an only child until, at the age of 13, his mother adopted three children from the Philippines .
Those early years of loneliness, he said, were a formative influence on works like the human-sized phallus, theSpectator 2.0.
“I couldn't help but laugh to myself that I was creating a person to talk to. It's a silly and facetious thing to say, but I think on a deeper level, it's true,” Slepian said. “I spent too much time sitting around thinking about things, thinking about what it means to communicate with people.”
After graduating from the Philadelphia High School for the Performing Arts, Slepian was planning on communicating with the world through music. The artist rocked hard, as a lead singer and guitarist in a variety of bands he labeled “post-punk.” Whatever they were, critics and fans loved them: One of Slepian's bands was soon invited to open for hard-rockers Bauhaus; Slepian himself was voted “Best-Dressed Rock Star” by a local Philadelphia paper.
But after rising to near-rock star heights, the artist's interest in music began to fade. Slepian moved into TV production, landing a directing job at the cable network Comedy Central. There he helped craft shows like “Short Attention Span Theater,” the popular strand of stand-up comedy clips.
Slepian now jokes that the network paid him “a good bit of money” to count backwards from five and yell “Action.” The challenge was gone. Slepian moved on to Farago Ad Agency, where he was supposed to do web design.
The artist's wife, who also worked at the agency, said what Slepian actually ended up doing was maid work and personal technical support. “They had him cleaning lint out of people's keyboards and helping people with email,” she said. “He walked around with a lumpy, bald head, looking mean.”
At last, when Slepian could do lint-removal no more, he fled to the San Francisco Art Institute, where his visual talents began to bloom. His fresh twists on common art exercises soon earned him the respect of the experienced artistic staff.
“He pursues ambitious and humorous agendas in his work,” said Professor Hall. “What he does, he pulls the rug out from under your expectations. He makes the human body look strange. And I'm for anyone who makes the world strange.”
As a teacher, Hall said, he was intrigued by Slepian's seriousness. The professor contrasted Slepian with other students who faked their way through school, who got by as “posers.” “With John,” Hall said, “I always felt I was interacting with a colleague, not a student.”
Slepian's work soon got accepted into a small art exhibit in San Francisco put on by gallery owner Marcia Tanner. The Refusalon show resulted in two big breaks for Slepian.
First, the exhibit was covered in depth by the San Francisco Chronicle. Chronicle art critic Baker blasted the show as outdated and uninspired. But he singled out one of Slepian's entries, “Incommunicate,” for its demonstration of “the creepiness of life as we already fear to know it.”
Perhaps even more important for Slepian, Kimball of the San Jose gallery noticed the 1.0 version of Slepian's spectating phallus and became instantly intrigued. At that time the piece was on a flat-panel screen on a long metal stand, much like an ATM machine.
“I talked to John and kind of challenged him,” the museum director said. “I wanted him to make the creature eight feet high by six feet wide, enough to fill my window. I wanted him to move the piece into the real world, where people in the dark walking down the street could hear its groaning and heaving breathing.” Eventually, through a digital projector and an eight-foot-tall translucent sheet, Slepian's phallus was moved into the front window of Kimball's gallery.
At that point, it was only a matter of time before Slepian's art seized significant public attention.
Kimball said she will never forget the day a mother walked past the museum with her young daughter in hand when, suddenly, the daughter became ensnared in the gaze of Slepian's plump penis.
“The daughter was walking by and said, ‘Mommy, what's that?'” remembered Kimball with a chuckle. “The mother said, ‘It's a turnip. Now keep walking.'”
Such viewer distress hasn't been limited to prudish, overprotective mothers — or to Slepian's theSpectator 2.0. Slepian's online art also draws a stream of repulsed responses from a wide variety of audiences. Most notably controversial of the pieces available on Slepian's website, www.johnslep.net, is a Web work called growth 1.0b. The piece is a fleshy, pimple-tinged computer-generated square that pulses and grows hair over six weeks, the usual period, Slepian explained, between human haircuts. During that time viewers can check growth 1.0b to see how its hair is coming in.
At six weeks it is shaved. Then the pulsing, acne-affected skin begins to grow digital hair anew.
A pleased audience or no, Slepian sees making his signature fleshy, pimple- and hair-sprouting blobs as his task in the coming months.
“I'm sure at one point I'll run out of blobs,” said Slepian. But, he said, he's not at that point yet. And he doesn't expect to be in the foreseeable future.
Today he is hard at work at making yet another blob-like figure, essentially a 3.0 version of his San Jose phallic figure for the P.S.1 show in April. The new version would not only recognize your presence and maintain eye contact. It would also talk to you, in gibberish, once you talk to it.