Pete Hickok’s Baroque Kitsch

The products of the artist's six-month residency suggest a yearning to harness visual pleasure and lurid stimulation of many sorts

Backwash: The title says it all. As the part of a draft that intermingles with saliva and then regrettably, inevitably returns to its container, “backwash” is an object of fascination couched in disgust — or is it the other way around? — for young boys. So it is with the objects on display in Pete Hickok’s exhibition culminating a six-month residency at Aggregate Space: a collection of repellent yet fascinating items, cobbled together with distinctly adolescent glee.

This particular menagerie includes, among other things, an aquarium inhabited by a vibrating, dolphin-shaped cock ring and accompanied by a soundtrack of dolphin cries; three sculptures consisting of jumbled mannequin body parts and household materials splattered with lurid paint; and a finger resembling a coiled turd, flaunting a gaudy acrylic nail. It could be described as “baroque kitsch.” It is enough to send some viewers running, noses pinched.

To be sure, some of these ideas have all the artistic depth of a gag or a one-liner (which is not to say “none,” mind you). For example, take “I Wish This Night Would Never End,” a skull accoutered with clip-on eyelashes, encased in a vitrine: amusing, but after a six-month residency, maybe not the caliber of work you’d expect to make the final cut.

Other works, however, hint at something more adult. Against the gallery’s far wall Hickok places a glass chamber filled with curling smoke, illuminated by a purple fluorescent tube within. A hose inside intermittently replenishes the vapor — sometimes excessively, causing wisps to seep out from under the lid. While still very sensuous, it is one of the less ornate contraptions on display. Thus stripped of distractions and shock-value bait, it succeeds in exposing an artistic motivation that, in fact, pervades the whole show: to control — control the flow of visual pleasure, of sexuality, perhaps even of spirituality. Hickok has suggested that underlying this motivation is anxiety: “At the heart of my practice is the use of control to mitigate the fear of the unconscious and the influence it exerts over our decision-making processes,” he told ArtSlant last year.

Hickok offers another environment of total (or near-total) control in this exhibition: a video piece consisting of a string of wordless, oneiric vignettes. In some, we see the artist’s hand manipulating small objects, like the dolphin sex toy introduced in the aquarium piece. If the aquarium/headset was an attempt to situate this provocative item in a controlled environment, video takes the effort a step further: Here, visual viewpoint, variable lighting, multiple audio tracks, and post-production effects are all under the artist’s control. For all Hickok’s delight in materials, perhaps the domain of the moving image is where he ought to be.

Backwash runs through February 2 at Aggregate Space (801 West Grand Ave., Oakland).


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