“Medicine & Mortality” at Burlington’s Firehouse Gallery is a wonderland of the visceral and grotesque, with a particular bent towards pigmented wax and “medical detritus.” The show’s stated intention is to consider “medical technology’s capacity to modify, preserve and extend life” and our lagging “psychological ability to integrate these advances.” However, it seems more a sensitive critique of medical detachment and its corollary in the physical experience of our own bodies.
Entering the gallery from Church Street, Sasanqua Link’s works in wax, tile and chrome command attention. They have scientific two-word names, such as “Spinal Stele.” In that piece, a wax serving-platter-like object has a subtly protruding spine in its center. The object hangs from a towel bar in a narrow, bathroom-like installation consisting of a narrow floor and wall covered in white ceramic tile. The wax plate suggests the softness of skin; its sensitivity and naked vulnerability. On the other hand, it’s kind of creepy in a Madame Toussaud way.
In Link’s “Corporeal Observatory,” a huge wax egg is fitted with internal gloves and an industrial looking “window” where one could presumably watch the manipulations taking place within. It has the effect of a morbid peep show, yet the work is also womb like, suggesting sci-fi-worthy advances in prenatal medical technology.
Nathaniel Price’s works speak poetically to the conflict between medical detachment and personal physicality. In “Another Matter Redux II,” he has written the scientific names of every human body part in very small, slanted print that collectively forms the shape of a man. The words seem to wrap the figure like a mummy. The man is more than the sum of his (many) parts, yet physically he is, in fact, the sum of those parts.
Price was recently a resident in internal medicine at UVM/FAHC, and his works straddle the personal and the medical. He seems suspicious of the sterile, detached science of healing while also relishing its potential to preserve life. In a cast bust made of a plaster-like substance called Hydrostone, a larger-than-human-scale head seems to groan with anguish. Brows heavy and mouth half open, the head turns slightly upward, with pieces cracked or fallen away, the nose broken but pasted in place. Certain fragments of the head are labeled with letters. The figure intersects humanity and science —simultaneously a person and a medical subject.
Linda E. Jones’ works take “visceral” up a notch, using actual “medical detritus” such as contact lenses, medical tubing, hair, stitches, etc. in her paintings. Creamy layers of pigmented wax obscure and magnify these relics and render them ghoulish. In her major work near the back door of the gallery, Jones suspends a huge, circular canvas across the wall with medical tubing. The canvas is energetically painted with traditional media but also includes hair and medical tubing. X-rayed bones glow eerily through large holes cut in the canvas. Observing the nuts and bolts of another person’s body can feel voyeuristic. Jones’ works offer starkly intimate information, but these bare medical facts seem to draw a physical separation between artist and viewer rather than connect them. Despite the psychological and emotional empathy evoked by this evidence of suffering, these IV tubes and stitches elicit more queasiness than compassion.
Beneath the medical tubing and the wax spines, the lettered vertebrae and the rubbery eggs, “Medicine & Mortality” is about the perilous relationship between medicine — as a science and industry — and the felt physicality of individuals. Medicine can relieve suffering and save lives, and it can reduce human beings to a series of tests, diagnoses and procedures. We are not just flesh and bone! the show seems to cry, and yet we are flesh and bone. “Medicine & Mortality” won’t necessarily give you something to write your congressmen — or your doctors — about, but it will make you think. And maybe feel a little sick.