The world lacks not for shitty artists. But it's rare to find artists who actually use excrement as part of their palette. With the elephant dung Sensation controversy freshly smeared across the media, it seems a good time to take a survey of the noteworthy purveyors of this most organic of art materials.
On my visit to the Sensation exhibit of young British artists at the Brooklyn Museum, a cordoned-off group of Christian protesters were biliously intoning about Jesus over a bullhorn in front of the building, as their 1-800-345-MARY banner flapped in the breeze. It was Chris Ofili's painting The Holy Virgin Mary that was stirring up the shit, so to speak. But before viewing that, I caught wind of Ofili's Afrobluff, a resplendent abstraction of elephant dung on linen, decoratively splattered with map pins and black and white dots. The robust clumps of dung, coated in resin, packed a powerful wallop, almost as if the elephant had eliminated right over the painting. Mary, on the other hand, protected by a wall of Plexiglass and a bored gum-chewing security guard, came off a bit flat. But the crowd was acting like it was the Mona Lisa, pressing in to get a closer look at what turned out to be a rather cartoonish image of a black woman, whose left breast was composed of an elephant's stool. Festooned with little porno cutouts, the painting sat on two sturdy clumps of dung, one labeled "Virgin," the other "Mary."
Ofili -- said to use elephant dung as a link to his African heritage -- has become The Goose That Laid the Golden Turd. It was reported that his recent solo show of five new paintings at a Manhattan gallery briskly sold out at $50,000 each.
But we must give credit to the conceptual artist Piero Manzoni for transmuting shit into gold nearly forty years ago. In 1961 he canned his own feces in 30-gram tins and labeled them "Merda d'artista" (artist's shit). The Italian artist, whose life came to an end two years later at the age of 29, made an edition of ninety pieces. As a critique of the art market, the cans were sold at the current price of gold. Ironically, Manzoni's art prank has risen in value over the years. At a Sotheby's auction in 1991, one of the cans sold for a m'mmm good $67,000. Apparently, like fine wine, shit ages well.
Next in our excremental annals comes Anton Henning, a German who proudly exhibited a painting made with his own feces at the Frankfurt Museum of Modern Art. The abstract canvas, said to be pleasing to the eye, is composed of brown egg-like shapes circled by white lines. Henning, who coated his shit with resin to alleviate the smell, told the German tabloid Bild:"It was created in 1995 after I enjoyed a meal of Koenigsberg dumplings, mustard gherkins, beetroot, potatoes, watermelon and lemon juice, Rheingau riesling wine and a big brownie."The painting's title? Meatballs, Gherkins, Beetroot, Potatoes, Watermelon, Lemon Juice, Riesling, and Large Brownie.
Giving Freudian theorists a shove off the toilet seat, Los Angeles artist Keith Boadwee is what we might call an "anal explosive" personality. While not strictly working with fecal matter, his stellar use of the anus as a painting tool qualifies him for this survey. Fueled by egg tempura paint enemas, Boadwee squatted over fifty canvases. His expulsions were shown in 1995 at Ace Contemporary Exhibitions in L.A., along with a video documenting the process. "I wanted to prove that I can make just as good a painting (as the abstract expressionists can) with my butthole," Boadwee told Buzz magazine. Not surprisingly, he's also created art coming out the other end: colorful vomit abstractions via his patented projectile puking process.
Our last inductee on the shit list is G.G. Allin, the vile punk rocker whose lurid antics certainly place him in a league of his own, beyond all the shock value performance artists. Allin, who died from a heroin overdose in '93, often took laxatives before shows so he could produce a stream of diarrhea on stage, which he would lap up and then spit out into the audience between yelps of his rancid, hateful lyrics. A shitty time, no doubt, for one and all.
Lex Lonehood lives in New York and writes for Citytripping.com and Art Bell's After Dark.