Molly Lowe and Molly Surno’s Sense of Sight

Sight might be the most basic of the five senses, but it also might be the most stimulating, and at SoHo’s Suzanne Geiss Company, the act of looking itself is on display with two exhibitions now on view from New York-based artist Molly Lowe and L.A.’s Molly Surno. The two women, as it turns out, not only are friends, but also share an interest in the multiplicitous dynamics of viewership. “They complement one another as both artists toying with the dynamics of gaze,” gallery founder Suzanne Geiss says of the curatorial choice behind showing Surno and Lowe concurrently. “Specifically by challenging the viewer’s role as both a voyeur and an active participant.”

Lowe, for her first solo show in New York, continues her ongoing exploration of the body with “Sorry, Excuse Me, Thank You,” an interactive installation that dissects the rituals of public etiquette and the charged area between personal and public space, situated within the context of a crowded New York subway car. “I’m always staring at people, trying to sort of avoid them at the same time. I’m not repelled, but you’ve got to navigate through,” Lowe says of the impetus of the work, stemming from her experience as a regular subway rider. Evoking the experience of alienation in the subway, or negotiating one’s way through an obstacle course, Lowe suspended a hundred soft sculptures, creating a dangling mass in the gallery’s main space. Constructed as amorphous blobs, the flesh-colored abstracted body parts are stripped of any defining human identity, save for “orgiastic” gestural painting resembling skin, thickets of hair, nipples, crevices, and hidden audio gadgets, emitting beeps of ambient headphone leakage, smartphone apps, and games—an exaggerated and grotesque take on the crush of bodies during rush hour.

“I think that there’s something about removing the identity that pulls you in closer. You’re not necessarily thinking, ‘Who is that character?'” Lowe explains. “They’re all kind of squeezable. On the other hand, when you’re moving through, it’s such a sensory overload that there is a feeling of being afraid, claustrophobic, and the fact that they’re all anonymous. It borders between being a meat market and being surrounded by a bunch of Muppets.” While Lowe invites the viewer to participate by walking through the sculptures, touching, being touched, and becoming, ultimately, a conscious participant in the fleshy mass, she’s also aware of the formal role of the sculpture in the pristine, white-box gallery space as something that elicits a certain social code in how to be viewed, drawing a parallel between the public voyeurism that not only occurs in quotidian public interactions, but in the act of viewing art as well.

Molly Surno harnesses that idea in “Ivar,” a lush, tropical-jungle-facsimile installation erected in the storefront space of the gallery. The title is appropriated from Mike Kelley’s unpublished essay, “Empathy, Alienation, and the Ivar,” an analysis of performative behaviors at a Los Angeles strip club, and Surno uses this piece of criticism as a starting point to explore constructs of fetish, voyeurism, and fantasy through the lens of how we collectively conceive of paradise.”I think a lot about how we look and why we look,” Surno says. “Not just exploring ‘What is voyeurism?’ but how fantasy can take over your body, and alienation or distancing in terms of both viewership and façade culture. There’s nothing natural about having that lush tropical landscape in the white walls of a gallery.”

Surno installed various tropical flora, areca and date palm trees, and undulating sand, a landscape that must be traversed before the viewer arrives at a small 16-mm. projection of vignettes, including one entitled “Sway,” which captures a body emerging out of a tropical forest composed of real and plastic plants and a series of moving portraits of animatronic gorillas from the Disney chain restaurant Rainforest Cafe, a kitsch dining experience that simulates an immersive rainforest environment, joining nature and artifice.  The storefront windows, blacked out with curtains, will have a cut-out rectangular peephole, so passerby can view the entire exhibition as a diorama, causing two modes of spectatorship and eliciting “tension between public and private viewing,” according to Surno. “The experience feels very private. It’s like private looking, which is obviously what voyeurism is, but it’s very much a public space. All the viewers actually become part of the installation, similar to zoo animals.”

Surno, who also founded the avant garde film programming series Cinema 16, recognizes the sensual pleasures of her exploration of the range of scopophilic response. “When you’re dealing with fantasy, this narrative of psychosexual or noir or any of these cinematic tropes, you can’t avoid the omnipresence of film history,” Surno says. “It pervades all image-making.”