Mouthing Off: Julia Randall’s “Oral Fixations” at the Davison Art Center

The “Oral Fixations” exhibition at Wesleyan University’s Davison Art Center offers a ten-year survey of the work of artist and Wesleyan art professor Julia Randall.  Aside from one projected video installation, all of the works on display are colored pencil on paper.  Although each drawing in the exhibition is unique, the images are united by their common subject matter—they all depict or are concerned with the human mouth, its functions, or its actions.

The title of the exhibition, “Oral Fixations,” recalls Sigmund Freud’s conception of the first stage of psychosexual development as the oral stage, in which, thanks to breastfeeding, the mouth functions as an infant’s primary erogenous zone.  A child whose development is disrupted can become fixed at this stage, carrying it into adulthood—hence the term “oral fixation.”  This Freudian eroticization of the mouth as a sexual organ is an integral element of Randall’s work.  Drawings like the “Lick Line” series (2003-2004) present soft, sensual, disembodied but feminine mouths and tongues, showing the mouth not as a site for consumption but as a symbol of sexual desire.  The “Blown” (2011-1012) and “Pinned and Pulled” (2013) series depict massive pink globes of wrinkled bubblegum that resemble nothing so much as human organs, particularly testicles, breasts, labia, and vaginas (in “Pinned and Pulled,” these globes are poked and prodded by metallic medical or dental instruments, only heightening the viewer’s reading of them as anthropomorphic, representational of human tissue).  Often shown in various states of deflation, these images appear to demonstrate the effects of aging on the body.

Randall’s virtuosic technical skill lends an air of hyperrealism to her work.  Her subjects appear simultaneously attractive and grotesque, with every fleshy wrinkle and wet glimmer of light or saliva emphasized and rendered monumental and larger-than-life by her pencils.  This sharpening and enlargement of familiar objects along with their de-contextualization—they all appear disembodied, floating against empty white backgrounds—re-encodes them as unfamiliar, turning bubblegum balloons into surreal, abstracted foreign landscapes of color and texture.  Randall’s conflation of consumer products (bubblegum) with the body and the rescaling of the everyday to the monumental recalls the work of Claes Oldenburg, such as his Alphabet in the Form of a Good Humor Bar, although Randall’s work is less interested in critiquing consumer culture than in exploring human psychology and sexuality through representations of the physical body.

The exhibition also features Sticky (2013-2014), a projected video and sound installation in which multiple bubbles of gum are inflated, pierced, and deflated by an invisible phantom mouth, complete with sound effects of breathing and air going in and out of the gum that give the gallery space a hushed sense of intimacy and immediacy.  Sticky again links bubblegum with the human body, as the inflation and deflation of the gum coupled with the breathing noises connect the ephemeral lifespan of the gum to human life and death.  As the newest part of the exhibition, Sticky exposes an interesting trend in Randall’s work: it largely moves from direct depictions of the human mouth, as in “Lick Line” and “Lures” (and even “Under and Afloat,” “Decoys,” and “Lovebirds,” which place human mouths in unexpected places such as on flowers or surreal fantastical birds, merging the human and natural worlds into fetishistic fairytale creatures and objects) to indirect representations of the mouth.  Rather than showing the mouth itself, Randall’s multiple later series of bubblegum depict the mouth and teeth as negative space, visible only in the indentations, creases, and folds of the bubblegum—reimagining the mouth as a backwards extrapolation from the effects it produces on the physical world.

The thematic consistency of this ten-year retrospective both enhances its impact and limits its scope.  All of the work in the exhibition explores the link between the mouth, human sexuality, and the aging process with immense technical skill and a deft touch of humor.  At times, the significance of these linkages is vague, but the images themselves remain arresting and beautiful, inviting and disturbing, weird and weirdly mesmerizing.

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