The convulsive haunting that the subject of the body has induced in contemporary art, from Bruce Nauman (aesthetics of the manipulable body) and Carolee Schneemann (reclamation of the female body) to the present, has been replete. To bare the body is to foreground it as image, and in a world of pure appearances, it is a palimpsest of surfaces, the immersive depths of which rest on top of further surfaces and do not lie fallow underneath.

This exhibition, “Body,” is timely in asking us to consider once again the age-old and vexing question: What exactly is a body? Does it still resonate as one pole of a long disenfranchised dualism? Is it simply the skin jacket for consciousness? Is it performative, in flux, abased, dismembered, abject, transcendent? The curator here invites us to inspect the body and its spaces in a manner undreamt of by 16th-century anatomist Andreas Vesalius.

Van Hanos, New Hand,2017, oil on linen, 61x 50.8 centimetres. Courtesy of Chateau Shatto, LA and L’INCONNUE, Montreal

With a full roster of interesting artists such as Alex Morrison, Dala Nasser, Hanna Hur, Julie Béna, Kent Merriman Jr., Melanie Ebenhoch, Naoki Sutter-Shudo, Susan Cianciolo, Van Hanos, Victoria Colemegna and Paul Mpagi Sepuya, this show did not presume to offer any definitive answers. Leila Greiche, the L’INCONNUE gallery director, asked Domenico de Chirico (born in Bari in 1983, who lives and works in Milan), a rising star in the curatorial world, to organize the show. The works chosen ask some catalytic questions.

De Chirico opens the brackets on the body by noting that the very word “body” refers to every entity in space detectable through the five senses. Thus, the emphasis is not only the body and its representations as an organic whole, the “physical body,” but also its basest material components, as on a dissection table. Peeling away a wealth of successively disjointed layers in the matter at hand, de Chirico invites viewers to follow the rhythms of the ever-morphing dance of the body the artists lay down.

Alex Morrison, a L’INCONNUE gallery artist who is based in Vancouver, offers an oil and graphite on canvas work entitled plan for a model of a new work (the social life of objects), 2018, produced through the use of 3D modelling and software rendering, in which he confronts the cultural persistence of ‘craft’ aesthetics and the revival of the Arts and Crafts movement. The ‘body’ in question finds its aesthetics hovering somewhere among commercial display, storybook architecture and domestic furniture.

Another standout is Dala Nasser, the Lebanese artist whose latex support material is singular, as in I Have No Shame, 2015, executed in dirt collected from her studio floor, liquid latex, charcoal and latex sheet. Strongly experimental, it reminded us of the work in rayon of recently deceased abstract painter John Heward, but now with a very different agenda.

Paul Mpagi Sepuya, Untitled, 2018, colour laserprint collage on Strathmore Bristol, 18 x 14 inches. Courtesy of DOCUMENT, Chicago and L’INCONNUE, Montreal

Hanna Hur, an artist who is based in LA, is represented by endless spring viii, 2018, and desert trance ii, 2017, signature works that are hauntingly suggestive of interior emotional, spiritual and psychological states. She often uses colour pencil on raw linen or silk, augmented in the former work by china marker and watercolour. She blurs traditional distinctions between painting and drawing and gives a whole new meaning to the word “liminal.”

Julie Béna, based in Paris and Prague, offers a ceramic sculpture that articulate body parts both known and unknown. The work entitled 2fingers, 2018, has visceral impact as two extrusive, dismembered, long red-nailed and perhaps bloodied digits.

Kent Merriman Jr., based in Calgary, exhibits here the last of his works to use mannequin fragments, Untitled (oil, acrylic, mannequin fragment, grommet on canvas, 2018). In this work, he explores themes of self-knowledge and exposure. The funhouse peephole in the canvas ground with its inquiring eye looking out at us reverses the gaze and interrogates the private experience of shame and voyeurism with all the gravity of a satyr.

Melanie Ebenhoch, based in Vienna, makes her Canadian debut with Interlude with Sunrise, 2017, an oil on Aqua-Resin, and a work in glazed ceramics, both of which speak to the body in terms of identification and indexicality. Naoki Sutter-Shudo, the director of the LA project space Bel Ami, is represented by Untitled (Crew), a mixed-media sculpture that resembles a boxed-in bedroom with a bedspread festooned with pearls, printed matter and faux coral. The names of presumed occupants appear on labels attached to interior walls.

Susan Cianciolo, the New York-based artist, contributes Lilac (collage, marker, watercolour, pen on magazine page, 2018) and Figure and Small Dog (collage watercolour on magazine page, 2018). Here, the clothed body acts out. Paul Mpagi Sepuya, an American photographer, has two colour laserprint collages of nudes posed with exhortative force (both Untitled, 2018), one of them perhaps representing a self-image of the photographer, camera ready at hand.

Installation view, “Body,” 2018–19, L’INCONNUE, Montréal. All images courtesy L’INCONNUE, Montréal.

Victoria Colemegna, an artist based in Buenos Aires, addresses interpersonal relationships and individuals in conflict in a work like the locked vitrine-house of the kind you see in high school corridors, Broken Ego #27 et al., 2018. Sketches and paintings portray people smoking, chatting, laughing and perhaps injuring those they love and who love them. And finally, Van Hanos, based in Brooklyn, NY, conflates borrowed imagery from Agnolo Bronzino’s Portrait of a Young Man with a Book (c. 1530s, Metropolitan Museum, New York)—in which the subject has one hand on his waist and the other holding open a collection of poetry—in a latter-day attempt to make an erotic painting of hand and book. The hand separating pages in the book is superimposed on the standing figure over the area of the heart and absent from where it would normally be.

As he did so effectively at the Swab Barcelona Art Fair, Domenico de Chirico mixes and matches different aesthetic protocols, providing the visitor with a very topical and divergent take on the body and its discontents. The body as a site of contestation over meanings of conventional imagery segues elegantly, if disruptively, with new teleologies that posit the fragmentation and exhumation of the body as a given. This exhibition demonstrated that the subject of the body has never lost its edgy charisma and formidable hauteur in contemporary art. All the participating artists contributed to an illuminating and liminal theatre of the body and its spaces. They explored the human body in ways inconceivable to the best and most able of anatomists.

“Body” was exhibited at L’INCONNUE, Montreal, from December 14, 2018, to January 26, 2019.

James D Campbell is a writer and curator in Montreal, and is a frequent contributor to Border Crossings.