Stooped under a coffin-shaped sculpture that hangs from the ceiling, Terrance Graven lifts up a bone-handled knife. He's a peculiar, mythical-looking figure, dressed in a knee-length shroud topped by a white suit jacket. His head is shaved, his body is painted white, and the brown substance that drips down from behind his ear could be blood or mud — either way, it's disturbing.
Graven has just spent about 15 minutes in a trancelike shuffle from sculpture to sculpture, smashing mirrors and pressing the shards into his thigh to draw blood, and appearing to defecate mud. It isn't hard to imagine some further act of self-violence, and the crowd of gallery onlookers shifts from foot to foot, murmuring with discomfort. A soundtrack of reverberating bass notes ratchets up the mood. Graven slowly reaches toward the coffin's black cotton bottom and plunges the knife upward. A cascade of brown liquid pours out, then a spew of white. The crowd backs up, emitting a sigh of relief. No more blood will be spilled, evidently; just art.
Since being seriously injured in a motorcycle accident in 2004, Graven has combined performance with installation art to upset his audience.
"I had been working with similar themes before that," the San Francisco artist explains, "but after the accident I just ... it made me more passionate about what I was doing." He pauses. "I just thought ... in our culture, our life expectancy keeps going higher and higher, and at the same time the subjects of death and sickness have become something that people don't talk about or are uncomfortable with."
In his current show, "Tempvs," Graven confronts these taboos using materials that are both ritualistic and gross. Human hair stiffened with blood festoons "Station #5," a baroque table that holds a box that appears to be carved of human flesh. Tiny pills are embedded in the skin, and the box opens to display dead flies mounted on stickpins. In "Station #2," a lump of brass on a steel handle looks remarkably like excrement, and braids of human hair hang from a small rotating table. Many of the materials were donated by people who have lost a loved one; knowing this helps the pieces seem less like props and more like reliquaries.
In his performance work, Graven visits territory pioneered by the Viennese Actionists and feminist artists such as Carolee Schneeman, who claimed the body as a canvas. There is a fertile aesthetic intersection with Graven's installations, which hew closely to a Victorian Memento Mori ("remember death") sensibility that looks very goth to modern eyes. Mix it all together and you get a morbid, florid, theatrical tangle that will probably repel many viewers — although those familiar with artists like Kiki Smith and lovers of vampire style will feel right at home.
If you visit "Tempvs" now, you can see the remains of Graven's performance in and around the installation pieces: muddy footsteps, a charcoal outline of his body against one wall, the mud-stained suit jacket now hanging on a torso made of mortician's wax and seed pearls. It looks like a poltergeist has been meddling with the artwork.
For me, the appeal of work like Graven's is the same impulse I imagine draws people to horror movies. It conjures up subjects we fear collectively until the very worst happens: The nightmare comes true. We never know how we're going to react at that moment, and in some ways we think that the person we become then will be our true self. After I left the gallery, I noticed that the city itself had become haunted: A black tarp flapped weirdly; an abandoned instrument case on the corner looked like a coffin. Out here, however, there was no promise that blood wouldn't be spilled.