It started with an ear. My right ear, to be exact, which the artist Alvin Booth had encased in a pale purple alginate. The material reminded me of blueberry yogurt, and out of the corner of my eye, I watched him scoop the stuff into my ear. We were in Booth’s Manhattan studio, where he lives with his wife, Nike Lanning. I was lying on an antique chaise longue, the type one sees in movies featuring French bordellos. Since my left ear was against the upholstery and my right was swathed in gelatinous goo, Booth’s words were hardly discernible, and at best he sounded like he was speaking from a distant room. I looked up and saw his mouth moving, a wild tousle of hair rising as he spoke.
For the last twenty years, Booth has been amassing a reservoir of work that revolves, capriciously, around the human body. I say capriciously because Booth doesn’t concern himself with the clinical characteristics of form, but rather with the corporeal aspect of the flesh, which is to say, the body erotic. His earlier work in photography has a nostalgic patina; through labor-intensive darkroom techniques, he produced sepia-toned gelatin-silver prints of nudes slathered in oil and gold powder, sometimes bound in latex. The close-ups are at once intimate, almost jarringly so, lending the photos a voyeuristic quality. In his digital works, geometric patterns are superimposed on the bodies of men, women, and sometimes children; his models often posed within a kaleidoscopic mirrored enclosure. The results are highly stylized compositions of natural forms, startling and disturbingly beautiful.
Booth’s newest exhibition, “Come to Your Senses,” is showing this month in Paris’s acte2galerie; it features Booth’s sculptural forms and sound art, most notably the piece Vingt-Quatre Heures, which plays snippets of phatic utterances taken from Radio France Culture programs. A black screen shows a green oscilloscope, which alters with every vocalization. Booth stitched together the nonsensical sounds that announcers made between words or before sentences—“umm,” “err,” “hmmm.” The result is a catalog of what Peter Hamilton calls, in his introduction to the exhibition, “the ridiculous nature of the isolated.”
After the alginate on my ear was set, Booth peeled it from my skin. From the alginate mold, he would create a plaster mold and then finally a silicone ear, which would be used in Vingt-Quatre Heures. In the installation, these became the “ear” phones: listeners could experience the sound by holding their own ears up to the molds. After I washed the remainder of the purple gel from my ears and hair, Booth’s wife breezed into the room in a pixie cut and black vintage boa. They showed me more of his recent work—a silicone cake on a glass stand, each slice resembling a woman’s private parts; a light sculpture fashioned from microphone cables, from which hang two hundred glowing styrene breast forms; a series of brightly colored macaroons, all molded from bellybuttons, arrayed on a cake stand.
Why ears, anyway? Booth told me that anatomy and bodily functions are an endless source of fascination to him. “As in the case of ears … if you repeat a single word over and over again, it becomes nonsensical. The same applies to body parts—repetition disassociates them from their real function. They may create an interesting shape, but they have no actual use. After creating sculptural pieces out of them, I can’t see ears without thinking of how ridiculous they look. But they are, of course, very practical for balancing your eyeglasses on.”
Alvin Booth’s “Come to Your Senses” continues at acte2galerie (41 rue d’Artois, Paris) until January 30.
J. Mae Barizo is a prize-winning poet and cultural critic. She lives in New York City.