"Estudios Amorfos II (Formless Studies II)" by Paulina Velazquez Solis (2014-2016).
"Estudios Amorfos II (Formless Studies II)" by Paulina Velazquez Solis (2014-2016).

Artworks that draw on the human body for inspiration can be gross, noble, boring, flat, inspiring, hilarious, sexual, irritating, outrageous, quiet, confusing, daunting, deflating—as varied as bodies themselves in all their shapes and sizes. For her first show in the the D.C. area, Paulina Velázquez Solís has settled on one overarching framework for the body: frustrating. Her approach is anything but.

“Boca Estómago Estómago (Mouth Stomach Stomach)” (2016), the piece that greets viewers who climb the stairs to the second-floor show at Rhizome, is a hanging soft sculpture of guts. Rendered in gold and red fabric, the piece is a double-length alimentary tract: a pair of giant ruby lips connected by a tube to a suspended soft-sac-stomach, which in turn runs by a longer arterial-looking cord to another, smaller gut. Only when the absence of intestines registers does it become clear that the piece is a metaphor for pregnancy, one stomach feeding another.

And a playful metaphor at that. The Costa Rican–Mexican artist delights in the silly reduction of something as divine as pregnancy to a gag—a bigger belly paired up with a smaller one. As an artwork, it reads like an Elizabeth Murray painting, with her cartoonish embrace of biomorphic imagery, told through the formal sculptural language of Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen. Solís’ take is elemental yet defeatist: inglorious. Mouth-stomach-stomach. That’s all you get.

“Orden Natural (Natural Order)” (2017) is a bit further abstracted from the body. An installation that occupies an entire second-floor room, the piece—an interactive collaboration with sound-artist Travis Johns—features hanging pods and a screaming klaxon of a soundtrack. There’s something to do with lights and sensors installed in some of these fur-covered forms, which look like harvested Muppet organs, but however it works isn’t obvious. A sense of insensate alarm is. The piece screams unfelt crisis: cysts undiagnosed, growth undetected, failure unresolved. Yet the outcry is ultimately comical.

Rhizome, an experimental-arts venue tucked away in a funky house in Takoma, is the right place for Solís’ work. The unpretentious gallery space allows works that are museum-sized in ambition but home-grown in execution to shine. Part of the sense of frustration that surrounds Solís’ work—and it’s no knock on the artist—is that it aspires to be more. Bigger budgets, graduate assistants, gallery-scaled exhibitions look like they belong in her future. At Rhizome, though, the gesture is more than enough.

“Estudios Amorfos II (Formless Studies II)” (2014–2016) might be the highlight of Natural Order. It’s a series of Murray-esque drawings of all the body parts that are the most vexing: nodes and nodules, globules and glands. There’s a drawing of a vaginal cavity connected to a uterus via a little spiral jetty of a cervix, an amoeba-form made of boobs with lactating nipples, a mons pubis that appears to be the head of a fatty snail. This is the fun stuff. But these parts are the ones that fail us first, aren’t they? The hairy, indelicate, pleasure-centric nooks and crannies, which Solís draws in fine, serious lines that are accentuated by the tender organic rings inlaid in her wooden panels—bodies on bodies.

Conveying the deliriousness of this mammalian—what? form? drapery? meat-self?—in a tenor that is even semi-serious is a frustration, one that Solís courts intentionally. In places she does so in minimalist terms, as with “Huellas (Traces)” (2017), a process-oriented series of iterative tracings of fingerprints. (These necessarily take on a political dimension for an immigrant artist in the Trump era.) Through all of Solís’ works, her humor surfaces. Trying to square this Cartesian circle between sense and nonsense in the body is one of the truest pursuits in art. One that is gross, noble, boring, flat, inspiring…

On view through May 28 at RhizomeDC. 6950 Maple St. NW. Free. rhizomedc.org.