Martha Poggioli’s first Chicago solo exhibition, Rational Behavior, at the Ukrainian Village-based apartment gallery Extase, decided to go small yet sophisticated. Calmly inhaling and exhaling to an austere view over West Chicago Avenue, this intimate one-room exhibition presents four new works that encourage a deeper investigation into the uncanny undercurrent beneath their lovely appearances.

Rational Behavior can be divided into two sections by color, a bright turquoise and cerise pink, implying the rational and the irrational respectively. Connecting seemingly unrelated conceptual dots—from cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) practice to American romantic comedies of the ‘90s—Poggioli uses her eerily delicate yet provocative object-sculptures, together with their cultural connotations, to prompt us to reflect on our relationship with our own and with each other’s body. The artist ultimately creates a language through gestures and words that are trapped in an infinite feedback loop of construct versus deconstruct. 

Martha Poggioli’s Metal Heart at Extase. Photo by Jesse Meredith

Hailing from Australia with a background in fashion design, Poggioli’s work stems from conceptualizing the inner architecture of and the space around the female body. Her exceptional research-based project Prosthetics of Interiority (2019), investigates the history of contraceptive technology by enlarging or replicating medical devices—from pessaries to the IUD—that are repressed due to their gendered nature. Tackling new subject-matter, Rational Behavior nevertheless shares similar artistic tactics that the artist is dexterous at, namely abstracting banal objects just enough to preserve their source of origin and making them into tantalizing sculptures that evoke visceral and emotional responses.

For Metal Heart (2019), Poggioli replaced the bow-shaped floss section at the tip of the dental floss pick with cartoony fingers that stretch out like tentacles. Metal Heart is part of the series born from the artist’s fascination with the computer-generated 3D figures in the CPR manual distributed by the American Heart Association. Perplexed by how behaviors of digital bodies in simulation infiltrate real life, the artist isolates the hands in the animation, takes their 2D contours, and makes them into 3D objects by adding thickness to the 2D shapes. The material reincarnation results in a herd of abstract hand-shaped creatures, all in a specific blue that alludes to the surgical gloves the computer-generated figures wear.

Martha Poggioli With lips wanting kisses. Photo by Jesse Meredith

With lips wanting for kisses (2019), is a separate work that shares material similarities, having slipped into a simulacrum-limbo sandwiched between the real and the virtual. Grafted from the CPR animation, these hand-blobs are supposed to represent particular gestures used to resuscitate a drawn victim. Yet, while a handful barely pass as signs for pointing and holding, the majority of the abstract forms stay lumpy, gummy, and playfully unidentifiable. By the time one reads the title which complements the work, the message is clear: it is either that we eroticize mouth-to-mouth rescue or that we mistake kiss as an incontestable sign for love.

Meanwhile, a glitchy audio clip is playing a dubbed conversation from 90’s film favorite You’ve Got Mail from the sound sculpture titled Lovely Love Song (2019). Lurking in the closet, this work sings to another cerise piece hung diagonally from it, American Beauty (2019). The latter’s title must refer to the classic American dark comedy made in 1999, which conceptually chimes with the rescue kiss. In the film, the retired colonel Frank Fitts thought that his son Ricky and his neighbor Lester Burnham were gay by completely mistaking their drug talks for erotic expressions, which contributed to Frank presumably murdering Lester in the end. Once again, meaning bifurcates and adapts to the viewer, not the other way around. 

Installation view of Martha Poggioli’s Rational Behavior at Extase. Photo by Jesse Meredith

 Each citing a romantic comedy absurd in its own right, from modern city fairytale to suburbia middle-class white male’s fantasy on a young girl’s body, this cerise duet chants about how the genre has subconsciously become an inaccurate manual through which we practice love and simulate happiness. Moreover, it hints at the fluidity of images and signs, which convolute and fold into themselves, enlarging the gulf between what they seem and what they actually mean. There are acts and narratives that we see and hear all the time yet seldom experience ourselves—be it performing CPR on a real victim or encountering true romance. These tales remain somewhat elusive and ambiguous to us, as they become modern myths that mark the horizon of our understanding; they can be called theory or fantasy, but they never cease to impact our perception of life and there is no rational behavior that can tackle them.