Chloe Piene’s videos and drawings assert a wry and morbid sexual prowess: the female nudes that she sketches are equally reminiscent of heavy metal sirens, the death march skeletons of Albrecht Dürer, and the emaciated figures of Egon Schiele. Ethereal, erotic, and sensual yet slightly chilling, the female bodies she depicts lie prostrate in a moment of death. Masturbating, levitating, or coyly reclining in repose, these portraits—which she refers to as petit mort—lyrically express orgasmic unconsciousness and carnal decay.

Wielding vaporous black charcoal lines on translucent vellum paper, Piene conveys with her mark-making a transitory pleasure that is gothic in feeling. The forms and figures suggest an intense experience of physical elevation that inescapably passes into the permanence of death. In some of the more decadent examples, emaciated fingers stretch out to pleasure the unadorned, half-skeletal body, while the head is turned to reveal a face that is simply a skull. The only inklings of life lie in such details as the toes, a nipple, or a strand of wavy hair highlighting the softness that was once there. But the sinewy body is now fading and literally disappearing into the extremely foreshortened perspective.

Piene’s drawings are reminiscent of memento mori: sculptures, prints and, later, photographs that served as reminders of death’s proximity to the sensual pleasures of life. Like the skeletal rapture found in some Italian Renaissance funerary memorials or the peaceful sleep of Victorian death photographs, her images are a reminder not only of mortality but also of the viewer’s own dreams and fantasies.

Piene’s equally expressive four-minute video installation that was on view at the Whitney Biennial, titled Blackmouth, is a looped sequence of dramatically slowed-down footage of a mud-spattered young girl thrashing and howling in the night. “The idea was that she was coming out of the grave, but as it turns out she is trying to get back in,” the artist remarks of this piece, which has received well-deserved attention. Piene has exhibited widely in the United States and Europe, most recently at the Kunsthalle, and she is represented by Klemens Gasser & Tanja Grunert, Inc. in New York.

Thirty Years Old, 2002, courtesy: The Judith Rothchild Foundation, NY
Blackmouth, 2003, courtesy: Gasser/Grunert