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Obscene: An Ekphrasis

Gretchen VanWormer

The letters in Mel Bochner’s Obscene are like piped icing, licked. Oil paints whipped. Synonyms spread over a collaged sheet: OBSCENE, INDECENT, LEWD, DEBAUCHED. Santa’s other reindeer. To mail holiday letters to incarcerated sex workers, complete an online form with the Sex Workers Outreach Program (SWOP). Alisha Walker, 23, was sentenced to 15 years for stabbing a man before he could stab her. The man was sauced, demanding unsafe sex. Holding a kitchen knife. At the Philbrook, I examine the first R in PORNOGRAPHIC, find lavender swirling with cream, a touch of honey on the leg. Bochner worked as a museum guard when he was young, got fired for napping in a nook. A form of “sleeping around.” Obscene’s lines slip the clink of language to form half-meanings: COLOR, PORNO- / GRAPHIC, SCAT / TRIPLE-X-RAT- . Letters on smoke break. After Alisha’s trial, the Chicago Sun-Times ran the headline “Hooker gets 15 for stabbing Brother Rice teacher to death.” An artful smear. From prison, Alisha said, “Being a sex worker does not define me.” To make a print, press your letters into a double-thick layer of Plexiglas. Fill depressions with oils, cover with a leaf of hand-dyed paper. Allow paints to spill, seep. What does it mean to have a body synonymous with FILTHY, OFF-COLOR, ? In the art museum, a young woman stands near Obscene, smooths her dark hair, flashes a peace sign. Bochner’s letter ends with a smudged comma, white as a wedding.

Mel Bochner’s Obscene (2014). Monoprint with engraving on collaged paper. 30.5 x 22.5 cm. Viewed as part of Philbrook Museum’s exhibition Amazing! Mel Bochner Prints from the Collections of Jordan D. Schnitzer and His Family Foundation (Oct 14, 2018 – Jan 7, 2019). Image courtesy of the Philbrook Museum of Art. Photo by Zach Reeves.  

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