Nightmares

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Image courtesy of Studios Inc

I’m going to tell you about my first nightmare. I walked up the stairs to my room, the first room I was ever conscious of belonging to me, of being my space in a house. There was a creature over my bed. It was a skeleton, and it was flashing colors, jerking wildly on unconnected bones, and it was making my bed. This is the first nightmare—maybe even the first dream—I remember. Of course I had this long before my natural anxiety latched on to everything plausible a naturally anxious person could be afraid of. What makes me tell you this is the eerie resemblance between Ricky Allman’s Domestic Dusk to my first encounter with oneiric fear.

For those of you who are still with me in the second paragraph: Allman’s exploration into the nightmare realm involves genetic modification, emotionally reactive technology, and colorful skeletons in impossible human poses. The paintings strike a comparison between the infrastructure of our bodies, and a city experiencing a sudden surge of technological resources. Closing in on the rich details of the paintings adds to the mounting stack of questions. Are we floating in space? What are the laws of physics in this dimension? Is that a body or a machine? Little is revealed in the minutia that cannot be grasped by taking the whole thing in at once. That doesn’t mean the details aren’t worth considering. Allman has spent enough time on them to reward the viewers approach. Every inch of the canvas is a traffic jam of information, potential opportunities to dive deeper into the microscope of Allman’s mind, to see exactly how this painting, these ideas, work at their atomic level.

Thrumming synth filled the gallery on opening night. Allman’s distorted speech joined a looping musical component, played live on keyboards and computers hooked up to pedals on the floor. A projection hit the two white walls behind the set up, dragging the audience through prairies and mountains and cloud spattered skies. The accompanying music was droney, panicked, and built complex relationships that looped and self-complicated. The more the notes repeated, the less predictable the track became. Such is the method Allman employs in his brushstroke too. Patterns are shattered by bursts of rhythmic color and sound.

On my second visit, the gallery was much quieter. The speaker between the angled walls emitted something in Italian, and then a loop of spaceship beeps that were quiet enough to tune out. Allman’s paintings and music capture a specific anxiety about the evolution of humanity and technology. (Experiencing the music and paintings combined, I couldn’t help but remember the film Koyaanisqatsi, that this is what it would would look like if Francis Ford Copalla took a bunch of acid and shot the film in 2090.)

Seven Simultaneous Sunsets must refer to the number of pieces in the show (five paintings, an installation, and the musical projections) and to Allman’s fixation on unacceptable earth phenomenon. In every piece, Allman imagines seven ways humanity could sink below the horizon of the imaginable, into the dark nightmare of the distant future, where genetic editing, technology sentience, and omniscient experience are the next stage of evolution. If we can build a better city, we can build a better body.

 

Ricky Allman

Seven Simultaneous Sunsets

At Studios Inc

Until October 14th

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Wide Angle

For his first solo exhibition in the United States, French photographer Nicolas Dhervillers introduces Kansas City to monumental landscapes on the bridge between modern day and history. Big, dramatic photographs contain cinematic magic imbued in the dark light of the landscapes. These require slow—preferably solo—viewing, and are best experienced at their full intended scale. Inspired by hard-hitting landscape painters, Dhervillers channels the emptiness of Gustave Courbet, the depth of Claude Lorrain, and the gray menace of Andrew Wyeth. The eye is naturally fixated on the human subjects, but the real subject looms dark and heavy in the rest of the environment. Albert Camus wrote in The Myth of Sisyphus, “Man stands face to face with the irrational. He feels within him his longing for happiness and for reason. The absurd is born of this confrontation between human need and the unreasonable silence of the world.”

The human inability to contain the world seeps out of the images and into the viewer. It is an intuition that translates from the art into every rational being, into everyone who has ever sought to understand the elusive, chaotic heart of the natural world. In the photo series “Detachment”, Dhervillers explores the figure as he faces vast and unyielding entropy, even when it coexists with modern developments. There is fog, dense greenery in the recesses of a wooded area, empty stretches on a gray road, and a single figure caught in an uncertain moment. It often appears to be the edge of winter.

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Many of the images clearly embrace contemporary visual hooks of a fictionalized cinematic style—a cabin goes up in flames as a 70s era Citroën coupe cruises away down the winding valley road. These hooks sometimes feel too clever, but can be forgiven if only because it does not diminish the pleasure of taking it in. Period specific clothes and modern technology make some of the photographs feel exempt from time—part today and part yesterday. The two men on the side of a shattered mountain certainly don’t belong in the same frame as a yellow backhoe, but it works, because this is theater. There are narrative threads to follow in every image, and sometimes the technical digital magic can feel heavy handed, causing the suspension of disbelief to crack, just a little. In this medium, and with such an emphasis on perfectly executed stage setting, any infinitesimal flaw in the digital process won’t go unnoticed by a searching eye.

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Nature, the world and all its familiarity, can leave us to our terrible solitude without warning. There is another passage from The Myth of Sisyphus that feels an appropriate philosophical descriptor for the work in the Dhervillers exhibition. It is this: “The world evades us because it becomes itself again. That stage scenery masked by habit becomes again what it is. It withdraws at a distance from us. Just as there are days when under the familiar face of a woman, we see as a stranger her we had loved months or years ago, perhaps we shall come even to desire what suddenly leaves us so alone. But the time has not yet come. Just one thing: that denseness and that strangeness of the world is the absurd.”

Indeed it is. For Nicolas Dhervillers to take on the conceptual weight of these philosophies while achieving perfection in his craft is definitely one of the quintessential struggles of humanity.

Nicolas Dhervillers

At Sherry Leedy Contemporary Art and Cerbera Gallery

Until October 21st

Bad Bitch: Women, Autonomy, and Embracing Villainy

 

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Angela Davis

 

One day, I finished being good. Like a timer on a clock it just ran out. I was crossing the street to my car after a meeting with an energy-draining person who did not captivate my attention, but I had been too polite to adhere to my formerly imposed hour-long cap. Because I was too concerned with being polite, being liked, and ending on a positive note, the meeting lasted three hours and threw off my plans for the rest of the afternoon. Why am I like this? I wondered. What compelled me to seek someone else’s approval to such an extent, I was willing to sacrifice my own agenda for someone I didn’t even find interesting? “That’s enough, Raab,” I said to myself—a adage I had cultivated to cope with the amplified spiral of chatter my brain turns on in moments of self-criticism. “You don’t have to be good.”

In fiction, a hero is one who practices good behavior, who does the right thing, at times to the detriment of their own health, happiness, and well-being. Good behavior is selfless and just. The villain, being the antithesis of the hero, therefore must be the pinnacle of bad behavior. Villains get to be selfish, even if their selfishness harms other people, law and order, and society at large. Villains don’t let their plans and ideas be corrupted by societies expectations, whereas heroes are forever at the mercy of what society demands must be done to preserve a moral way of life. This is not to say villains don’t live by some ethical code, and in the non-fiction world, women who exercise Bad behavior often have complex moral compasses. In the context of our society, a society dominated in most areas by men, bad behavior from women translates to rejecting the norms of this condition. Women who behave badly are not women who behave poorly: they are women who behave in accordance with their autonomy. By this rhetoric alone, one would be inclined to believe misbehaving is a state of childish spite or bitchiness. But to examine the ways women misbehave on a societal level and not and interpersonal one, we must distinguish between the two concepts.

Society was built on the backs of well-behaved women. A girl on good behavior is not too opinionated, not too loud, and not too brash. Good behavior is sweet and sexy, but not slutty. Healthy and smart but not egotistical. Good behavior is letting things be explained, letting things happen, and reacting with grace. Good behavior is giving without expecting return, obeying laws that are put in place for our own safety. It is saying “OK” to things that run opposite to your own agenda or goals. Good behavior is letting others get ahead, even if it’s your turn. For years, this is how I tried to behave. I admonished myself for exclaiming my beliefs in mixed company. I endured having things I already understood explained to me so I wouldn’t bruise another’s feelings. I kept my sexcapades on the DL. The consequence of trying to be on good behavior at all times is feeling like you’re not being good enough, modest enough, or polite enough. What I was really doing was fighting against my instincts to be myself because I thought that version of me was unattractive to too many people. While others were benefiting from my good behavior, I was suffering under the weight of my own self-criticism, one I had developed from borrowed concepts of women’s expected behavior in society. Choosing to be yourself at the risk of displeasing people is, at least for women and minorities, a radical act of bad behavior.

Who benefits from good behavior, specifically, my good behavior, and the good behavior of women everywhere? The day my dutiful meter ran out was the day I really asked myself this question for the first time. But as I thought about it, a more accurate question took its place: who profits from my good behavior? My lifelong drive to please people has resulted in a certain amount of cultivated naïveté, a reaction I employ because I want to see the best intentions in people who commandeer my time. This is a learned behavior, and one I, as I approach my 30th year, am unlearning every day. That afternoon when I felt the last of my good behavior wane and disappear in a feeble poof, I knew exactly who profited. They had a name, a face I spent watching talk for the last three hours, an agenda, people to rely my information to for monetary gain (which I would not benefit from). But this person was neither the beginning nor the end of the line of profiteering entities, entities I had tried to please but was somehow always coming up short.

I woke up on November 9th, 2016 feeling like someone I loved had died in the early hours of the morning. I spent the next two weeks numbing myself against the news and glancing sideways at strangers in the same room. I felt there was nobody I could trust unless they were in my closest inner circle of friends. As a white person from a family in an average economic bracket, it was a humbling and eye-opening two weeks. For the first time, I began to experience the world I imagine people of color, transgender individuals, poor people, atypical and differently-abled people live in every single day. I have never felt so empathic, yet totally distant from the people society has crushing expectations for. Never before had I realized the full extent of who gets to decide who has rights and who doesn’t, and it pissed me off so bad, I immediately began to make changes. I doubled down on replacing judgment with empathy. I showed the people in my life I cared about them and their well-being. And I stopped trying to please people for good.

The first thing I changed when I decided I wasn’t going to be good anymore had the most immediate results: I decided I wasn’t going to step aside for men when I stepped out the door for a walk. It seems innocent enough, but I’ve been shoulder checked by a number of guys who I’m pretty sure were unaware of my existence until they ran right into me. I’ve always been a non-physical person. I don’t like concerts or crowds or touching strangers, but this silent statement declaring my due space in the world flared up more than one temper in the men who walked into me. (Even the statement “they walked into me” runs counter to the way I’ve thought of myself all my life.) I expected this to happen. I’ve been yelled at from cars, from the sidewalk, in stores, and pretty much everywhere else considered a public space in the city. I’m used to ignoring cat-callers and their increasingly agitated and sometimes violent attempts to get my attention. I know there are men out there who feel so entitled to the world around them, they won’t even step aside for someone on the sidewalk. I spent 27 years stepping aside for them without a second thought, but now, it’s my turn. The responses I get range from polite stepping aside, to muttered slurs under breath, to aggressive confrontation. The only solution for me is to keep walking, but I’m aware of the danger this puts me in. Bad behavior is knowing there could be consequences, but sticking to your moral compass even though it could upset someone else’s carefully balanced ego. I encourage safety and situational awareness for everyone who isn’t a straight white male, but the problem of social entitlement is not caused by the people in our nation who are routinely and viciously oppressed.

No one knows how old the narrative is, but society values tough men, compliant women, quiet Black people, birth gender conformity, tragic White heroes, standard beauty, and sexual agreeability. As long as we stick to these rules, our good behavior is rewarded—not with advocacy or social gain—but with tolerance. good behavior doesn’t move the needle closer to equality or understanding, it only performs the status quo. A conscious choice to behave in a way counter to these expectations results in overblown consequences that unevenly mirror what good behavior gains. I grew up with many strong and loud women who were shamed or cut off by their bosses, their mothers or fathers, and their peers. Don’t cause a fuss. Don’t raise your voice. Don’t argue. Don’t stomp your feet or ask for more or expect a return on your efforts. Do what you are supposed to do and take pride in the knowledge that you made life easier for someone else. Phrases like these have a way of sticking in our heads until we absorb them as truths, but when we embrace bad behavior, when we ask for what we need instead of wait for things to be bestowed upon us, we see these words only as tools to keep us on good behavior.

In 2014 I wrote a criticism of a young woman who had her face Photoshopped into different versions of beauty in countries all over the world. The project was meant to challenge beauty standards, but when I saw the project pop up in Harpers Bazaar, Cosmo, Elle, and other traditionally female targeted magazines, I wondered how the project rose to the challenge. In the critique, I concluded that it didn’t, that any momentum the project originally had ended as soon as the spread appeared in the entities that heavily control the feminine image-agenda. This was the first time I explored how even when our intentions are radical, women are funneled into being perceived as practicing good behavior when it comes to media presentation. The young woman agreed to have her project published in the same magazines that once published a headline that read: “Here’s How Many Calories a Day Victoria’s Secret Model Taylor Hill Eats to Look Like This.” The woman set out to explore standards of beauty throughout the world in order to challenge the status quo of today, but by agreeing to publish in such magazines, remained on her best behavior without moving the needle away from pervasive female stereotypes.

Women misbehave by being themselves. For young women, self-awareness is inextricable from self-loathing, at least at first. When I was a teenager, I became aware of myself by becoming aware of how people looked at and treated me, and these were for the most part negative experiences. I was unaware of the expectations I was meant to meet in society. As a skinny white girl, I was privileged in many ways, but some of this privilege was connected to the image of the ideal sexualized woman, and I was twelve or thirteen when this actually dawned on me. When the grown men around you start to say “you should be a model,” it’s flattering until you begin to understand how models are treated, how they treat their own bodies, and how they are expected to release their autonomy to corporate agendas. The first thing a young woman realizes about models is that she will never be one, because she will never be good enough. It’s too much responsibility for a young woman—to grow up and be self-sufficient, strong, smart, autonomous, while protecting yourself from the onslaught of beasts that expect your image to yield something that only benefits others. Good behavior is doing both: growing up and being strong, but giving yourself piece by piece to society that demands your image, your body, your beauty, be used to their exclusive gain. This makes bad behavior, villainous behavior, an attractive draw from an early age. But it is a struggle to achieve unless you are totally impervious to pain and criticism. For women of color, autonomy is a risk with consequences that are multiple times scarier than what I face as a white girl. When a woman of color started the civil rights movement, the reaction from society was violent and motivated by fear. The simple act of not doing anything when something was expected of Rosa Parks launched a battle for black women to fight for decades to come. Society expects a different set of good behaviors from them—quiet, out of the spotlight, wise only when it benefits white heroes, and above all: grateful for any slim opportunity. Young women of color have experienced the cruelest duality of sexualization and suppression by society, it’s difficult to imagine how they manage the strength to push back during a time when it’s so easy to become exhausted.

When I was growing up, under the wing of second wave feminists and part-time lesbians, I learned the power of sex. The problem was, like it is for many girls, it was not a power I discovered myself and therefore had no control. It’s a power that is not consciously operated by adolescents, like a machine with sensitive controls, but it is one that magnetizes men of all ages. There probably isn’t a single woman on the planet who could avoid this entirely during the years she grew into understanding her sexuality. My experiences taught me that young women are gifted something powerful and menacing, something they should be careful using and exercise extreme caution when wielding. I was taught sex complicates every relationship, because it is something you can never take back. It is something the men you sleep with own. Sex was about giving up a part of myself, not gaining a part of someone else. We have been teaching young men and women two completely different things about sex for so long, I still feel guilt for past sexual experiences that I should have tossed off long ago. When I wonder if the men of those moments feel the same way about it, I feel a sick and empty sense that this is a uniquely feminine guilt, that for many women, it’s so hard to let go of sexual guilt because of the way we were taught to think about using our bodies. Certainly, I can’t think about this problem without linking it to LGBT youth, who must experience the same kind of guilt and conflict at the start of their personal development. These issues are tricky to separate into male/female/straight/gay/trans/etc exclusivity, but I’m trying to say I don’t believe the way we talk to young people about sex and their bodies has traditionally been in favor of anyone besides straight cis men and their experience of intercourse and sexual prowess. I wasn’t really aware sex was something I could enjoy until I got to my third or fourth partner, but until then, I never questioned that what I did was for someone else. And this problem is not unique to my life. It’s a symptom of a culture that associates good behavior with giving without asking to receive. Women who demand to be reciprocated for what they give, or worse, expect good things to happen to them without giving anything in return, are the villains of many real life and fictional tales. This comes all the way down to basic human rights. Women who expect to be in control of their bodies, their decisions, their autonomy, even their voting rights, are punishable in the eyes of capitalism and sanctioned by the law.

In contemporary society, women are demonized for owning their sexuality. The expectation to be virginal—if not anatomically, than at least soulfully—is an unsustainable pressure on young women in particular. We see villainous women wielding their charm and sexual authority and are meant to believe it is further evidence of their immorality, of their lack of restraint when using this powerful tool. We interpret villainous sex as women who are less discerning about who they sleep with and who they wield sexual power over. Sexual contentment—whether or not the woman perceives what she is doing as sexual—is disqualifying in almost every field outside Hollywood. Sexualizing women is only acceptable if it’s non-consensual. Vanessa Williams began her illustrious career by being on her best behavior. The 1983 Miss America was pressured to forfeit her title when Penthouse published racy photos of the young model. The photographs were taken consensually and published without her authorization, causing the Miss America committee and fans to question her credibility as the crown winner. Williams returned her title and could easily have faded into the ether of shame the public projected onto her image. Instead, Williams turned her bad behavior into a successful career as a singer, author, actress, and award winner. She defied the media and public expectations of self-flagellation after the controversy, turning the tables on how young women are meant to carry themselves after this level of public admonishment. The time-honored tradition of using women’s sexuality and consent to ruin their lives and careers continues at a steady rate with the rise of social media, because shame and fear are qualities of good behavior. At the time of the backlash, Williams no doubt felt an unbelievable weight of discouragement over the storm, but her decision to own her choices, her sexuality, and her status made her the hero of her own story and a role model for bad girls everywhere. In 2011, Michelle Obama did the unthinkable: after all the backlash she received for wearing sleeveless dresses, she had the nerve to wear short shorts on vacation. Of course, the shadowy nay-sayers on the internet lashed out saying this was not appropriate attire for a First Lady. Photos of Mrs. Obama in the racy garments show the hem of the shorts about four inches above her knee—hardly what I would consider short shorts by any stretch. Nevertheless, the fact that a woman in power exposed a little more of her skin, more than 25% of Huffington Post poll voters were comfortable with, caused a knick in her credibility and image. (Meanwhile, Vladimir Putin rides around horses shirtless and is heralded as a champion for masculinity.) Femininity, specifically one woman’s ownership of femininity, specifically a black woman’s ownership of her body, has potentially damaging consequences for a woman in power. Society treats Melania Trump the same way. Although her whiteness allows her much more leniency, her clothes and body have been sexualized and celebrated or condemned before her intelligence and capabilities were even considered. Her evolution as an individual is only almost as interesting as the career of the man she is associated with. Image is praised before autonomy, and women who flip this expectation are automatically at risk of public scorn.

A villain is, above all else, familiar with rejection. She has been told no so many times in her life, she has been told she is not good enough, it no longer means anything to her greater agenda. This frees her to go on her way the way she has learned to function: without support. This might be the definitive difference between the hero and the villain. The hero is used to being told yes, while the villain is used to opportunities being withheld and has no more disillusion about why. I bring this up to address the new realities of rejection in a technological society, part of which includes online dating. Everyone gets rejected at some point, but with the rise of dating apps and other means of romantic communication, we’re seeing the phenomenon of men who have perceived themselves as heroes of their own world for most of their lives burst into flames at the first hint of rejection from a potential partner. Young women are more confident and secure than ever before, and the expectation for women to blush or contradict with self-effacement after a compliment is not as realistic as it used to be. The amazing thing about this phenomenon is we can provide evidence of male fragility to a thousand people in a second, with the press of a key. Women misbehave by being confident in their romantic lives, and not cutting themselves down for men to rebuild with compliments and words of assurance. Confidence for women is becoming, if not for the first time, at least for the largest public, self-generating. This poses a threat to individuals who rely on searching for insecurities to gain something from a relationship. The contrast between young women who fight each day for things we shouldn’t have to earn–basic respect, equal pay, access to healthcare–and young men who lose it when a woman says “no thank you” to a second date is a micro study in the social order that grew out of women being pressured into good behavior.

I could go on. I could talk about the wage gap, the fragility of masculinity, America’s prison complex, the raging political fire that is sure to grow. But bad behavior is tiring and not exactly rewarded. Young women, grown women, women of all colors, all gender and sexual identities, it’s time to consider your good behavior, the context of your manners. Ask yourself who profits from it, and are you seeing enough, or any, of that profit in your own life. It’s time to rethink your place in society. It’s time to use the power you have, not the power you’ve been allowed to wield in a designated space at appropriate times. It’s time to misbehave.

 

Counter Culture: Justin Beachler’s Babalon Working

In many ways, the late 2010’s are starting to resemble the 1960s. There is a new attitude of political distrust and a bitter sense that the country is trying to revert back to values that espouse racism, sexism, and recently, neo-fascism. While artists are busy finding ways to fight the swell of hate overtaking our country, Justin Beachler is bringing back hippie era coping mechanisms of occult magic, stoner dens, and tye-dye. His solo show, Babalon Working at Bunker Center for the Arts plays with the light and dark sides of 60s counterculture in an incense scented installation.

We met at his home studio to discuss the upcoming show at Bunker and take a look at the work in progress. “I was very interested in the 60s and psychedelic culture when I was younger. I’ve been making work about it since I was in Charlotte Street in 2013, creating Head Shop with Tim Brown from OK Mountain.”—an artist run collective in Austin. I didn’t see Head Shop, but I did see Beachler’s Old & In The Way last year at Haw Contemporary. The display of homemade water pipes made from flavored beverage bottles was congruent with Beachler’s interest in clashing colors and inelegant display. Haphazard as it looks, his aesthetic has specific origins. “When I was a kid I spent a lot of time in head shops and music stores. It was a weird capitalistic form of subculture. Everything in all the stores looked the same, with the same posters, the same weird dragon wizard holding a glass orb. And after I made the funny work, I went back to the darker side of psychedelic culture that I remember from my childhood.” Beachler sites one particular experience that awakened him to the culture of drug use. “My dad’s a biker, and I remember being in these biker houses with him, in spaces with Easy Rider centerfolds everywhere. Once, I found a medical clamp with macramé woven to the bottom, with a roach clamped on the end. ‘What’s that?’ I asked. My dad stopped bringing me after that.” Pulling from this formative memory, Beachler reconstructed what he saw that day for Babalon Working, tying his own macramé helixes and found feathers onto medical clips, now with sticks of incense pinched between the teeth instead of the last puff of a joint.

In his own words, Beachler describes his work as “frivolous and irresponsible.” Exploring the conceptual potential in consumer objects in a time of great global distress is a way of watering down the conversations we need to be having. “The concept’s I’m working with aid in nothing but distraction from the serious cultural problems currently at hand,” he says of his work. The Internet has certainly provided us fantastic tools for distractions, and Beachler uses his Instagram feed to layer hyper-colorful and erotic stimuli into images of blended meaning. These posts are flavored like a bad acid trip, shrill and lurid enough to wipe all thoughts of political outrage from your mind for a moment during the scroll. Beachler’s posts are hard to untangle on a little screen and feel more like sketches of the finer art that enters the gallery. His posts contrast the phenomenon of using Instagram to sell a twee bohemian lifestyle, as many successful accounts portray the sun flared wanderlust dreams of the flower children. Beachler’s psychedelic/occult/erotica aesthetic leans into the digital age with a well-curated false reality.

The show’s title Babalon Working refers to a “sex magick ritual” performed by L. Ron Hubbard and Jack Parsons in 1947 based on Aleister Crowley’s Scarlet Woman. The ritual was designed to manifest the liberated woman archetype, a stand-in for the Whore of Babylon. (Parsons felt he achieved this when he met Marjorie Cameron, but the second part of the ritual—impregnation—was unsuccessful.) Beachler relies heavily on myth and assumption to inform the audiences experience of his installation, which evokes a ritual recently completed in a dark area of the gallery. “Everyone has a different part of the story before they arrive at the gallery. I gave my friends one piece of information, the press another, and the gallery another. Nobody walks in with the full story.” He cites a party with the Terry Radio crew before he installed the bongs at Haw. One party-goer walked in and smiled, turned to a friend and said “We smoked out of those.”

Though the work lacks real authenticity (Beachler was born in 1981) it is palpable to an age group that grew up with the same occult culture curiosity and access to the Internet in the early aughts. “The psychedelic thing is making a comeback, and the Internet is full of it,” says Beachler, who grew up reading the classic drug experience review site Erowid.org. It’s a joke to equate a few tye-dyed tapestries and beaded curtains with any anti-capitalist and anti-consumer sentiment today, but Beachler sees this as a source of irony for today’s generation. “We’re using irony to fight a crippling sense of or hopelessness for the future. Irony is one of the only conceptual forms that feels right at this moment.”

 

Ghost Post: Rhiannon Dickerson

Welcome to my Ghost Post series, an occasional divide from the usual content that tackles subject matter I want to make discussion room for. This post comes from Kansas City poet and lecturer Rhiannon Dickerson, who had a powerful reaction to this year’s election cycle controversy and is a general badass feminist with a strong voice. Her personal experience of sexism and abuse struck me as an important topic to make available to a wide readership, given the distance we still have to travel to make this kind of story a thing of the past.

Every Woman I Know

By Rhiannon Dickerson

Driving to the store this weekend, my daughters and I were listening to the local news when we heard the audio of Trump boasting about sexually assaulting a woman. I quickly turned off the radio, parked, and went into the store. As we navigated the aisles for my soon-to-be 10-year old daughter, Isabel’s birthday, deciding between emoji party cups or princess cups, I was only half-present, preoccupied with what my daughters heard on the radio, and the conversation I’d need to have. Earlier this summer, we all watched Hillary accept the Democratic nomination, and it was Isabel’s enthusiasm for Chelsea, and Hillary that, for the first time in this election, I felt inspired. She watched their speeches closely. She listened to powerful women confidently espouse their views, and their experiences, and she was moved to tears. It was seeing her see these women that made me fully realize the importance of this moment historically.

We headed back out to the car, our cart full of pre-teen party goods. I wanted to talk to the girls alone—in a safe space without men. And I was conflicted—I didn’t want them to feel scared, but I wanted them to know there’s always danger around us as women, as girls. I turned around in my seat and I told them what sexual assault meant. We practiced saying, “No” firmly, and without any explanation. We practiced saying, “My body. My rules.” I steadied myself with every “No.” But the thing is we all know those words won’t protect us. I felt powerless as I put on a brave front. I kept thinking about this app I saw on Facebook earlier in the day. It’s an app you can use as you walk to your car—Safe Trek, I think. You simply open the app, and keep your finger on the icon until you reach your car, and then you text in a preset code. If you release the icon and don’t enter your code in 10 seconds, police are notified. We aren’t safe even walking to our cars, I thought. We’re not safe anywhere.

When I was a young girl, my mom taught me about the “oh-oh” feeling, and what to do if anyone ever made me feel that way. My mother was a survivor of sexual assault from her family, from strangers, and from her partners. As women this is part of our everyday lives. Every day. Every woman. Fear, violence, casual sexism, misogyny, looking over our shoulders as we walk down the street, as we walk to our cars, the fact that statistically speaking, we’re in spaces with rapists every day unbeknownst to us.

My first memory is from when I was 3 or so. I was sitting at the top of the stairs, my baby brother asleep in the next room. It was late at night, and I was supposed to be in bed, but I was listening to the sound of my mother being beaten downstairs. I was only 3. I was powerless. I felt powerless.  Years later, in a different house, after my mother left him, he showed up one morning intent on getting in. He tried to break down the door with my brother’s bike, and I was relieved he hadn’t used mine, and ashamed I felt relieved. His girlfriend sat in the car in front of our house. In my memory, she’s checking her lipstick in the mirror. We left through the back door, my mother’s open robe fluttering in the wind as we ran to the fence and she pushed us over. We moved in silence. It was a wooden slat fence and it was so high I can’t imagine how she made it over. Our neighbor—whom we’d never met—was startled when we fell into her yard. She was signing paperwork with the Orkin man who gave us coloring books with pictures of cockroaches while my mother called the police.

When I was 27, I was strangled (it’s still painful to write that word). My boyfriend, someone I loved and trusted, someone I knew since I was 10 years old, 6’3” 280 pounds pressed me to the floor, his hands on my throat, my fingers struggling to scratch his face, or push him off, or gouge his eyes. For years part of me was still lying on the basement floor trying to breathe, trying to leave.

And it’s every woman I know. It’s every woman you know.

By the time I was 16, six of my closest friends and family had been sexually assaulted by men they knew. I’m 35 now, and I can’t count the women anymore. And we don’t talk about it except sometimes when we’ve had enough to drink to let the stop out of our throats, to let the scream out of lungs, to move past the shame to rage. We don’t talk about it. So when you call it “lewd” or “crass” or “locker room banter”, you create a safe space for misogyny, you perpetuate its existence, diminish its reality, and side with the abuser. You leave me on the basement floor trying to understand what happened, what I did, and what I should have done differently.

***

People are asking: are we normalizing sexual assault in these conversations? No. These conversations demonstrate that it is already normalized. Violence against women is accepted, or ignored and implicitly condoned, sometimes encouraged, and often sexualized. It’s part of the fabric of America, part of the fabric of patriarchal oppression, part of what it means to be a woman in the world.  They call it locker room banter because the locker room is the apex of American masculinity, and because masculinity has always required demonstrating power over women, because sexual violence against women affirms masculinity, because patriarchy has never valued women, but does value violence against them. The locker room is the acme of American masculinity—but these values are evident in the board room, the war zone, school room, golf course, and now, the presidential stage. These values are evident in the constitution when they say “all men are created equal” and didn’t mean women—because, well, women have always been dehumanized and objectified.

We’ve never been treated equally. And I’m a white ciswoman. Many folks experience this exponentially more than I have. Misogyny against women of color, against transwomen—is excused, dismissed, ignored and justified far more often. Because culturally, historically, and legally we’ve dehumanized our sisters of color with greater potency and frequency than their white, or cis counterparts.  We’ve come so far, I want to think. My daughters feel empowered by possibility. We have a major party female presidential candidate. But standing next to her on that stage is a self-confessed sexual predator (and let’s not forget, a racist, xenophobic, Islamophobic, narcissist) and the crowd is cheering for him; they’re applauding. The most terrifying thing is that that stage reflects every room in America. Every step towards progress is met by a creepy, powerful man who gives you the “oh-oh” feeling as he stalks the stage behind you, as he demands that you should be ashamed of yourself, as he talks over you, and he devalues your humanity, and ridicules your ability. Every woman I know. Every stage we’re on. He is some of the men we know. Men you know. Men we love. Men we sleep with, and men we teach. Our grandfathers. Our sons. Our presidential candidates. They are everywhere, and it is terrifying.

I watched the town hall debate, and I cried into my hands to stifle the sobbing—where the hell was that trigger warning? I felt like I was at the top of the staircase again listening to my mother being beaten, listening to women everywhere try to muffle their screams so they don’t wake up the children, running away at night with nothing—no bags, no shoes, even—in an attempt to flee before he wakes. I felt like I was in the police car again deciding not to press charges. I felt threatened and disempowered and fucking scared. I’ll be having long talks with my son about consent, about respect, about sexuality, and masculinity. I’ll remind my daughters that our bodies are ours, and that we live in a world that wants to take our power away, that “No” is a word that doesn’t need explanation.

But, men—this shit is on you. Have you excused or justified or minimized violence against women? Have you taken the side of the abuser? Have you laughed at “locker room banter”? Have you made rape jokes? Harassed women on the street? Have you wondered what she was wearing or what she said before he hit her? Have you blamed women for the violence against them? Have you softened the edges of assault by calling it “lewd language”? Have you created a safe space for violent abusers? Have you kept quiet when you should have stood up? Are you part of rape culture?

Dig deep, y’all, because this isn’t new, and it isn’t going away. It’s every woman I know, and some of the men, too.

Oh, How We’ve Failed

This morning, The Kansas City Star published a spectacularly destructive article by Laura Herrick on the ways in which women can adjust their lifestyles and actions to prevent rape from happening to them. Here, you will read the original article, titled “Women can take action to prevent rapes” in italics and the responses below each section. To write a letter to Herrick, reach her at oped@kcstar.com.

(Update: The Star has removed the original article from their website. If you would like a PDF of the original article, send me an email. I saved it.)

With a long history of publishing awful fluff pieces and generally obnoxious clickbait, The Kansas City Star and whoever approved the original article reached a new height of incompetence when deciding to run this dazzling number. Here you go.

Let me preface this by saying that I empathize with women who have been raped. These women have endured terrible experiences and need to know that what happened was not their fault and that whatever they did to stay alive was the right thing.

I would also like to remind men that “no means no” (and if someone is too drunk to say no, then no is implied); that no matter what a woman wears or does, she isn’t “asking for it”; and that if men witness a woman being treated inappropriately, they need to step in and attempt to stop what is happening.”

Stop right there. Your article is over. As many times as I read and considered this garbage piece of writing, this was the only part I kept coming back to and thinking “at least she said one good thing before the turgid swirl of bad rhetoric came out like from a broken sewage pipe.” If you haven’t read the original piece, be prepared, because that’s what it is. Sewage.

“I saw a quote on Facebook that said, “When a woman drinks too much she expects to wake up the next day hung over, not raped.” I agree.

But as women, shouldn’t we take responsibility for our bodies by not becoming so intoxicated that we don’t know what is happening? Every woman should know her drink limit and stop there.”

Props to you for finding reputable news sources to agree with. Nevermind Facebook uses algorithms harvested from your friends, your internet browsing, your online shopping, etc to structure your content. So, good for you for finding a Facebook quote you agree with. But by the lizard-logic of your next sentence, I can only conclude that this was as far as you went into navigating the wide-spread discussion of the harmful perpetuation of victim blaming you can find almost ANYWHERE on the internet. I imagine this is how it happened: You saw a quote on a page designed by experts to filter and tailor content to your liking, had a blip of a thought about blame cross your mind—which has no doubt been conditioned by other blips of idiocy you found by whiny men’s rights activists crying over their perceived loss of power—and you spent what I assume was the better part of an otherwise unproductive day to cobble these thoughts together into one, gloriously ignorant Star-appropriate op piece about the fault of women in accepting responsibility for the history of sexual violence that has targeted them from multiple sources for the entire history of humanity. I try to imagine this, but honestly, I can’t.

“No, she’s not asking to be raped by being drunk. But isn’t it her responsibility to reduce the risk by not getting to that point? And if you wake up the morning after doing the ‘walk of shame’ don’t yell rape if you regret your actions of the night before.

Accept your role in what happened, learn from the experience and move on.”

 I wish I could remember what my reaction was when I read that little gem of a statement for the first time. I might have lost consciousness from the blow of backwards reasoning and, when I came to, found my kitchen table flipped over on fire. That’s an exaggeration, but I did—and I’m sure I’m not alone—release a cry of absolute pain into the world at the evidence another woman who lives in the same world as I do could connect such appallingly oppressive ideas together to form words I so naively expected could still only come from non-woke men. A part of me died a little inside. The only way I can recover from this is to take your harmful statements apart piece by piece in hope of preventing such harmful hypothesis from you ever inflicting them on the world again.

It’s really quite fantastic to hear an educated and eloquent woman such as yourself refer to the journey home after a sexual encounter as a “walk of shame.” Because for a woman, sex is a shameful and degrading act that was only invented to please the male kind no matter how you slice it. Thanks for that, patriarchy!

Regarding responsibility, let’s use this analogy. When men drink, they have to be careful not to operate heavy machinery. (Note: gender has nothing to do with it. Don’t operate big stuff drunk.) Luckily, heavy machinery can be largely avoided if one has limited access to construction sites, airplane hangers, leisure boats, the keys to their car, stuff like that. When women drink, they have to be careful in every situation you can think of. Sexual assault happens in public and in private places. It happens at house parties, at the club, at a friend’s house, at your own house, outside, inside, in the presence of others and in the presence of nobody. If the only way to prevent operating heavy machinery is to not do it, why don’t we view rape the same way?

Accept your role? What role? The role of existing in the world? The role of going about one’s day unmolested? The role of there’s a 26% chance a woman will be raped in her lifetime? The role that nearly half of all women will experience some form of sexual assault in their lifetime? What role are these women accepting in the violence they, you have so beautifully stated, could easily prevent? And what makes you believe it’s so easy to simply “learn from the experience and move on?” Does the fact that 54% of rapes go unreported add up your conclusion that women should just learn and move on?

“Women want to be treated as sexual equals when it comes to desires, the ability to have casual encounters and the enjoyment of sex. But some women act on this freedom then want to deny their involvement later.

Every woman who falsely accuses a man of rape makes the battle harder for women who are actually raped. And the lives and reputations of the men who are falsely accused are often irreparably destroyed.”

Bringing desire into a conversation about rape and sexual assault is the most offensive, juvenile, retrogressive piece of whatever-you-can-even-call-this-hot-mess I have ever seen. The only thing ANYONE can assume about ANYONE ELSE’S sexual desires is this: Even in fantasies, nobody wants to have sex 100% without their consent. Saying “women want to be treated as equals when it comes to sexual desire” ONCE AGAIN removes the responsibility of not raping from rapists.

Furthermore, the notion that women lie—that anyone lies—about being raped is incredibly damaging and undermining to an event that alters someone forever. Who do you suppose was the first person to claim a woman was lying about being raped? I’ll give you two hints: it was probably someone who felt their power would be taken away by the truth, and it probably wasn’t a woman.

It is not women who lie about rape that make the battle harder for women who have been raped. It’s you. It’s people like you who continue to shirk your responsibility to educate yourself against the pervasive culture of toxic masculinity and the patriarchical grip of victim blaming, shaming, and dehumanizing. If you give even one single shit about the reputations and future success of rapists, you need to seriously, hugely and forever, fucking check yourself.

“When men drink, their decision-making abilities are also limited. If a woman was too drunk to know what she was doing and should be excused for what happened, then why are men not allowed to be too drunk to make good decisions?

And if a woman is so intoxicated that she can’t remember giving consent for sex, then how can she know that she didn’t give consent?

If she was so drunk she was unable to make good judgments, then how can we be sure that she has any idea what actually happened?

Maybe she forced herself on the man. Or maybe she initiated the encounter.”

Did you read anything before deciding to push this garbage out into the world? A chance of a woman being raped is 1 of 5. For men, that number looks a little different. Only 1 of 71 men experience rape in their lifetime, and while it’s not impossible for a woman to force herself on a man without his consent, it’s way, way less likely to happen. Giving consent while intoxicated is a tricky grey area for everyone, but educating men to be respectful and use good judgment in these situations is more important than teaching women to moderate their impairment or stop drinking altogether. Also, ever heard of date rape drugs? There are some levels of impairment a victim of sexual assault just cannot control.

Many of us have been there in the morning when a sense of deep regret sets in, but you cannot assume everyone who has been in this position will automatically leap to accuse someone of this especially heinous crime. Sure, we all make mistakes, but one night of drunken consent does not send most people into creating revenge-seeking lies about what happened.

I’m puzzled by the question, “why are men not allowed to be too drunk to make good decisions?” Men can make good decisions when they are drunk. Anyone can. It’s hard, sure, but it’s not impossible, and it’s definitely not an excuse for rape. Drinking impairs judgment, but at no point in anyone’s life should that judgment slip so far as to justify the rape and assault of another human being. The fact that this is something you use liquor to excuse—implying that it’s already in the man’s brain to rape, booze just helps it along—is super fucking harmful to everyone of every sex and gender.

“I am not talking about the extreme situations like group rape or the Stanford incident. Those men should be held accountable for their inexcusable actions.

I am talking about the casual encounters many people have had — waking up the next day and realizing they are next to someone in bed and being embarrassed and regretful that it happened.”

Why not stop worrying about other people’s casual encounters and individual regret and start having a productive conversation about sexual assault, rape, reeducation, equality, and all the other things you clearly need help understanding.

“I hate that I have to tell my son that if he sees a drunk, unconscious woman, he needs to either run the other direction or find women to help her.

Men should be able to help a drunk female without thinking about calling a lawyer first. And people should be able to interact sexually with someone they are attracted to without fear of being convicted of a crime.”

Wait…didn’t you just admit you tell your son to run away from a woman when he sees she needs help? Are you implying already that it is mentally and evolutionarily engrained in your son to rape an impaired woman? This hands-off approach to education because “what can be done?” is the biggest problem we as a society have when discussing how we should teach people not to rape. If you truly believe men should be able to help that crafty wild animal, “a drunk female,” don’t educate your son to fear the ~*~irrational female brain~*~ that has only evolved secondary to the ~*~male brain~*~ to make his life more difficult. In the space of three sentences, you a) admit to educating your son the same way the toxic patriarchy has educated us all for hundreds of years, b) complain about the lack of helpful and progressive education of young men, of course for which you are in no way responsible for creating, and c) connect the two in a conclusion about the complex and ever-changing web of human sexuality as a whole.

“Bottom line: Men, stop acting like animals and having sex with anything that breathes, and intervene when you see a situation that you know is wrong.”

 This is one of the oldest and most harmful assumptions we have in our culture of toxic masculinity: that men “just can’t help themselves,” or “boys will be boys,” and other familiar adages that excuse the system for not educating young men to not rape.

“And women, take charge of your bodies and your sexuality by being sober enough to stop unwanted advances and sober enough to actually enjoy sex when you choose to have it.”

 Fuck you.

2016 Charlotte Street Foundation Visual Artist Awards Exhibition brochure

2016 Charlotte Street Foundation Visual Artist Awards Exhibition brochure

Madeline Gallucci

If you’ve ever overlooked it, there’s a chance Madeline Gallucci has turned it into a pattern.

She sees mischief in cryptic messages, such as utility scrawls upon sidewalks, signifying something important but revealing little to the casual viewer. Or in repeating colors in nature that have been co-opted by humans to appropriate the original meaning, like certain hues of neon. Gallucci recycles patterns she picks up along the way, giving them new life in the context of her own conceptual meditations. One of the reincarnate forms a Gallucci pattern becomes is in the body of a cell phone case. In this scenario, the work transcends the gallery walls and evolves into an element of ubiquitous connectivity.

However deep the examinations, it all begins with Gallucci’s diurnal observations. Her influences can be as grand as architecture and as mundane as old gum pressed into the sidewalk, and the work oscillates between these extremes. Inspiration from the finery of diverse subcultures—airbrushed motorcycles and fondant cake—assists to communicate a distinct brand of luxury. Themes of decoration and excess go to work in every Gallucci piece, to varying degrees of impact on the viewer. Dense swatches of color overlay their own backgrounds, repeating busily until a chunk of pattern develops its own identity, claiming ownership over its assigned medium. The Confectionary series makes purposeful connections to the delicate and frivolous construction of fashionable desserts. Each painting, like a sprinkle-crowded surface of a cake, elicits the help of sugary colors to draw the viewer close. A similar approach in the Soft-Serve series manifests as smaller pieces on accessibly sized 8.5״ x 11״ construction paper. Gallucci’s art has a pattern of becoming more ambitious, riskier, as it expands in size and materials. The saturated information is driven home by the serious lack of blank space on the canvas. Small paintings are intimate yet supply a steady stream of color in jostled layers, and large tapestries offer a material diversion that aims to consume.

Glimpses into the twitches of color beneath the foreground only drive the viewer further into the conceptual process. Rounding up Gallucci’s heady ideas from the conceptual prototypes of her sketchbook to a final product is a task well suited for the patient artist. It’s clear Gallucci delights in what she does, unable to resist constructing layer upon layer until the image has reached around the canvas (around, in the case of her hotel residency, an entire room). Similar to a Jackson Pollock painting, images feel hastily applied but are carefully scrutinized throughout the studio process. It is possible to feel overwhelmed with this constant information, as Gallucci’s viscerally impactive colors leap and squiggle and evade capture. A percentage of her audience is repulsed by the work, evidencing a heightened state of anxiety or disgust after staying in her immersive Artist in Residence room at Hotel Phillips. “People have the strongest response to shades of red,” Gallucci says of her color choices. There is a feeling her work can penetrate and course through a healthy body, like a resistant strain of flu, smearing our tame physical state with buoyant parades of color and form.

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Detail of The Sun Will Soon Burn Out Causing Many People Great Relief

 

Rodolfo Marron

Rodolfo Marron’s enchanting installations transform the gallery into a cozy space. Domestic elements, well suited for home shrines, find a new context on display in the intimate formations that link the artist’s past and present. Marron’s unique mythology—which includes departed creatures, color-changing plants, and memories of his childhood—embeds itself in the household paraphernalia he brings to the gallery. Marron constructs stuttering images of the home interior against backdrops of vintage wallpaper and colors that echo the hues of his origins. Vestiges of a Southwestern landscape are painted or planted, and with a delicate hand the spirits of the land come to life. Ghosts of bygone days resurface to haunt the torn pages of books, some of which contain selected phrases Marron uses to connect with his family. Cutout hands—so slight they are almost invisible—lift up to the viewer in a collective plea to return to the temporal realm, but are repeatedly denied. Authenticity appears as a commodified product in the form of potted succulents and reclaimed lace. Watercolor cacti are repigmented to reflect the dyes used to commercialize and redistribute region-specific botany, one of the few direct cultural criticisms in Marron’s recent work. Disembodiment and relocation are central to Marron’s personal past as he adapts to the gentrification of his neighborhood and how his artistic practice sets him apart from his community. “I’m putting the pieces of the past and present together,” he says. “My work has always looked at the immediate present. Now I’m reaching back to where I came from.”

Marron’s interest in ceremonial living manifests in references to Amada Cardenas, the enigmatic peyote pioneer, and using spent incense to transcribe letters from his sister. Exchanges from their letters are copied onto pages torn from books. Original text, “Complex Human Behavior,” acts as a header for the following message in a gentle scrawl: “hi buddah, Just wanna start off with I love you and miss you” written with the charcoaled end of an incense stick. Other text composed with the makeshift pencil reads less like a personal letter between siblings and more like a sober reminder: “you mistook magic for love, and love for obsession.” What these accomplish in the gallery is a tender glimpse into a close bond between brother and sister, who came from the same beginnings but found themselves worlds apart.

A longing for domestic comfort and safety works itself into the space of Marron’s installation. From old wallpaper to the exact shade of turquoise on the interior of Marron’s childhood home, a portion of the gallery is transformed into a personal history. Pigmentation from native berries infuse the wispy images of flora and fauna, connecting origin to representation. A legacy of a family and heritage connects us to the artist on a deeper level, and rather than conceal the process of understanding his roots, Marron lets us in. His kinship toward the late Ella the Deer, a tame doe that resided for two years in the Elmwood Cemetery, is an appropriate affinity to describe Marron’s process of evolution. From ending up in an unexpected place to becoming a local favorite, Marron navigates the complexity of belonging, identity, and gentrification with all the love he can conjure.

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Photo by Megan Mantia

 

Shawn Bitters

In Vladamir Nabokov’s Signs and Symbols, the deranged son suffers from a fictional disorder called “Referential Mania,” which causes him to perceive everything around him as a veiled reference to his own existence, and that “phenomenal nature shadows him wherever he goes.” For Shawn Bitters, rock formations and volcanic eruptions are transmitters of information, possessors of their own personal dialogue. As outsiders and explorers, we in the audience stumble upon these new formations and are confronted with the task of deciphering the message. The unmissable desert landscape of Utah sparked Bitters’s ideas about his relationship with the natural world, and his affinity to it could be explained by a creation story from his Mormon upbringing. In the story, humans were designated to create the world and all its formations under God’s direction. As a child, Bitters says he thought, “Maybe I’m attracted to [the landscape] because I helped make it.”

Bitters is the first to admit his interest in geology borders on obsession. Every rock in the earth tells the story of itself and the location it was uncovered, and like a good geologist Bitters takes the time to study his inspiration to decide what medium best suits his purpose in the studio. The story of the earth is complex, in many languages, and multilayered. A multidisciplinary practice seems the only way to convey the complexity of geological phenomenon. Printmaking, photography, sculpture, and painting media all find a place in the work, and the language of the stones feels dictated by the chosen materials. Bold colors of the volcanic eruption differ from the cramped marks of an avalanche or the stoic perch of a boulder—evidence of the commitment Bitters feels to render these occurrences in an artistic language.

Bitters translates the letters of the English alphabet into stones that correspond to the geological activity of the art. Prose and image come together to ignite our curiosity of the natural sciences, and our reward for spending time with the work is in the phrase revealed through interpretation, ranging from intimate to obscene to frivolous. Sometimes the stone stanza message in the volcanic bombs—as they plummet from the sky in a trail of ash—is that of laughter.

The Icelandic Stanza series consists of prints on photographs taken while on an excursion to Reykjavik. Part of Bitters’s toolbox is a collected array of precious stones, which he scatters on the gridded ground among the loose gravel. There are many layers of narrative at work in these images, which include the natural landscape and the one Bitters imposes. A laser-cut key on the clear frame around the image invites the audience to decipher the message and complete the story. Without the exquisite color and composition of Volcanic Exclamations, the work would be lost somewhere between the realms of dry science and artistic élitism, where we would refuse to engage. Hand-dyed paper segues from dawn to dusk as the series advances. What emerges is a sense that the volcanoes are talking to each other, but it’s up to us to eavesdrop.

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Photo by E.G Schempf

Full Review: Vade Mecum

A partial review of Vade Mecum was published as a blog post for The Pitch.

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Hungarian Holy Bible. Photo credit Kiosk Gallery

Back from a seven week residency in Hungary, Emily Connell displays porcelain slip castings of texts like Bibles, dictionaries, and encyclopedias that were cast in her studio overseas. The front room of Kiosk Gallery is transformed into a library of fossils, bearing a variety of pedestal pieces and wall works ranging from weighty blocks of open books to the abstract narratives of cross-sectioned pages. Black, feathered pages embedded in white Hungarian porcelain balance the lightness of the folio with the historical and literal weight of Connell’s chosen materials. Multiple pieces in Vade Mecum are not afraid to live out their existence as “open books.” Connell interprets the phrase to show us even open books retain some inaccessible mystery to their viewers. Words are gone, formerly in our language or in languages we can’t read, but the skeletal remains of the information tell us something about the character of each text.

Among the splayed Hungarian Holy Bible’s is Hungarian Chemistry Pocket Book, different, in its completely circular containment, from the spread-eagled religious texts that share the pedestal. Edges of the bibles glint with gold, a sensitive narrative bearing a precious metal, but the chemistry book is self-contained, independent as an idea and a movement. Hungarian Chemistry Pocket Book isn’t so precious as to endure the same ornamental burden the bibles bear, but such is science to religion. Discriminating decisions like this allow us a glimpse into Connell’s thought process while she makes each casting. Her Catholic upbringing finds a way into her adult life, serving as a jumping off point that inspires Connell to swim deeper into the inner struggle between sacrilege and the construction of art. Rigid adherence to historical and religious texts are reinterpreted during the inventive process—a clever slant on the problems of bibliolatry.

Connell acts as a translator for English, Italian, and Hungarian bibles. But her translation of religious material is understood beyond the written word. The movement of turned pages is captured in each sculpture, even as the book spills open to expose the private construction materials close to the spine. Books are not entirely deconstructed, maybe out of a lingering respect for their history and personal impact on Connell, but the original material changes enough. In fact, the book itself has not completely disappeared, its ashes encased between the fibrous porcelain sheets. By firing the old familiar stories into and expensive physical material, Connell contradicts the humility of the bound book and the teachings between the pages. Wall pieces like Webster’s New World Handy Pocket Dictionary & Webster’s New World Pocket Thesaurus present the pages in four discs, exhibiting the black and white wingspans of two books chopped up to quadriptych. Inner layers appear to flake and degrade as they are viewed, crumbling after being sawed into pieces. It is like viewing the rings of a tree—each page represents the passing of a certain amount of time.

Such a cohesive show does not happen overnight. The process of creating these ethereal sculptures is nothing short of labor intensive and has been explored by Connell year after year. In her studio, Connell coats individual leaves in slip. Page one. Page ten. Page three-hundred. All the way till the end of the volume, Connell’s patience is steady. Post-kiln, some sculptures are displayed and others are sawed into pieces. Book destruction is synonymous with fear and control, but here it is to preserve. Concurrent themes of book burning and preserving find perfect balance in the chosen medium. Is there more heresy in burning a bible than in burning a science text? Is it appropriate to preserve a text purely as a beautiful object when the guiding information has been completely erased? The burning of one book is associated with the rejection of dogmatic principles. And the other—maybe with laboratory carelessness. Pocket sized anything suggests a reduced value, so to coat a miniature bible in mud and bake until it has been reduced to ash might be a lesser strain on the artist’s eternal soul. Let us pray.

Too many iterations of the same basic process can be monotonous in any art. However, Connell is pursuing an arc and she’s taking her time. Working through her own personal upbringing, her Catholic rearing and artistic inclinations, might take a long time. If she can be patient, so can we. For now, the works in Vade Mecum give us a lot to consider.

Gender Rolling

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Priya steps to the stage, pink sari wrapped around their waist and tossed over their shoulder. They dance fluidly to the background music while the photographer’s camera flashes just out of frame of this low-quality video. Priya’s dance follows the unspoken order of seduction: turn, toss, wiggle. Flip, gaze, be coy. Be confident. Be fragile. Priya exudes a grace and elegance in their movements that isn’t expressed in the photographs of the hijras on the wall of Playing Gender, Asma Kazmi’s show in the front room of Plug Projects (until February 27th.) Kazmi spent time with three hijras in New Delhi “learning the conventions of gender parody,” (problematic statements such as this pepper the artist’s description and had me cringing more than once,) in order to interact with hijra culture. Hijras are not simply performers, but part of what is commonly known as the Third Gender in India. Like other cultures, individuals with non-binary identities in India are often part of the fringes of society—relegated to dangerous or unsustainable work.

Of the four individuals in the show’s film, Asma’s performance is the least sophisticated. She smiles the entire time and looks unsure about what to do with her hands. Her hips barely move, leaving her vulnerable to direction and critique from the other hijras. There is a touching moment in the film when Asma’s shoot is interrupted by Radha, who fusses over Asma’s gown and posture like a correcting mother. Radha sashays out of frame, revealing Asma’s new pose that is certainly more genteel than it previously was. We are reminded of the gap between her and the hijras, and, with this reminder, begin to question how much Playing Gender falls into the spectrum of appropriation. Questions add up when you realize the video is the only place to find the names of the hijras in the entire show.

Kazmi chose this direction to embody “the artifice of the hijras,” but our perception of what is artificial differs from hers. In the photos, the hijras are shopped against a white backdrop instead of the red curtain they dance against in the film. I understand the urge to cut out backdrops to emphasize the subject, but the stark white behind the dancers under-values the anthropological aspects of the project. The photos on the wall were not carved by the agency of the hijras, leading me to wonder how influential their roles were in the art and to what extent they were being asked to conform to the vision Kazmi had for the project. The video feels weighted with a history the photographs try to erase. Kazmi has eliminated their background.

One can forgive PC slip-ups in the show’s text because this video touches a place in us where words would probably fail. Kazmi is on the right track with her references to Judith Butler, one of the leaders in gender and sexuality discussions, but deeper reading of Butler’s text is missing from Playing Gender. Butler says gender is not something we are born with, but something we perform daily because society becomes confused when the pieces below our waist don’t connect with the rest of us. It’s a relevant statement, but Kazmi latched onto the performing aspects of the hijras without deepening our understanding of their realities through the power of art. It seems Kazmi is having a difficult time merging her role as an artist with her experiences in the hijra community, but who’s to blame her? Her Playing Gender video encapsulates a small group of people who are as real as it gets.

 

Playing Gender Asma Kazmi

Plug Projects

1613 Genessee Street, KCMO 64102

http://www.plugprojects.com

Watch part of the video: http://asmakazmi.com/artwork/1011740-Playing-Gender.html

Full Review: Dark Days, Bright Nights

A partial review of “Dark Days, Bright Nights” was published in The Pitch on February 10th, 2016.

finland-Rauha-Makila-Mura

 

Now, in late December, the people of Finland will experience their darkest days of the year. With only about 4 hours of sun per day in some regions, winter has officially arrived. Lakes freeze over with meter thick ice, and snow can rise a couple feet off the ground, covering every inch until March when spring starts to hedge in. It is the perfect time of the year to see “Dark Days, Bright Nights” at Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art, where a collection of works by Finnish artists mirror the dropping temperatures outside. Political and personal, each piece in the collection feels a part of something bigger than the individual artist. Everything taps into a shared experience of living in Finland, be it the landscape, the necessary layers required to venture into the snow, or the brief but deadly wars that divided the land—the artists here are struggling against something bigger. Cable knit sweaters—familiar worn articles that would spell a frozen death if left behind in a moment of carelessness—are painted with as much care as it would take to knit the garment itself. Memories of a lonesome farm covered in snow bloom from large canvases like selections from anxious dreams. There are no fires in the images, but the glow of a functioning artistic community lights up the work from deep inside. What emerges is a sense of never being relaxed, never being inattentive to what the country produces by weather and by culture.

Finland is reflected in every face, pale and stoic, hungry for warmth—a unique landscape in itself. Rauha Mäkilä’s portrait series—five altogether—are of haunted girls and women with empty eyes and carnivorous expressions. Against flat, single color backgrounds of rose pink and icy blue, the women seem to be momentarily caught in the frame of the paintings, either as they pass through or try to escape their oppressive walls. These are faces in the winter. The uneven exposure to the sun and snow has left splotchy marks around the foreheads and high on pallid cheeks. Mouths have been ripped out or erased, eyes have been blindfolded, and the women press onward through the season, leaving behind something vital as the landscape around them dies. “Petite,” the largest of the five, is striking red and orange, but the warmth of the colors is not a comfort. A young woman bows her head in profile, but it is her mouth we are focused on. Blood and scabs replace what would have been a willowy pout, matching the crimson background. To the left, a smaller “Doora” looks directly into the viewer. Her high white collar suggest a religious association, but the way she stares out with almond shaped eyes sunk into the shadows of her face is deeply upsetting. Her small mouth puckers hungrily like a wolf on a dusky prowl.

Jarmo Mäkelä’s series, “Kärpästen herra (Lord of the Flies),” “Kuninkaiden kumarrus (The Bow of the Kings)” and “Europa, Europa” depict identical boys in school uniforms in three surreal developments. The most striking of the trilogy is the eleven knee-high sculptures of the boys, identical in their stance and solemn expressions, emerging as if from the paintings of themselves on the wall. The material looks like concrete, although the description says clay, and where the mold for their shape was broken, hard flaps of stone stand out from the figures. Material leakage is common in mold-made sculptures, but Mäkelä’s decision to leave the surface unfinished is a queer one. As the little boys march forward into the gallery, they proudly wear their flaws on their skin, on their small faces, like some uncivilized troop of future sovereign. “Kuninkaiden kumarrus (The Bow of the Kings)” directly behind the sculptures represents the boys in a more animated and disturbing backdrop. They brandish sticks, raise a skull above the battleground like an ominous flag. Boys ride on their twins backs, ready to joust, and one of the decanonplets (what is the term for 11 twins?) beats a drum above the frenzy as he looks deep into the woods beyond—or possibly out at the sculptures of his brothers. “Europa, Europa,” the second painting, is a busy, contained drama of the same boys trapped in an underground room with hysterical German Shepards leaping off the ground. A boy’s face on the body and clothes of a grown man stands giant on an oil barrel in the small room, beating a drum strapped to his chest. Above the scene, two of the boys balance on an unfinished roof like fencers in combat. Mäkelä’s series explores the country’s civil war and eventual independence, which had to be defended during the Second World War when Soviet Russia rose to power. The identical boys, locked in battle in the paintings and banded together in the sculptures, signify the internal struggle Finland endured as the people fought for control during the transition into an independent nation. Their strength of self-preservation has eventually paid off, and a young, independent Finland has grown and even prospered.

Although most of the show focuses on paintings, Vesa-Pekka Rannikko’s colorful two-channel video installation, “Canary,” is set up in one walled off part if the gallery. Follow the taut climbing ropes, the sinew that stretches from a carabiner in the wall to the larger-than-life canaries projected into a corner. Masses of bright colors fill the shadows created by the ropes as birds alight on a perch and flit around. While we expect canaries to contain a certain amount of yellow, these birds are flat with primary colors, no shadows or varying hues define them. They are cadmium red, sunshine yellow, and bright cyan. The ropes and their matching shadows build a cage, and although the projected birds can move about freely, the effect of a controlled natural state prevails. A quick search into genetic modification exposes The Red Canary, a story of the first attempts to engineer an animal outside of it’s own evolutionary arc. This popular bird—in the wild and in captivity—caused English canary breeders to experiment with feeding the birds different types of food in attempt to change their color. In the installation, the color of the birds have been digitally modified (another type of human intervention that disrupts the natural state of things) erasing defining features like eyes and feathers and thus erasing naturally occurring traits. The story becomes a metaphor for ethnic cleansing and selective populating—with Finland experiencing some of this during World War II while their borders were still fluid. While the red canary was never perfected, Nazi leaders took notice of the experiment and admired the scientific approach to their brand of ethnic cleansing. While the literal desire to cage and control a wild life may be overstepping the meaning of the piece, the struggle against natural forces in the environment and political landscape which one exists can be so tiresome—so repetitive—that one wishes to exercise any amount of control at all. Within the context of the “Dark Days, Bright Nights,” the imposed cage of shadows reflects a nation’s desire to be self contained.

Anna Tuori’s three large paintings, “It Is All Now You See,” “Splendor in the Grass,” and “Things I’ve Seen I Can See No More” follow the dreary, reflective tone of their titles into glimpses of cold landscapes. The three paintings pulse like a memory slowly coming into focus. The vignette format of these large scenes keep the images from reaching the borders of the canvas, remaining in the stillness of a certain time without overtaking the present. A dreamy countryside is glimpsed through a clear spot in a frosted window, swirling with cold wind that does not disturb the culminating icicles. From our vantage point, the rural locale is safely in the past where it cannot freeze us. Tuori takes us gently into these moments while keeping us out of harm’s way, and as the vignette seems to breathe—expanding a little and contracting slightly—we may feel a stiff and far away breeze reach out to us from the cool colors of “Things I’ve Seen I Can See No More.”

Once outside the museum, the cold sets in for real. Chilly winds blow down Warwick and above the nearby park. Cheeks chap and fingers search for the warmth of deep pockets. It is as if you have traveled a great distance in a short amount of time, retuning home with a new appreciation for the environmental restrictions art can thrive in. There is no such thing as a culture without art, and the perspective the artists of “Dark Days, Bright Nights” bring to Kansas City is a fresh and effective reminder that anything can be accomplished in any weather.

“Dark Days, Bright Nights: Contemporary Paintings from Finland”

October 2nd, 2015, to February 21st, 2016

Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art

4420 Warwick Blvd

Kansas City, MO 64111

www.kemperart.org