Full Review: Vade Mecum

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

Connell_install1.jpg

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

Screen shot 2016-04-01 at 10.13.57 AM

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

Vaguely New and Still Familiar: PLUG Projects in the Summer

A Review of Personal Space and Vague Perimeters at PLUG Projects

July 17-August 22, 2015

A spider sets up in the cracks of a satin porch. I lean, nose first, into the rosy light of sunset settled in the crevasse of a mounted object. I feel the crowd disappear, their conversations blur and muddle, and I listen to the spider move one leg at a time up the web, scraping the silk along the way. This is Amy Garofano’s “Satin Porch” on the wall at PLUG Projects on a stiflingly hot July evening. I’m escaping the oppression of a non-air-conditioned vehicle and tiresome conversation for this show, then a cold beer. The spider has added an appropriate element to Personal Space in the front room of PLUG Projects: the lived-in familiarity of a shared space. For me, that translates into old roommates in old houses and the diverse components of each: mixed textured objects and eras around the shared rooms, a personal yet chaotic vibe in a private room, an object before it was withered by a cat scraping her claws. Amy Garofano taps into this collective memory with her wrapped shapes and materials. Some appear more machined than others, like the pre-laid objects in mid-century modern homes that lack character only to the outside viewer, but are heavy with associations to those in the living space. Through her color choices, vague familiarity of shapes and patterns, and their inviting presence on the wall, Garofano’s study of the shifting contexts between perception and objects is more effective in person than it sounds on paper. What is gained from her work is a sense that certain moments of personal clarity occur around the most daily objects and locations that surround us. The collective memory is accessible with careful use of cultural banalities—like suede and empty brick walls. I found her work as she found inspiration: during a lull in the day where I was sensitive to the details of a space, if only as a brief escape from heat, conversation, and activity. Quite satisfying, even if I’m wrong, to think a complete circle had been reached. (The spider, I hope, was left unbothered.)

Occupying the same room, Cybele Lyles’s colorful prints are windows to changing landscapes that first appear to be still. A number of these prints echo their own form, as if the frame holds the image and the image holds more frames. This empty space appears behind thin layers of ink that add atmosphere to the empty frames and rooms. Moments of contemplation or reflection can often appear stagnant or wasted to an outsider, and this feeling is enhanced by mirroring landscapes that appear still but are in constant movement, like sand or a river. I was pleased by both Lyle’s bold use of color and restrained use of line and form—a rare combination among a certain breed of abstract minimalists. New worlds are made inside our world with calculated choices of color and shape, stemming from Lyle’s clear understanding of interior space and the natural environment. It is a high-quality blend of serene environments and the changing complexities of inner life, with each component reflecting the other. My only grievance is that most of this work is The Dreaded Untitled—my biggest pet peeve in the contemporary art world. Abstraction like Lyle’s has the unique power to affect without dramatizing a medium or subjective scenario, and therefore retains its potential to drive the audience into a near-subliminal state with the punctuation of a single word. Her deft skill in envisioning alternate environments and rooms that the audience can access is not rewarded with the final detail which would propel us into a new reality. An artist who can convince us of her own world with few materials and a short statement owes it to her creative career to provide a title of equal measure. This truly is a missed opportunity.

A room away, beyond a dark corner at the end of the front gallery, Annie Woodfill sets up her spatial interpretation of the room and the relationship her practice has within it. Vague Perimeters is a variety of things because it is A Space In Progress. While Woodfill’s ideas are well-formed and articulated in the statement, the construction of the space felt like a temporary incarnation of the massive themes she is working with. Everything in the space is in the process of opening or shutting, being measured and cut, coated or stripped. Stages of living “in between” moments are sources of inspiration, like strewn mail on a desk or an object intended for later use resting angled against a wall. Nothing is fixed, nothing is stable, and therefore an intimacy is developed as you traverse the room. I think of the first interactions with a space—the very, very first ones—as being the most intimate and loving to the architecture itself. No one is more in sync with a space as the one who erects the walls, applies straight lines where there once was organic chaos. Even in the stages before a new piece is added to a space—such as the materials found laying against the wall, found ephemera waiting for an accessed potential—the objects in this installation are being thought about very carefully, very concisely. I wouldn’t be surprised if somewhere along Woodfill’s career, she began to build her own rooms, just to portray these ideas that form her obviously highly interconnected relationship to object and space. The invitation for an audience to enter this developing area can be difficult. Either the audience will pass through as they tend to do in spaces that appear under construction, or they will find themselves trapped in the scary grey area of being asked to consider the transitional environment in question, and not really understanding what is being asked of them. It’s a hard theme to work with—having a practice that is so enmeshed in these kinds of spaces and choosing elements of it to bring to a gallery—but Woodfill is on the right track with her deliberate and subtle assembly. Most notably, for me, the indication came upon looking up at the ceiling, where a single line of painter’s tape had been extended right up the corner of the wall and leapt across a material void to be reconnected with some existing structural part of the building. It is a buried, yet loaded choice that reflects the depth of her conceptual faculties and adherence to the artist statement. If choices like this evolve to their full potential—which I see as becoming a bit more loose and humorous—Woodfill can be sure the audience will feel welcomed and engaged in a space where vague is beautiful.

The Empress’s New Clothes

As the opening date of All is Fair approaches, the new business started by Peregrine Honig in the Bauer building on West 18th Street in Kansas City, the usual media and Honig’s own following have little to criticize. Initial reviews, soft announcements of the shop opening, served to entice Kansas City with the promise of new territory being explored in an effort to relieve some of the oppression the trans community faces. The first article, written by Huffington Post writer Kayti Doolittle, spouted some of the usual uplifting predictions for the shop (and at one point even compared her own desire for non-lacey underwear to the trans experience—no I’m not kidding). The lack of critical voices on the matter make it more important than ever to deconstruct the implications of a prominent artist opening up a transgender lingerie shop—separate from her existing lingerie shop—and using the store as a reason to call herself an activist.

Let’s start with the obvious: a privileged white woman of a dominant social class is using her business skills and local connections to profit off a product that is marketed to an oppressed minority. Not only that, she is controlling the image on the product itself, injecting her own voice and her work on each garment. What seems like harmless business smarts at first can still be peeled back to reveal a cycle of gender oppression, misinformation, and misrepresentation of a vibrant community by someone who doesn’t belong to it. In my now seven-month long journey to understand this issue from as many sides as possible, I’ve discovered a lot of different ways to approach this issue—ranging from our culture’s problem of appointing Hollywood cis-genders to play trans roles, why high-profile organizations like SAGA believe straight allies accomplish things LGBTQ individuals simply cannot, and perhaps most important of all, how the wide umbrella of Transgender is in a constant state of flux. Everyone I’ve informally interviewed about this endeavor had something to say, most with a mixture of mild curiosity or indifference, some with enthusiasm for the product, others altogether enraged by the venture. One of the strangest things I’ve come across was that most of the straight, cis-gender individuals I chatted with seemed to have no problem at all with the store. What strikes many as support strikes me as an ignorance to the extreme inequality the transgender community faces all the time. It was much easier for the cis-gender straight population to show support and excitement because none of the issues affect them directly. Vehement non-supporters were quick to point out the ways in which this store directly insults or mistreats them/the LGBTQ community they belong to. Same goes for mild supporters, who displayed brief curiosity and a tentative plan to someday visit the store and see what it’s about. The only excited supporters in the LGBTQ community I talked to fell into the drag queen/performance artist category, an interesting point I feel needs to be made.

These were all one-on-one conversations. Hardly any of these opinions have made it into any of the major media articles thus far. Every other article I come across is an exclusive interview with Peregrine herself—obviously tooting her own horn for the sake of the business, as business owners do—and so far it seems none of these reporters are actually reaching out to the LGBTQ community for their opinions. Maybe they’re afraid of finding what I found in my journey: groups of people who either don’t care or are only mildly interested. Heading into a community that is always fighting against some injustice in one way or another, it is perilous to discuss something as material as what kind of underwear they would prefer to wear. Perhaps these reporters are content with one person’s opinion—the person who has the most to gain from a positive public appearance.

Maybe they just don’t want to put in the legwork.

Most likely, I imagine, each individual who has reported on All Is Fair and has put some major positive spin on the piece is of this cis-gender privileged class—the ones who talk about the shop most favorably. My biggest question to Honig, to Kansas City, and to anyone who is watching this story develop: Where are the voices that matter most? Why do the loudest, most supportive voices come from the privileged class? If the trans community is the last to speak up about this, will we still be listening, or will our attentions have drifted again to the next artist using social buzz words to fill their pockets?

Without the essential voices that are missing from this conversation, all I can hear is Honig using her media influence to open a new bank account. I can’t prevent that from happening, but I can offer you another side of the issue that is deeper and more sinister than you will hear from other media outlets.

I want to break this down so we can examine the ways injustice is hidden beneath an assertion of understanding. Keep in mind, neither I nor my correspondents are authoritative voices in the media, LGBTQ culture, or Kansas City’s art scene. Together, we have simply contributed our voices to navigate this complex and mutable issue in a way that allows for a deeper and more productive conversation to occur.

It seems Honig believes a new store front will be more inclusive than it is excluded from Birdies, the existing shop. This simplified model leaves the critical thinkers with more questions than answers. In her unique social position—in society and in Kansas City’s who’s who club—it might not occur to her that what she wants from a store may not be what the trans community seeks in their efforts to become more visible and incorporated into daily life. As Cy Lauz expressed in a written piece about the shop on KCUR: “If you are a trans woman who is not particularly ‘passable’ and are shopping at a store or public venue, you face the possibility of being harassed, judged and even physically hurt.” Although the quote was inserted as a promotion for All Is Fair within the context of that particular write-up, the concerns expressed are dangerously real. Ignoring what Lauz is saying, or worse, spinning it around to support Honig’s crusade, is just one more example of how local media is working with limited opinions while the profiteers get their exposure. The dangers of opening a separated store—in an alley, remember—that is targeted to gain the business (and trust) of the trans community are real and present. Even in the liberal 18th Street district of the Crossroads, nobody is prevented from bringing their narrow-minded hatred for non-binary individuals to a violent head. It sickens us to think it could ever happen, but it happens all the time. It appears the move reflects Honig’s real intentions with the store and does not prioritize the safety of her customers. I wonder if Birdies couldn’t work on rebuilding their brand for inclusiveness and encouragement, rather than detaching other aspects of human sexuality and the spectrum areas between gender expressions in order to remain relevant. All Is Fair is a new segregation, a definitive line between “our” lingerie and “their” lingerie, literally separated by a one-way street that could represent our passing interest in social politics. The trans community might prefer to walk into Birdies and be treated like any other customer, but that might involve changing the overwhelming feminine aspects of the store itself. Simply re-branding Birdies would eliminate a crucial aspect of this project for Honig: the hype-generating click-bait the media will clamber over to report on—an element that Honig has always depended on for each new venture to succeed.

The notion that human sexuality and the gender spectrum should be divided into different lanes for purchasing different wares is a dangerous one, one I don’t think Honig has considered from the perspective of the LGBTQ community. Sure, the shape and size of the lingerie will be different, but an eclectic mix of undergarments in an existing store might be more warm and inclusive. In talking with Sandra Meade and Una Nowling, each expressed a similar concern for the concept of stores that might be seen as supporting the notion that transgender people are fundamentally different, and should shop in their own spaces. Both prefer to shop at places for women, like Dillards and Nordstrom, or anywhere else that carries women’s underwear. When we talked about unique proportions to consider, Una made a scientific observation:

“It’s inarguable that a transgender woman with XY chromosomes will likely have a different body shape and proportions than an XX woman. If this clothing line takes that into account, along the lines of how good shoes made for transgender women will be built upon a ‘male shoe’ last, then that would be useful.”

The prefix to woman or man shouldn’t matter, but as the trend of talking about transgender and transsexual issues continues, more people are choosing to create stores especially for “them.” Thus, the harmful idea of “the other” continues to exist and to profit. Both women, who I want to remind you are not the authorities of trans culture (although their activism is admirable—and they were kind enough to meet with me and have a discussion) said they believe there is a niche market for this brick-and-mortar shop, including among cross-dressers and others who are not yet comfortable in mainstream stores, especially among those with a steady and reliable income, since such specialty shops may be expensive. We talked about the depressing transgender economic status, and that many individuals under the transgender umbrella would simply be unable to afford such material goods.

When you think of custom made underwear—made by a prominent artist whose work is collected nationwide—and you think of the details that must be paid regarding each individual’s unique curves and surfaces, the dollar signs start to add up. Factor in high-quality material and manual labor and we’re looking at some pricy undies. (Anyone who has shopped at Birdies can relate, as Honig’s choice of garments hardly ever falls below the $30 mark.) Marketing an expensive product to a community that faces a high rate of job displacement and income disparity based on their identity seems uninformed at best. Paying straight, privileged designers of the upper social class to create these products, only to sell them to a traditionally lower income class, seems stranger still. My correspondent, Vian May–who has helped me understand the issue from an individual perspective– had some things to say:

“At the same time, inclusiveness helps create an environment of acceptance almost as much as out living does. But this is an environment that we are still in the process of creating. And the backlash can be disheartening. I’m not sure if I can express the thoughts of other trans guys, much less those of trans women, but I have a legitimate concern over violence in my life due to being a trans man. That violence is a threat to trans women in an exponentially larger set of circumstances and exponentially more violent altercations, up to and including murder.

I think it’s easy to say ‘what should be’ when ‘what should be’ doesn’t affect you. Of course my underclothes should be easily available, there shouldn’t be a question of what changing room or bathroom I use, there should be no concern about me losing my job or my clients over my trans status. How things should be is rarely how they are.”

As a trans male, Vian’s approach to safety issues and concerns is not unique. An inclusive environment is completely necessary if trans people want to shop for their clothes and materials freely, but that inclusiveness is still in the process of being obtained. The idea that inclusiveness can be reached most effectively by separating “ours” from “their” material goods, rather than educating the public that might nay-say all-gender stores, is not inclusive. It is the exact opposite.

Fads are a problem in the art world. The more artists latch on to the hip new socio-political trends, the more they reduce them to their own voice and interpretation. Trans issues are all over the news these days, and although most of this exposure comes from a place of positive empowerment, a lot of it reinforces our existing ideas about the community. The rise of trans roles, often played by cis-male actors like Eddie Redmayne and Jeffrey Tambor, fill our curiosities of “what it means to be trans,” except for when they don’t. More producers, artists, writers, and subcultures are lifting the trans identity and applying it to their own pursuits. I didn’t think about this until just after I saw “Unicorn”—Honig’s first solo exhibition in years. When I got wind of what the new shop was about, something was off in the way “Unicorn” was off. In the middle of the gallery, surrounded by very privileged and familiar individuals, I tried to put my finger on the growing discomfort I felt while watching the audience experience the work. Honig’s main representation of the trans community was a large image of the fabled “Unicorn”: a young woman with a penis between her legs/a young man with small breasts and engorged nipples. A young trans person, essentially. This “slashie” of the sexes disturbed me—not because of the hermaphroditic genitalia—but that now, in the middle of a large gallery filled with the privileged majority, this was the take-away image of “transgender” for this audience. The rest of the subject matter was overwhelmingly female oriented: foxes, bunnies, women’s legs, little lambs—and I was left confused as to how that was representative of the other half of a culture that walk the delicate lines around societal restrictions: Am I masculine, or feminine? Where were the traditionally male-oriented images? Or better yet, where were the genderless creatures—the easily transformed and unhindered symbols that more accurately represent a culture and lifestyle of non-binary gender organisms, like slugs and worms? Why was the female role so heavily portrayed while the male role was completely absent? Did this representation have something to do with Birdies and their feminine image, subliminally encouraging the audience to make the connection between the art, the artist, and the profiting business? It appeared Honig was oblivious to how one-sided her portrayal of the trans culture was, not only because the images seemed heavily influenced by her own feminine experiences, but the crowd itself seemed to lack representation.

We often make the mistake of equating popularity with influence, positivity with justice, and agreeability with righteousness. In fact, “activism” in the art world is often nothing more than a minority voice being refracted through a majority person’s prism. This happens over and over again in the Kansas City art scene: we assign the faces we see most frequently to the progression of social change. Those in the media control narratives, and mislabeling artists who appropriate culture as activists is one of their most damaging and pervasive qualities. In reality, it appears these are just the same people showing up to the same parties, riding on the coattails of a buzzword or movement, using their privilege to move between their world and another under an “activist” agenda. Artists somehow get away with this all the time. Start seeing it. Start thinking critically about this trend.

This is not to say there are not real activists in the art world. The late Steven Metzler was one of them. There are others like him who have the heart and the means to do real good in this world, but they are often the silent do-gooders, not normally in the spotlight.

It must be difficult for a celebrity to distance themselves from the face of their own brand, but that is what Peregrine must do if we are expected to take her “activism” seriously. I have criticized actions like this in the past, and it’s no surprise Peregrine brought her youngest sister, Esther, on board for a photo shoot that appropriates the trans identity. You can see it on Facebook, the image of Peregrine and Esther side by side dressed in casual “boy” clothes with their hair pulled back and feminine features downplayed. Attached to the hashtag #brothers, this image is evocative of modern-day blackface—a theatrical performance that does nothing to drive political or social activism towards a more equal world, but serves to feed the privileged majority an image of a culture they will accept. Like blackface, this image implies that we no longer live in a gendered world. With this gendered title, the Honig sisters have assigned a pronoun to a people who are, in part, trying to dismantle this aspect of language and identity. The very idea belittles anyone struggling against gender inequality, dwindling reproductive rights, lack of fair pay and housing, and sexual discrimination. Esther’s inclusion in the shoot may be the most perfect analogy of a privileged class kowtowing to the famous for seconds of internet share-ability without understanding the greater implications of their support and actions. Sister or not, her agreeability to engage in such a display is a telling sign of the veil of advantage she lives under. Esther is now probably best known for playing this kind of dress up before—a project that succeeded in feeding the beast that creates and perpetuates gender and beauty norms—so I was not surprised to see her continue to treat identity like a costume. The powers that decide what is manly and what is feminine have so much control, it seems the Honig sisters are just as normative as they are. This unaware state of privilege is so glaring, it hurts to look at. The image shadows the idea that maybe Peregrine and Esther are struggling within their heteronormative, privileged lifestyles and that this action is an expression of their truer personhoods. Sadly, like blackface, I think the two are so far removed from what the experience is actually like, they succeeded only in embarrassing themselves to those who face the struggles they pretend to understand. It is simply disrespectful.

Appropriation typically involves an exploitation or assimilation into a minority/oppressed culture by a majority/dominant culture. In this case, the dominant—two privileged women who enjoy their class and celebrity status—are laying claim to the identity of a marginalized community they do not belong to. Julia Serano breaks this kind of appropriation of the LGBTQ lifestyle into three motivations:

Erasure: Marginalized/minority groups have little power or voice in society. Therefore, when the dominant/majority group takes up their identities, ideas, and other cultural creations, it tends to undermine or erase the context in which they were created, and the original meanings and symbolism that underlie them. In other words, the dominant/majority typically takes up the marginalized/minority group’s creations while disregarding their perspective.

Exploitation: Sometimes members of the dominant/majority group will materially profit from aspects or acts that they have appropriated from a marginalized/minority group without ever giving anything back to that community. This tends to further exacerbate economic disparities that may already exist between the two groups.

Denigration: This can refer to a couple different things. Denigration can mean “to treat or represent as lacking in value or importance; belittle,” which applies to instances where important or sacred aspects of the marginalized/minority group’s identity or culture are appropriated by the dominant/majority group in an irreverent or disrespectful manner. Denigration can also mean “to speak damagingly of; criticize in a derogatory manner; sully; defame: to denigrate someone’s character,” which applies to instances where the dominant/majority group appropriates some aspect of the marginalized/minority group’s identity or culture in order to purposefully ridicule, parody, or insult members of that group.

These three motivations are not obvious to Peregrine if she is enjoying her dominance without respecting or relating to the culture she is borrowing. It is social colonialism, identity gentrification, and it is responsible for some deep-seated misinformation that manifests into small or large injustices.

I’m not forgetting the point of this store: to provide unique, custom made underclothes to individuals who struggle with the annoyances of connecting their body to their mind. I can’t really imagine what that’s like, as my underwear is about as low-maintenance as it gets and my sexual and gender identity fall under a different umbrella, but I can imagine there is something people will want, will benefit from, and will pay for that All Is Fair can provide. But Honig is creating a brand that neglects to imagine a body that does not embrace the cute, frilly aspects of underwear. Handmade garments with her own paintings on them reflects a one-sided understanding of how lingerie works. Has she considered the fact that many trans individuals would rather not draw attention to the parts of them they must alter in order to feel normal? As I was researching and asking about the differences in what trans people want from their underwear, my correspondent provided this:

“Why would celebrating the fact that I have to bind, which in our culture, makes me supposedly less of a man, be any different? If they actually manage to make a reasonably priced binder that doesn’t ride up or break your ribs and don’t paint it like it’s goddamned lingerie they may get my business yet, via mail order. It just seems like they still regard trans men as women who want pretty things to celebrate their body, and that offends me. While the wearing of bras and other female undergarments may be a celebration of femininity for trans women, I do not find the daily recognition that my body is not a reflection of myself any type of celebration at all.”

This was something I hadn’t considered before. The very act of covering your body in an ongoing attempt to bring it closer to your true identity is something I don’t experience on such an extreme level. Of course, we all attempt to dress in a way that reflects who we are, but we can control and change our clothes whenever and however we want. We’re mostly stuck with our bodies, and trans individuals who do not seek or cannot afford operation must find ways to live with the body they were assigned without the constant reminder that they are not living in the correct body. Some people buy lingerie to celebrate their figures because they want, or want other people, to pay attention to it. It seems there is a great disconnect between the business model of hand-painted, delicate, meticulously created garments and some individuals’ need to just throw something on and not think about it as much as possible. I’m also not the target audience for this store, so I need to recognize there are many different preferences and lifestyles that would find some products in All Is Fair beneficial. Given my experiences at Birdies, with Honig’s “Unicorn” show, and as a viewer of her art on a more general level, I am curious to see if she is able to create a product that is not saturated in femininity.

I want to make one thing clear about myself: I do not speak for the transgender community in any way. I do not speak for a population that has a voice of their own. I do not claim to understand more than anyone else, or in a better way. I have not been asked to stand in for another voice, nor have I been assigned the role of reviewer by anyone. I am doing this because I want to say something nobody else has said yet. I am doing this because I have the ability to contribute to the conversation using my own tools. I am doing this because I am afraid we will repeat the past with a new vocabulary, steeped in altruism and communal interest but really guiding the movement in the wrong direction. I am doing this because I am not afraid of Peregrine Honig, her followers, or other people who may not like what I have to say. I am doing this because when a community is being appropriated by the privileged majority—when their lives and identities are being borrowed and used by the profiteering dominant—I want to stand on the side that is fighting for a better and more equal world.