You don’t have to believe in bodies. I mean, you don’t have to believe in “the body” in that art-historical-discourse sense that makes it (irony of ironies) a theoretical object that typifies the shift to a postmodern sensibility in art making. You also don’t have to believe in “affect.” And by believe, I mean be familiar with the ideas that shape what is termed “affect theory,” which considers how passion, sentiment, and emotions are generated, mold the ways we think and act, and are transmitted by art and media. There has been some buzz around affect theory in the last few years, I think partly because many of us have concluded that our politics and ethics, and the social and public policies that devolve from them, are deeply and inextricably linked to our experience as particular bodies, in particular spaces, feeling particular things. This theory may prod us to consider: What kinds of bodies have to assert that they matter? Which bodies deny that others do? Which bodies are afraid of that assertion? Which bodies feel empathy with others? And which bodies are never worried about being overlooked?
The history of the term “affect” is long: the philosopher Immanuel Kant thought that emotions might prevent us from acting from a proper sense of duty. However, Baruch Spinoza, I think, had it right. He held that “emotions, as affections of the soul, make the difference between the best and the worst lives, as they either increase the soul’s power to act, or diminish that power.”
You don’t have to believe in “the body” or in affect theory to feel the theme of “affective bodies” that organizes the second iteration of the BRIC Biennial at Brooklyn’s BRIC House. Walking through this exhibition — which focuses on artists living and working in Brooklyn neighborhoods Bedford Stuyvesant and Crown Heights — you get that the artists’ emotions can be harnessed to increase their souls’ power.
One artist, Kambui Olujimi, asks you to think back to the woman who cared for you as a child. Did she wear a string of pearls around her neck? Did she dote on you and make you feel loved? Did she walk with a cane? Did she eventually seem brittle and prone to injury? Olujimi encompasses all these impressions in an elegiac tribute to a woman, a friend who cared for him for many years, Catherine Arline. His piece, “I Knew You Before You Was Born” (2016) makes that person larger than life, using the actual doors taken from Arline’s home, which are placed on a wall, in such a way as to suggest a torso, with long strands of artificial pearls hanging between them further affirming this reading. He also adds several glass canes which make Arline’s fragility transparent. This installation hangs in the main theater space, while on the first floor he presents a long series of watercolor portraits of Arline. These images convey the sense that Olujimi looked at his subject carefully and attentively for long periods of time, and then at odd moments out of his eyes’ corners, to reproduce Arline as a set of distinct moods, aspects, and demeanors.
Sara Jimenez, in similar metaphorical fashion to Olujimi’s work, has installed objects that presume a bodily presence. With “Pasalubong” (2016) she has hung a chair upside down, one foot of it barely touching the square of wood flooring above it, while the rusting frame is festooned with fabric that blooms uncontrollably like a body that has burst. Then with “Parts of a whole” (2016) Jimenez makes plaster casts of furniture from her family home, but with bits of fabric captured in the plaster like vestiges of memories that trail after the artist.
The other artist in the show whose work seems most evocative of the theme is William Villalongo. His portraits consist of cut velour paper on matte board and take a very different approach from the art by Jimenez and Olujimi. Villalongo’s images are imaginary, it is said in the accompanying wall text, confected from Yoruba ceremonial masks and animal figures. “Strong Medicine” (2016) depicts an image of raised palms, as if in surrender. His faces are compelling because they are fugitive, hidden in the decorative patterns that make up the background from which they may (depending on who you are and how you look at things) emerge into visibility. They linger on that threshold of being seen or misapprehended and, bravely, they allow either response to be their reception.
This biennial, with its theme of bodies, is broad enough to encompass a panoply of works that have a range of styles and aesthetic strategies. But what’s most powerful about the work at the BRIC House, is that it mostly hinges on corporeal experience, on what it is to be a feeling body that responds to theory, to trends, to nurturing, to political inheritances, to conviction. Some of the work displayed I find unconvincing, but where it connects to felt memories and ethnic affiliations it makes the bodies come alive, have significance, so that one doesn’t have to subscribe to any particular theories to perceive they are present.
The BRIC Biennial: Volume II, Bed Stuy/Crown Heights Edition is centered at BRIC House (647 Fulton Street), with portions of the show also on view at Weeksville Heritage Center, the main branch of the Brooklyn Public Library, and FiveMyles gallery. The biennial continues through January 15.