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What does it mean to be “in heaven” in our moment in time? It’s such a personally customizable phrase that could refer to a range of physical, emotional, intellectual experiences. The Look up here, I’m in heaven exhibition at BRIC takes a position with regard to the idea of being in paradise that’s profoundly about corporeal materiality. This show makes a clever and du jour move to convey this notion under the sail of portraiture.
The exhibition consists of four artists, Tschabalala Self, Yashua Klos, Yoon Ji Seon, and David Antonio Cruz — all artists of color, which has a lot to do with the notion of heaven that’s being forwarded. They are all powerful practitioners, creating portraits (in many cases self-portraits) that are uniquely crafted, and importantly also dictate the terms under which they, as artists, are understood. In our current moment we are saturated with electronic images and media, but we keep making them because images anchor narratives about the self. Many of us, including myself, want to imagine ourselves savvy users of new technology and imagine that having that facility will give us the agency to craft an identity and shape how we’re seen, understood, and addressed. In Look up here, I’m in heaven the work is rooted in base materials, like paint, thread, paper and fabric — seemingly simple resources for shaping and cultivating complicated narratives related to identity.
David Antonio Cruz and Yoon Ji Seon dominate the show, both in terms of the number of works and the aesthetic drive, and I would have appreciated seeing more of the other artists. Yet what Cruz does with the antiquated form of the portrait is appealing in its wild and raucous energy. He paints figurative portraits with live, impressionistic rendering of skin tones of pale brown, signaling his own Latino heritage. The work jumps off the walls with the abstract blobs of paint poured onto the main figures, or with strange amorphous forms that invade the space around that figure, for example in “bybeingcarefulofthecompanyyoukeep” (2016). In some pieces he’s added broken china, buttons, clothing, and other objects to create a kind of onslaught against the central figure, almost swamping it, making it visually compete against the chaotic jumble in order to be present and seen.
Seon makes her subjects into mythic characters through creating portraits of machine-stitched thread over underlying photographed images of eyes. She uses contrasting colors to indicate facial features and dangles strands, thus creating hair to frame the face, or draws the thread at right angles away from the mouth, eyes, and nose to create a kind of windblown disfigurement. In “Rag face #10” (2012) the mouth is sewn shut, one eye almost all the way closed, creating figures I’d encounter only in nightmares, visions, and fantasies. Seon’s work is grounded in her ethnic identity which is indicated by the facial attributes of her characters, but by using thread as an element of her figuration, she also stretches the parameters of the genre of self-portraiture.
Tschabalala Self most clearly represents her ethnicity, primarily through using alternating textures and patterns in large collages that depict a woman’s body. There are a few other women of color who have recently come to prominence with their exceptional portrayals of women and femininity, for example, Ebony Patterson, Wangechi Mutu, and Mickalene Thomas, and one might be tempted to compare her with them. However, the way Self works with materials is her own, and she has playful, infectious humor that’s unique. In “Carma” (2016) the figure has a derrière clad in corduroy and padded to give that rounded fullness that has inspired many a rhythm and blues ballad and rap song (Baby got back!). Self uses patterned cloth for legs, velvet for breasts and torso, ultrasuede and burlap in a mixture that conveys the complexity of an individual body, making it a terrain that one wants to explore.
Yashua Klos takes a different tact from the other artists by not obviously representing his ethnicity or gender, but making his representation of a body almost indistinguishable from his printed landscapes. I stood for a long time in front of “The Face on Mars” (2009) before I turned my head a few degrees and finally saw the face. It’s a visage that emerges from the ground, craggy and angular and teetering on the verge of visibility — which one can read as a metaphor for the situation of black men who still struggle to be recognized when they are systematically conflated with a violent social environment in which some are embedded.
This exhibition is important to those of us who want to live in the here and now, who want to make our physical and material lives closely correlate with our imagined forms of happiness. It makes paradise not an airy realm above, but one that is accessible through the work and its practice of self-representation, which at its best, springs from deep self-knowledge.
Look up here, I’m in heaven continues at BRIC (647 Fulton Street, Fort Greene, Brooklyn) through August 14.