Interviews

Fragmented Figures Channel the “Struggle of Being in a Body”

Paul Mpagi Sepuya, "Draping" Inkjet print, 21.5 x 25 in, 2015 (all images courtesy the artists)
Paul Mpagi Sepuya, “Draping,” inkjet print, 21.5 x 25 in, 2015 (all images courtesy the artists)

LOS ANGELES — Breasts, arms, legs, fingers, halved torsos, and a hairy mustache. These are some of the body parts represented in porcelain, paint, photography, and mixed media in Fragmented Gaze, curated by Loren Britton at Tiger Strikes Asteroid Gallery in Los Angeles. In this uncanny exhibition, LA artists Paul Mpagi Sepuya, Alice Lang, Adam Novak, and Lauren Faigeles explore embodiment and subjectivity via the cropped and fragmented figure. The works in the show mirror the lived realities of race and gender, and interact with each other in mischievous ways.

In an essay for the exhibition, Lindsay Garcia aptly writes, “Everyone who enters an artwork-laden space enters with their own fragmented gaze.” As an artist, I’ve long been interested in the implications of the fragmented body, and I was excited to have the opportunity to discuss the show with artist and curator Loren Britton.

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Adam Novak, "Lotion" Oil on canvas, 30 x 36 in., 2016
Adam Novak, “Lotion” (2016) oil on canvas, 30 x 36 in.

Clarity Haynes: I love the title Fragmented Gaze. I’m curious about the thinking behind this show.

Loren Britton: I wanted to create a space for all kinds of bodies. And for the exhibition to be haptic, related to touch. I’m interested in how the body as material exists in painting and other media.

CH: I really see that in Adam Novak’s paintings, in which you can almost feel the viscous substance of paint, body, and what we put on our bodies.

LB: In his painting “Beer, Leg,” beer is being poured on a hovering leg, and the liquid looks like fingers. There is a moment where the possibility for transformation happens in the paint and the way the liquid is depicted, creating a space for different narratives.

Adam Novak, "Beer, Leg" Oil on canvas, 72 x 48 in., 2015
Adam Novak, “Beer, Leg” (2015), oil on canvas, 72 x 48 in. (click to enlarge)

CH: In your curatorial statement you mention the cyborg body. “Cyborg” just means that the body contains some kind of technological enhancement. So, for example, if you have a pacemaker, you could say that you’re a cyborg. I think this is a crucial concept, because it’s really an illusion to think of the body as natural.

LB: Yes, the word “natural” is problematic. I was discussing surgery with a friend the other day, and they referred to themselves as having a “cyborg body.” At a panel discussion on trans visibility I attended recently, one of the panelists talked about going bare-chested at the beach for the first time after having had top surgery. They ended up talking to someone at the beach who had recently had spinal surgery. They compared scars, and there was a moment of identification. They’d had completely different experiences, but a connection was born through the scars, the physical memory of the body.

CH: That’s beautiful, and it brings home the reality that we live in our bodies. But as you said in your curatorial statement, so much of our lives these days are lived online, which is a kind of disembodiment.

LB: We’re constantly connected online, and we’re overexposed through representation on social media, yet there is an erasure of practice and lived experience. I think many people are increasingly socially awkward. People have social anxiety around talking on the phone, because we usually text instead. And we’re more and more afraid of being vulnerable. Online, we can post something, then delete it. We’re constantly self-editing. So people are more guarded. That’s part of why I wanted to focus this show on materiality and embodiment. As makers, we crave haptic experience, working through materials.

CH: I think it’s great that you and Laura Coombs published a book in conjunction with the show, and that you intend for it to be considered as an artwork, part of the show. It contains some excellent writing by Jennifer Coates, Buzz Slutzky, Ashley Chang, and Lindsay Garcia. In her essay Jennifer Coates writes, Sometimes I can’t tell where your head begins and your feet end.” I love this, because it describes the kind of jumble that we experience when close to another person’s body.

by Loren Britton
Installation view of ‘Fragmented Gaze’ at Tiger Strikes Asteroid, Los Angeles (photo by Loren Britton)

LB: That’s important — we are, all the time, that messy recombination in our actual lived embodiments.

CH: Looking at all the work installed together, there isn’t a discrete, classical separation between each work. There is also a satisfying confusion within individual works. In Paul Sepuya’s photograph “Mirror Study,” a triangular mirror reflects the pelvis and legs of a white male nude wearing black socks. Two sets of arms and hands, one white, one black, hold the mirror up. It’s both seamless and spatially disorienting, as if the various body parts could belong to a single multiracial being.

LB: Paul Sepuya’s photographs reference desire, and even voyeurism, but there is agency there. His photographs are very geometrically structured, and formally beautiful. And then he uses props and crops of bodies to keep the work surprising and open.

Paul Mpagi Sepuya, "Mirror Study" Inkjet print, 36 x 52 in., 2016
Paul Mpagi Sepuya, “Mirror Study” (2016), inkjet print, 36 x 52 in.

CH: You’ve said you are interested in how representation can refuse gender essentialism. Ashley Chang’s comments in her essay I must make myself anew” are reminiscent of second-wave feminism through the idea of reclaiming the female body. In this show, Alice Lang “reclaims” her body through making 3D scans of it and using them to create porcelain mugs that also function as building blocks.

LB: I think my ideas about bodies have grown out of an embrace or rejection of certain kinds of feminism. The artists in the show are all moving through problems in representation. In another example, Lauren Faigeles’s painting of a woman’s body via three linear “W” shapes suggests the Venus of Willendorf. The scale shift between the identical shapes allows for an open reading of this strong historical reference. The “W” changes size and shape and, in a playful way, imagines a body anew. Silliness is also visible in another of Faigeles’s works — a painting of a face that sports a ridiculous, pasted-on mustache.

Alice Lang, "Alice Lang Originals", detail Doll porcelain, 5 in x 3.5 x 8 in., 2016
Alice Lang, “Alice Lang Originals” (2016) (detail), doll porcelain, 5 in x 3.5 x 8 in.

CH: There is a lot of playful energy in this show.

LB: It was a lot of fun to put together. Alice Lang’s mugs are displayed on her handmade stands, and in the installation we turned the mugs so the nipples were facing Paul Sepuya’s photographs. There were many tongue-in-cheek moments. I was also very aware of the architecture of the space.

CH: You’ve written about your own artwork as dealing with the relationship of your body to architecture — doors, rooms.

Lauren Faigeles, "Double Eww" Oil on canvas, 72 x 60 in., 2015
Lauren Faigeles, “Double Eww,” oil on canvas, 72 x 60 in., 2015 (click to enlarge)

LB: Yes, especially as a queer person, you’re very aware of how your body moves through space. Safety is part of the conversation. That’s something coming through in the show, and that I’m also aware of in daily life.

CH: I’m intrigued by your statement in the book about cropping the body as a form of agency. And it’s true: when you crop the image, as an artist you’re in control, saying this is what I want the viewer to look at. It’s an empowered act.

LB: Absolutely. There is an amazing article on Sarah Charlesworth written by Leslie Dick about Charlesworth’s series of people falling. It references the agency of the crop. Charlesworth tore and re-photographed her work from the 1980s years later, in 2012, and allowed for space along the sides. Cropping differently, she saw the work anew, and realized that her earlier work was never finished. It’s a beautiful article.

CH: There is a tendency for second-wave feminist thought to regard the fragmentation of the body as objectification, to see it always in relation to the male gaze. But I’ve always felt that there was something very important about fragmentation, something about self-definition.

LB: That’s the whole thing. You can self-identify in so many different ways. Feminism has a history of banding together in a unified positionality — a duality of us versus them. Now, there is an understanding of how, through self-identification, there is more space: gender isn’t a binary.

CH: In your curatorial statement you wrote, We are never fully embodied in our gender, we are always on our way, to remove the idea of arriving at any resolution is a huge relief for the artist.”

LB: It’s all about becoming — both in my own work, and in my thinking about this show. After the exhibition was hung, I thought, what’s the goal here? Through images of fragmentation, thinking about bodies as multiples, fluids becoming viscous, interchangeable parts, portability and touch, I hope there is the possibility of a hybrid haptic experience. I would like to imagine that through looking, something opens in one’s mind. I imagine the different body parts floating and recombining. To have so many different bodies in a space opens up possibility. I also want the show to remind us that what matters is lived experience. This is really a political, racially charged conversation about embodiment, the struggle of being in a body. That’s where it comes from.

Fragmented Gaze continues at Tiger Strikes Asteroid (440 S Broadway, Los Angeles) through July 30.

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