Installation view of Cheap Suitcase at Invisible Exports (all images courtesy the gallery)

One’s skin is a uniquely intimate identifying trait. It bears the marks of not only one’s birth, but travels, adventures, hurts, and spills, physiological traumas and recoveries. But as a doorway, it swings both ways: it’s a record of a body’s experience of a singular life, but it’s also a random palimpsest of whatever genetic heritage one has. Moles and marks appear where they are not bidden or provoked. Though skin is a key sign of who we are and where we have been, it also bears witness to an ancestral endowment that we didn’t choose and is difficult to change. The exhibition at Invisible Exports, Cheap Suitcase, brings to mind this aspect of the body. Much of the work in the show goes back and forth between what is volitional and what just happens to us.

Installation view of Cheap Suitcase at Invisible Exports

Take Ariana Page Russell’s “Toile 2” (2006), a photographic print of flower-like patterns Russell made on herself, exploiting her condition of dermatographia — her skin’s tendency to have a kind of allergic reaction to slight scratches. These patterns turn her physical precondition into a kind of decorative wallpaper. Then there are the mastectomy scars in Clarity Haynes’s oil paintings, such as “Michael” (2014), which is a kind of account of self-struggling with the body to keep it healthy by excising parts of it.

The rest of the show includes photographic, sculptural, and abstract painting work by Ron Athey, Byron Kim, Hannah Wilke. This work, especially Kim’s hazy paintings of healing bruises, speaks to how we gainsay our fragility. The exhibition reminds me of what the writer Nancy Mairs once said in her essay “Carnal Acts“: one doesn’t just have a body; one is a body, which suggests that being a body is a willful act. That’s the rub: our bodies are caught in that vortex between what we make ourselves to be and who and what we already are.

Ariana Page Russell, “Toile 2” (2006)

Cheap Suitcase continues at Invisible Exports (89 Eldridge Street, Chinatown, Manhattan) through June 25.

Seph Rodney, PhD, is a former senior critic and Opinion Editor for Hyperallergic, and is now a regular contributor to it and the New York Times. In 2020, he won the Rabkin Arts Journalism prize and in...