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You step inside a living room, but the walls are decorated with brown braided hair. So are the small toddler chairs that just barely stand over two feet tall. On the bookshelves are dozens of books rendered in silk; their spines list the names of black artists and entertainers: Lena Horne, Laverne Cox, Erica Deeman, Shani Crowe. Above are fashionable portraits of women in chiffon dresses holding their fans askance. At their side, plush panties exclaim, “BLACK GIRL MAGIC,” “WORTH,” “BEAUTY.” And on their left, something like a billboard summarizes the whole scene with a simple title: “A Morena’s Story.”
Sequestered on the 15th floor of a former factory off the Hudson River, the School of Visual Arts’s Chelsea gallery is now exhibiting Constellations, a show by SVA students and recent graduates that aims to explore the intersections of gender, sexuality, race, and class. Although the show is sometimes thematically diverse to the point of dissonance, each artist has taken pains to create work uniquely capable of speaking to the complex layers of their identities. Work like Francena Ottley’s “A Journey for She” (2017–18) installation described above depicts how visual histories can create the categories by which we identify, carving out spaces in which life is lived. In Spanish, the word morena has several connotations. The literal translation of the word describes a brunette woman, but it can also be used (affectionately or not) to describe a woman with light dark or olive skin tones. Ottley’s installation attempts to tackle the totality of morena, inscribing both negative and positive connotations into a singular self, an identity with contradictions.
Playing with contradiction is an important piece of identity formation. Generally, humans prefer simplicity while complexities and outliers are labeled as maliciously false. Artist Zac Thompson’s parents were Christian missionaries. Although he braced himself for his parents’ disapproval, he instead found lukewarm disappointment. Neither anger nor elation, this middling sense of acceptance propels the underlying themes of Thompson’s “It felt like you were a guest in my house and I was too nice to ask you to leave” (2018), an installation of media collages and pastel drawings that serve an iconography of queer apprehensions toward coming out. Some see queerness as espousing the ephemeral, the flux of life. Thompson stencils his pastel drawings with canvas (an art historical nod to how Michelangelo and other Renaissance fresco artists once transferred his paintings) for easy reproduction. The result looks like chalk dust, which gradually dissipates, smudges, and fades away from view. Hanging above these makeshift frescoes of banal objects — columns, a dresser, a telephone, a toilet — are a series of collages that mix the artist’s old photographs with plastic, crystals, and other ephemera. In many of these works, the subject’s faces are hidden; Thompson conceals their identities the way so many queer people must conceal their gender and sexuality from the world.
In contrast, John Rivas conceals nothing in his mixed media paintings thatlook like a Joseph Cornell diorama after an earthquake if Jean Dubuffet was the poor conservator tasked with putting things back together. Describing his experience growing up latino in Newark, New Jersey, Rivas pulls no punches against his deflated aspirations. “Madre Me Dijo Que Voy A Ser Un Rey (Mom Told Me that I Was Going to Be a King)” (2017) depicts a mother holding her son who wears a bowtie and vest. Around the painting’s border are what appear to be markers of childhood: the image of a teddy bear, a washcloth. But on the washcloth, is that a bloody foot? And why does the mother’s hand stretch lifelessly outside the borders of the frame, becoming four white fingers on the edge of the display? Nearby is Rivas’ “The Pain” (2018), which half-illustrates a woman with yellow feet stepping out of the portrait with a knife in her hand. (A bouquet of cheery balloons fly above.)
Unlike many of her colleagues, Dodo Xinyu Zhang resists the temptation to abstract identity. She takes a deep dive into the hyper-sexualized caricatures of East Asian women, pushing the Lolita tropes of the stereotypes to ridiculous lengths. Large anime eyes and sparkles and heart-shaped clouds dot Zhang’s work. Upon closer inspection, though, viewers will notice that certain elements are off — mainly the presence of strap-on breasts that enhance the cleavage of Zhang’s subjects. (Zhang’s work is also somewhat reminiscent of Cindy Sherman’s large oeuvre of archetype-busting photographs, and her most recent foray into Instagram face distortions.)
An impressive showcase for SVA’s students, Constellations actually inverts our expectations of how we trace the stars in the sky. Our focus is not necessarily to create arbitrary images in the cosmos by connecting the dots, but to focus on each individual star with clear vision. Similarly, perhaps intersectionality now resonates a desire for others to understand our internal complexities and contradictions rather than the image we project.