Latham Zearfoss's "Split" (Photos by author unless noted)

Latham Zearfoss’s “Split” (Photos by author unless noted)

CHICAGO — The absence of the body (politic), the presence of a re-negotiated domesticity, and a necessary embracing of the fine line between romance and criticality play forward roles in artist Latham Zearfoss’s work, which embodies radical feminism of days past while looking toward the future. Zearfoss’s new work, which is part of the group exhibition How Do I Look? at Roots & Culture Gallery in Chicago, explores the re-envisioning of a queer aesthetic that delicately tiptoes its way into the gallery space, presenting itself in a quiet way like a cat nestled on a window sill basking in the afternoon sunlight.

How Do I Look features the work of five artists, including Aay Preston-Myint, Erin Leland, Edie Fake, and Michael Sirianni, as well as Zearfoss, “engaged in the strategic deployment of fantasy, confession, and voyeurism,” as the curatorial statement explains. Zearfoss’s work stands out for its subtle combination of sculptural delicacy and strong political fortitude.

Both of Zearfoss’s art objects, “Split” (2013) and “Preserve” (2013) are long, dangling, and hanging from the ceiling or some other structure positioned high above the ground we walk on. Like a decorative commodity — a splashy window display of a hose with ping pong balls wrapped around it in the front of hip store Brooklyn Industries, for example — or a higher, more “fine-art” object such as Felix Gonzalez-Torres’s “Untitled (Last Light)” (1993), Zearfoss’s “Split” elevates the commercial commodity of earbuds easily bought at any convenience store with a gesture to the history of queer art past.

The piece hangs from on high and quietly rests against a white wall while a sort of eerie, magnetic sound is emitted from the teensy buds. “Split” looks like thin, tiny, twisted umbilical cords, or thin braids of hair — beautiful, delicate, and Made-in-China. “[The earbuds] operate, on a metaphorical level, as a cross between a commodity culture of homogeneity and a consumer culture of individuality,” says Zearfoss. “By giving them a life of their own and allowing them to partner over and over and form a collective, they become engaged in the process of identity over these previous dispositions.”

Detail of Latham Zearfoss’s “Split”

The artist’s companion piece, “Preserve” (2013), appears unfurled thrice. Three silk panels imprinted with strawberries, each 21 inches by 81 inches, hang from silver rods near the entrance of the gallery space. One must be careful to breeze past them rather than walk straight into them. Keep tongues in mouths, too; a visitor’s first impulse is to lick the strawberries that Zearfoss quietly embeds into the fabric. The berries appear as dry fruit. They encapsulate moments of taste preserved and prolonged, like jam dried on a tablecloth long after brunch has been served and the dishes washed, dried, and put away.

Latham Zearfoss’s “Preserve”

“I was particularly drawn to a literal, almost stupid interpretation of ‘interior design,’ or the way a private space is marked by a public appearance,” says Zearfoss. “Some stylized marking sets a boundary so that a public may see that they are outside of whatever is inside the marked territory. From there, I became interested in the softest, most fragile manifestations of those boundaries.”

The “Preserve” curtains hang at an entrance that is available to anyone who walks by. It is more public than the front door of someone’s home, yet public in a different way than a cafe or restaurant setting, spaces that exist to make money in exchange for a service. The purpose of art is not to make money or to create entrepreneurial solutions to problems, but rather to indulge the senses, change someone’s mind, or perhaps alter that which would otherwise appear ordinary and mundane. The silk panels hang lightly, not like blocks of meat in a slaughterhouse, but rather delicate lace curtains. As Zearfoss puts it, they are “highly penetrable demarcations of personal space.”

The decision to use silk rather than, say, lace, brings with it another load of connotations. Lace suggests gender in a stronger way than silk; it is the fabric of virgins and whores, brides and saints, and brings with it a sort of paradox that silk does not. For the silkworm that weaves this fabric and the human who wears it, it is always a delicacy — an un-gendered pleasure.

Detail of Latham Zearfoss’s “Preserve”

The impact of relocating these silk panels outside of what would normally be a domestic space interests Zearfoss. “The curtains come out of a desire to acknowledge domestic space as a gendered space, one that is historically manifested as subjugated femininity,” he says. Meanwhile, the quiet patterning on these curtains acknowledges the process that these aging berries have been through. “The curtains display a mechanical pattern made of organic material — sliced strawberries that have been through an aging process,” he says. “Age, to me, always indicates life and death.”

What’s so compelling about Zearfoss’s work is that he manages to compress a multitude of political and social issues — gender, material culture, the problems of domestic space — into objects that are both elegant and meaningful. It helps that their own materiality is as compelling as the issues they explore.

Latham Zearfoss’s “Triangle”

These two sculptures that form the artist’s latest work embody a similar earthiness and edibility as his 2010 series I Feel the Earth Move. In “Triangle,” a nod to the politicized, pro-queer upside-down pink triangle symbol, Zearfoss constructs two elements. One is a large inkjet print of a photograph of an upside-down triangular slab of pink watermelon ripe with black and white seeds while the other is an imprint of that watermelon slice on a smaller square of silk. The pieces again mingle formal aesthetics with activist content. In his continuing update of a queer political project and visual aesthetic, Zearfoss has pioneered new, delicious ground.

Latham Zearfoss’s work is on display as part of the exhibition How Do I Look? at Roots & Culture Gallery (1034 North Milwaukee Ave, Chicago) through March 22, 2013. 

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Alicia Eler

Alicia Eler is a cultural critic and arts reporter. She is the author of the book The Selfie Generation (Skyhorse Publishing), which has been reviewed in the New York Times, WIRED...