The history of art is littered with bodily fragmentation, from Romantic depictions of broken statues and severed limbs to the atomized and cropped figures of Impressionist painting to Cubism’s shattered portraits. As Linda Nochlin noted in her 1994 survey on the topic, The Body in Pieces, the fragmentation of the human form in art has been linked to manifold significations. A figurative slice-and-dice might indicate a break with an existing political or pictorial regime, for example, or reflect the psychological or perceptual splintering that can accompany the whiplash of modern life.
An eleven-artist exhibition at the Leslie-Lohman Museum of Art brings a contemporary queer lens to the subject. Titled Not Me, Not That, Not Nothing Either after a line from Julia Kristeva’s 1980 critical cult classic Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection — though Leo Bersani’s theorizing of sexuality as ego-shattering might have been more apropos — the show gathers drawing, painting, sculpture, photography, video, and textiles made in the past decade to propose that bodily fragmentation, in the hands of artists whose lives and work challenge cisheteronormative frameworks, can be a powerful tool to construct and assert queer selfhood. Eschewing the notion of the body as a coherent, legible, and fixed whole, these iconoclasts invite in plurality, porousness, mutability, and the occasional sharp edge.
The exhibition’s premise is an exciting one, though a more experimental work selection would have pushed the concept further; I was surprised by the lack of engagement with the digital sphere, where representations and enactments of the self are inherently dispersed, and queer fragments and replicants run rampant. There is also the question of the small show’s limited geographic scope: all of the artists represented in the exhibition reside in North America, though a number hold diasporic identities, another sort of plural or kaleidoscopic selfhood.
The act of exploding the cramped, foreclosed forms to which bodies and identities are often confined can be effusively generative, to the point of swirling excess. In a large painting by Brooklyn-based artist Theresa Chromati, “Release Me, for I can no longer be your host (Scrotum Flowers Emptying and Merging)” (2022), a cacophony of biomorphic forms and pendulous breasts, punctuated by a small phallic soft sculpture made from red silk and leather, suggest a world in flower. The joy — we could call it jouissance — of visibly breaking from the constraints imposed by normative notions of gender and sexuality is also on display in Los Angeles-based creator Christina Quarles’s “Tig Ol’ Bitties” (2020). With a less pronounced emphasis on sex organs, Quarles’s achromatic ink drawing depicts an erotic tangle of predominantly headless, partially clothed bodies (one dons a harlequin print tank top, a sly nod to commedia dell’arte’s agile trickster character). The composition, which is oriented toward the collective, suggests that fragmentation can be simultaneously comforting and disturbing — even painful — for individual ego; a face is both cradled by an arm and smashed by a foot.
Two works in the show, Angeleno Diedrick Brackens’s “waiting on his balcony (self-portrait)” (2013) and New Yorker A.K. Burns’s “She Was Warned” (2017), engage the subject of myth-making, or more specifically, myth remaking. Accented by a tassel on a bright green cord, Brackens’s open-knit vertical wall hanging is an irregular grid woven from cotton and acrylic yarn, the threads regularly disintegrating into fibrous tufts. The bottom right portion of the weaving is golden, alluding to the long blonde hair around which the plot of “Rapunzel” revolves; the rest is brown and loosely evocative of natural hair, signifying the artist’s recasting of the fairy tale’s White cis-het woman protagonist as himself, a Black queer man. Printed on the wall alongside the piece, the 1979 poem “Song for Rapunzel” by Black American gay poet and activist Essex Hemphill asks: “How long must he dream ladders no one climbs?”
In Burns’s sculpture, which also plays with the rigor and order of grids, an exposed steel wire framework stands in for a body, terminating in, on one side, a broken block of concrete, and on the other, a cement foot. The construction, which has eight clear resin-cast Gatorade bottles for breasts, is a posthuman proxy for a many-breasted fertility deity, honored in the ancient city of Ephesus in present-day Turkey, that fantastically fused features of the Greek goddess Artemis with those of the Anatolian goddess Cybele. Normative, imposed frameworks surrounding gender and sexuality are another myth to be cracked open and remade.
Not Me, Not That, Not Nothing Either continues at the Leslie-Lohman Museum of Art (26 Wooster Street, Soho, Manhattan) through June 25. The exhibition was curated by Rachel Beaudoin and Nirvana Santos-Kuilan.