For Keisha Prioleau-Martin, the body is a bearer of joy and contemplation. In her miniature ceramic sculptures, the Queens-based artist captures moments of tender stillness. Dancers, workers, sunbathers, and dreamers coalesce in silent reverie, populating the studio space of ArtShack in Bed-Stuy.

As an antidote to dysmorphia and dysphoria, Prioleau-Martin plays on themes of body euphoria. Her latest exhibition, titled Small Gestures, decorates the storefront gallery space with 35 jovial figurines, each with its own mode of self-expression. The artist represents what she describes as the “inner glowing life of individuals,” uplifting self-love despite political and economic strife.  

Originally trained as a painter, Prioleau-Martin exports her expressionist style from the canvas to the built environment, exploring the relationship between the flat picture plane and three-dimensional terrain. Bodies of all shapes, sizes, and colors thrive in their tiny community, arranged along the gallery windows and walls. Above them, colorful paintings match their palettes as an homage to her primary practice. 

Keisha Prioleau-Martin, “Mckenzie” (2022)
Keisha Prioleau-Martin, “Water Dancer” (2022)

The surfaces of shaded ceramics glisten with pastel streaks that resemble pools of rainwater on asphalt, or a rainbow. Her “Water Dancer” (2022), for example, grips a branch as a teal wave washes over. Meanwhile, “Blue Overalls” (2022) incorporates a small bit of indigo paint to indicate denim on a Black figure at rest. Other pieces, such as “From Water” (2021) and “Yellow and White Painter” (2022), contain more monochromatic shades across their skin, drawing attention less to race than to wear — perhaps due to age, trauma, or sunburn. 

Prioleau-Martin’s formal experiments occasionally play tricks on the eye. Each hardened imperfection is filled with contrasting colors, while their placement prompts viewers to shift their perspective as daylight changes in the gallery. Rays of sun caress the left side of a disembodied face, which bears an expression of ecstasy; over time its shadow stretches across the table. Around this piece, several other sunbathers grow live plants from their bellies, seemingly nonchalant in their reclining positions.

Keisha Prioleau-Martin, “From Water” (2021)
Keisha Prioleau-Martin, “Picking Flowers” (2022)

Other works likewise interact with their environments, immersed in imaginary crowds, gardens, and dance halls. Prioleau-Martin’s own representation beside live foliage plucks a flower, which turns into ceramic as if by magic. Nearby, a series of flat scenes resemble woodcuts in an ornamental arrangement, with two sculpted “Art Handlers” (2022) climbing a ladder below to give the impression they installed the pieces themselves. This latter work is a subtle nod to the artist’s labor at the Museum of Modern Art.

Given recent discourse around dating apps and anti-fatness, Prioleau-Martin reminds us how heteronormative perceptions of body image have long perpetuated notions of collectibility. Far more important than a “body count” is bodily autonomy, and Small Gestures makes a tremendous impact. This is conveyed best in the simple, resplendent “Sitting Youth” (2022), a standalone piece that steals the show. A young Black girl appears alone and lost in thought, transcending all adversity in her position of grace. The work saliently encompasses the artist’s own disposition — meditative, at peace, and flourishing. 

Keisha Prioleau-Martin, “Blue Overalls” (2022)
Keisha Prioleau-Martin, “Yellow and White Painter” (2022)

Keisha Prioleau-Martin: Small Gestures continues at ArtShack (1131 Bedford Avenue, Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn) through May 19. The exhibition was organized by the gallery.

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Billy Anania

Billy Anania is an editor, critic, and journalist in New York City whose work focuses on political economy in the cultural industries and the history of art in global liberation movements.

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