A Table is Set

A review of Ashley Johnson’s Reach by Devon McKnight

Photographs by Daniel White

“I want everyone to be drunk”, and so we were. An hour past 7 and Ashley has still not
entered the room. The mood is high, buzzing. We cannot wait. The set table is long and
full of southern paraphernalia, a language linking us. Three women, the Sisters, masked
in braids living out a scene from a former time, performing a series of Southern actions.
Pulled from the photographs that are setting our scene. Dark but illuminated.
Storytellers. Hung weavings bring us home, tuck us in. And in the back, through the
glass, something is stirring. Four dancers in white slips are moving, reaching, gathering,
gazing. A prelude.

Ashley Johnson as Diana Ross arrives. Tall, full-bodied, cloaked in white.
She is kindness, excitement, gratitude, confidence and a huge loud laugh.

The audience vies for her attention. These are her friends, acquaintances, peers,
strangers wanting to know her. They can’t wait to tell her their feelings. ”Blown away.”
“Can’t believe it.” “Floored.” They wouldn’t expect anything less. They want them all.

We mingle. We continue to drink in the mood. The mixed crowd is loving itself. We all
seem so happy to see each other. To be here. We know it’s good. It’s about to get
better.

A circle gathers and Ashley is introduced.

“I brought you here to be uncomfortable,”

She is here to tell us a story. Her story, which was to become ours, almost without us
knowing, as her words, her described experiences unraveled our deepest insides and
pulled them out through our gaping mouths as we breathed out. We’ve been emotional
since entering the space and it is here that we understand why. There is so much
history. The history of women, more specifically black women, most specifically this
southern black woman.

Ashley, after cutting off her braids, “when my expectations crashed into my reality, I told
myself, out loud, staring into a mirror that I was ugly, and cut off the light.”

Who has done this to us?

Ashley asks herself, “how far did this self-hatred have to travel before getting to me?”
We relate, we can all relate. Every woman(and some men I suspect) in that room filling
up, flooding with emotion.

This is art. This art is visceral.

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This setup was fully intended and then went far beyond its intention. I think an artist
hopes and dreams that the work she creates will touch someone, will build at least one
connection. When art takes on the artist, when all the pieces are in place and the artist
presses play, the work seeps out and into the body of the viewer and takes on a life of
its own. This this this, this is magic. The magic of the spirit. This is heart and soul and
life and love and mind and body. And the artist who allows for that, pushes for that,
seeks that...that artist gives us life. Gives us new life. A life of our own. A life to be
shared. A way in, a way forward. A question for us to ponder and move forward from.
To grow on. We have been lifted, uplifted. And Ashley does not give an answer, but she
gave us the honor and privilege of being included .in her esoteric process of searching.

I imagine this is what birth is like. A woman, risking everything, giving life, pushing a
whole soul out of her, a soul that is both her and something completely new, giving this
soul to the world. Those who experience this birth are touched by a new, clean truth
wrought and tempered by pain. And they are brought to their knees.

“I brought you here to be uncomfortable.”

At the completion of Ashley’s narrative. She tells us to grab a spot. Plant ourselves.
We do.

The four barefoot women dressed in white cotton slips who had been moving and
reaching enter the room. They weave themselves into the audience(into us), pulling us
down, lifting us up, staring into us. Outlining our bodies with their own. Reminding us of
our curves, our positions. They pull their movements from the photographs surrounding
us. They pull them into us, bring them into present moving life. And as motion pictures,
they build an intimacy in a room of strangers, exposing us all.

To punctuate this overflowing river, and end the scene, the Sisters seated at the table,
slowly, finally, unwrap themselves. Braid by braid. Lay their hair on the table, get up and
walk out.

There were no words, but we heard it all. Breathed in. I was alone and I was with every
single body in that space. I am still with them.

On the evening of July 7, 2018, on the north side of town, in a renovated cotton mill, we
were brought to our knees, where we have remained and may remain for some time.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

It's the next day, Sunday. I am hungover and groggy, thirsty. Last night we feasted. We imbibed. A true Dionysian experience. We drank in the night, the people, the music, and the word of Ashley Johnson. But now, the breakfast table is silent as we try and pull ourselves into the day.

“So what’d you think?” and we are speechless again.

We haven't yet found the words, and we don't dare use the wrong, less deserving ones, so we open our eyes wide and shake our heads and look at each other in silent agreement.

Last night was a moment. A life experience. Something we know we will not get over for a long while. Something we must come to terms with. Something we will slowly begin to define for ourselves. Something we will try our hardest, but most likely fail, to define for those who were not there.

I am living through others. Desperate to hear their thoughts. To live it again.

My mother is in tears, sharing memories from her childhood. “It dredged up things in my childhood, about my hair experiences. My mother wasn't satisfied with me because my hair was straight. Putting my hair in pin curls with clips. She would do it Saturday night before Sunday church and I’d have to sleep with them in. She’d get mean when she was doing it, SIT STILL! Sometimes I just silently cried. You're not going anywhere with me with that stringy hair. You look like a tramp! When she gave me that perm the night before my 3rd grade picture, that was the end.”

My mother telling a friend about the experience, led her friend to tell a story:

As a child, her mother let her cut off her long hair and her father wouldn't speak to her or look at her for over a week. She was shamed by her own father because of her hair. Trying to swallow her shame, she says it went back to his people being Pentecostal. Women aren't supposed to cut their hair. What else are women not supposed to do?

The town is pulsating, we are connected. The emotion is palpable. I knew it would happen, I was living in anticipation. I have been since I saw Ashley’s first photographs two years ago. It’s a gut feeling. You know when you are in the presence of something special, when you see the presentation of good thought inside good aesthetic, oozing out of genuine.

My sister-n-law struggles to voice the pain it underlined for her, pain maybe she didn’t understand until now.

Person after person breaks down upon first entering the gallery where Ashley’s pieces still hang. And we don’t quite know why. Not yet. We have a feeling.

“It’s about not loving yourself. Having been trained that we are less than. And that we always need to be.”

“There were quite a few of us that were holding back tears.”

“Why is this a female issue that connects to self-worth and beauty?”

“I can’t tell you how many conversations I had with the black women in the room about hair issues.”

“Why am I crying; I don't even understand this yet, it’s gonna take me longer.”

“Why am I emotional ...this isn’t about me, I don't have black hair?”

“We both talked about cutting our hair off. It was an act of defiance. She said the same herself. I’m not gonna play this game anymore.”

But I’d like to bring us back to what brought us here and what always brings us here. Isn’t it always black women who show us who we are, who are there for us, who speak with us, guide us, mother us, become our sisters, love us back into ourselves and light the way forward for us all?

Right now, inside an old cotton mill hangs a series of photographs. And a table is set. A table is set for a scene that was, and a scene that is still unfolding. A table is set, asking you to gather. A southern setting, always ready to receive you.

 

 

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Yasmine Diaz - Exit Strategies at The Women’s Center for Creative Work

A review by Alexis Bolter

 Photo taken by Stacie Jaye Meyer.

Photo taken by Stacie Jaye Meyer.

Though we were all far from our teenage years, the opening felt like a house party your friend throws in high school when their parents are away.  Yasmine Diaz’s installation, Exit Strategies, encourages this long forgotten youthful behavior.  We all crammed into the small room clutching our beers reminiscing under the hot pink glow of the Arabic neon sign.  I sat cross-legged on the carpeted floor spilling over a vintage trapper keeper filled with highlighted pages, not of algebra homework, but consisting of the “Multi-agency practice guidelines: Handling cases of Forced Marriage”.  During Diaz’s residency at the Women’s Center for Creative Work, she transformed this white-walled space into a replication of the basement bedroom she once shared with her sisters. The installation lures you in with its glowing neon light and Love’s Baby Soft scent and then interrupts your nostalgia by revealing pieces of Diaz’s journey as she escaped the threat of honor violence.

 Photo taken by Danielle Spirese

Photo taken by Danielle Spirese

The dominant element of Diaz’s installation is the bright pink neon light.  The color quickly becomes a natural element of this retro space but there is much to unpack in this glowing sign. Diaz provides guidance for those of us who cannot read Arabic, “The text in Arabic is matronymic with my mother’s name and the name I had before I changed it to Yasmine.”  Rather than following the traditional “daughter of <father’s name>” naming structure, Diaz has disrupted that patronymic framework to read the “daughter of <mother’s name>”.  This act speaks to Diaz’s rebellion against the patriarchy and her willingness to challenge a culture she was born into as a Yemeni-American brought up in a Muslim home.

It should be said that I feel the heavy weight that comes from discussing the topics of Diaz’s installation.  Yasmine and I have spent many hours discussing the ideas behind her work and, as I type out these words, I feel the fragility of that conversation magnified.  This is the bravery that runs through her practice; she is not shying away from a conversation that involves religion, identity, and gender politics. It may feel uncomfortable to be critical of a religion that is also being unfairly persecuted by our country during this surge of xenophobia yet it also seems wrong to dismiss the gender inequality that can be extracted from that religious ideology.  This conversation is made more poignant by its display at the Women’s Center for Creative Work. The cross-section of feminism and conservative Islamic tradition is a space that empowers the hijab but doesn’t necessarily ask questions about how that tradition and other more restrictive practices are carried out. Diaz’s installation and the WCCW are taking the steps to engage in this difficult conversation by creating a space that welcomes that dialog.   

That conversation finds a safe home in the transformed residency space.  The familiar wood paneling and mustard hues are cradling a muted carpet and retro furniture.  The two wallpaper patterns are striking. One side obviously bought and pasted, the other hand-painted with a pattern that is trying to say something more. Those hand-painted 12-point rosettes reference a style of Islamic geometric tiling which continue off the wall and into the intricate paper cuttings that inhabit the framed collages.  The source images used for those collage pieces echo the environment we find ourselves in; a place where young women can let down their guard. But this carefree attitude must be read through the young women’s body language since their faces have been removed. This omission serves as another act of disruption and an act of protection when placed in the context of the framed documents scattered around the installation.

Photo taken by Stacie Jaye Meyer.

These redacted documents are precious in their creation and harrowing in their journey.   What you are able to glean from these email exchanges is that Diaz escaped her childhood home under threat of retaliatory violence as a result of refusing to enter an arranged marriage.  This story is illuminated through these correspondences that document Diaz’s attempt to obtain a legal passport after using a false social security number and a false birth certificate while in hiding.  

Diaz’s installation is being presented this quarter under the “Control” programming at the Women’s Center.  Yasmine has fought against the controlling elements in her life since her time in the basement. In the corner of her installation, you’ll find a pair of shorts clipped to a long skirt, a revealing glimpse into her daily defiance against this imposing control.  There is so much courage in this work. The courage to flee her home at a young age, the courage to reveal her false identities, and the courage to revisit that basement with us, the viewer. When I was leaving the opening, I asked Yasmine how she felt about the evening and what it was like to see all these people in her installation.  She mentioned how she rarely invited friends over to her room growing up. This installation allowed her to fulfill this childhood desire as she continues to assert her control.

Photo taken by Stacie Jaye Meyer.

Den of Monsters

Philip Hinge in conversation with Hannah Barrett:

Hannah Barrett’s show, Accessories, at Yours, Mine and Ours gallery, sends the viewer into a world of monsters. However, these were not the monsters that frequent art history; the anxiety-ridden cyclops of Guston or the repressed and violated  characters of Bacon.  Barret’s monsters are of a different breed altogether. They stare firmly out of their pink and green environments to meet the viewer’s gaze, with a self-assured or even friendly disposition. Each central, non-gender conforming, figure is adorned with signifiers of class and leisure (martini glasses, fancy coats, etc). Any latent anxiety in these figures is conveyed not in their form, but in their given circumstance. Each figure is caught midway between leaving for what looks to be a night on the town or hunkering down in their respective abodes. There’s an urgency to these paintings, not only in their handling, which is both succinct and descriptive, but in their agency. Each character is dressed to the nines with an impeccably eccentric fashion-sense which helps flesh out the characters of each painting.The speed in their physical rendering translates into their impatience for us to stop staring at them so they can finish getting ready and head out the door.

Let’s start with the title of the show; Accessories.

These are kind of presentation style portraits, so they have a lot of little things in them. I was also thinking of, accessories, in a painting sense. These all start out as tonal painting, and then get painted wet in wet. Leaving them monochromatic seems incomplete, so each is accessorized by color.

I get a sense of the anxiety from some of these; walking in on or being walked in on in these tight rooms.

The figures are completely imaginary, from my imagined monster vocabulary. But I still want them to have relatable expressions and emotions. I think the anxiety, that social anxiety, is there. And it’s interesting that you were looking at it as a kind of claustrophobia created by the space, but I guess in my own mind I was thinking the space looked cozy. They’re in their little dens and going to be ripped apart from those and go out into society.

Courtesy of the artist and yours mine & ours

Unlike your older work, we can’t really relate to these characters in gender binaries, they just are what they are.

I’ve been pushing that for a long time. I would mix everything together, which comes from my background with collage, and then I decided I didn’t need to do it anymore. I could come up with my own creatures, that would be whatever was projected on them.  I wasn’t sure how they would come across. It’s tricky; if it’s too vague, or if they’re too open ended, then they become not interesting to look at. I have to balance making something that is specific enough and has character and expression but at the same time is open to total interpretation. That’s where I rely on the outfits and surrounding materials.  My main interest is in using my imagination, and if there’s any sort of premise or assumption, it’s that the viewer will also be someone who wants to imagine things.

Thinking about some of your older work, specifically, Family Jewels, there’s this aristocratic vibe which is still be present. It seems you’re using those visuals to question class or wealth and its connection to painting.

I love old paintings. I went to a show in the Frick basement of Memling, and it was unforgettable to me. I made those paintings directly as a response to that. It’s not possible to just love them, because you see all the other social content around them, especially being a middle-aged dyke. Those presentation pictures are beautiful but are only for a very specific occasion; most of them are for power or wedding transactions. There’s something, as a living person, that’s not comfortable taking all of that in.  On a decorative level they’re beautiful, but you can’t ignore what’s happening.

It’s nice to hear you talk about the critique and mistrust you have of those old works.

It would be such a loss to me as a painter to not have those works because I’m not part of those belief systems anymore. And to put that in even stronger words, they stand for things that were destructive. But they also document those things in a way. I think the conversations happening now in terms of museums and collections affect how people are working in their studios. It’s definitely how I work .

It seems like you’ve been loosening up and allowing yourself more space for invention; referencing visual aspects of that culture without being tied to its traditions. 

I hope so, they’re kind of eclectic in their history while they allude to things that are going on now and things in our past. I started out as a collage painter. I would make collages and then I would do detailed renderings of those collages, I also learned to paint through indirect painting, drawing and underpainting and glazing. I didn’t learn direct painting, I taught myself that much later. And the fluidity has sort of come from spending the past ten years doing what most people do to begin with.

Did you have a kind of painter’s guilt about abandoning the processes of indirect paining?

Actually, after I did that series the Family Jewels, that was so labor intensive and insane that when the show came down and I started to work again, I physically could not work that way. I spent three months doing drawings on that yellow drafting paper, and at the end of the three months I didn’t have anything. I didn’t have a finished drawing, I had all of these attempts. I thought, I can’t go on this way. I was teaching painting at that time. I would give students assignments, and they would have something by next week. I thought, ok, I’m going to do what they do. I’m going to sit down, I’m going to squeeze a tube and pick up a brush and paint it. I found, “wow, I can work that way. I can do a whole bunch of paintings, crazy!” I started to do things that were quicker and more spontaneous but still related to collages that I made. Then a little bit later, I’d say in the past three years, I’ve kept a sketch book. Imagine, I was probably like fifty when I started really keeping a sketchbook, like really diligently keeping a sketch book.

The importance of the decorative and decoration to you comes through in this work.

I love patterns, and these start as purely tonal paintings, and I could leave them that way, but it’s not enough. I like those details, they seem too stark without that. That’s my sensibility.

Courtesy of the artist and yours mine & ours

In some of your older work, the background was just the sky, or the grass, and almost reads as just a void engulfing the central figure.

Having the figure as my subject matter for such a long time, I’ve faced this issue of, “if I want to have the figure be the focus, the background has to be lesser or be a supporting role”. But you still have to get the canvas to work all together. I’ve enjoyed that puzzle of getting it all to work. These interiors seem like a good way of extending the figure. I got the idea from doing a series of little rooms for a project I was doing with Oliver Wasow, where he photographed me and Laurel, and he put us in the little rooms that I painted. That got me starting to do interiors again. Also, Francis Bacon has a really good strategy for creating space. If you look at his paintings without that schematic, they would completely fall apart. They would just be kind of flat on the plane. He was one of my painting gods for a long time. But his work is so tortured and angsty. This sort of gay male way of dealing with the time he was in. For a long time those images dominated my imagination. It’s almost laughable how far away these images are away from those.

In a weird way your work now is like a “well-adjusted” Francis Bacon.

As if Gloria Vanderbilt went in and decorated a Francis Bacon.

Courtesy of the artist and yours mine & ours

I was also thinking a lot of Bonnard with these, the way the characters sink into their space. With you it seems like what you said about them being “cozy”, sort of sums it your point of view.

 I don’t want to do something saccharine, I love Dubuffet, and Raoul Dufy. They’re people who care about form and color. Even in Dufy, as frivolous as some of those are (like yachting pictures), you still feel a little cold war or post war in that. Maybe in the way that it’s almost contrived, how forcibly cheerful everything is.

Your images remain very accessible because they’re so much about the hand that created them.

Yea, there’s always going to be a lot of hand, and jewelry.

Hannah Barrett’s, “Accessories” at Yours Mine and Ours Gallery, is up through July 27th. The gallery is open Tuesday to Friday, 12-6PM.  Exhibition A has a limited print of, “Stage Fright”, and is available through their website. Barrett will have a solo show at Columbus Property Management (NY, NY) in Fall 2018, and be in a two person show with Marissa Bluestone at La Mama (NY, NY) in Spring, 2019. Barrett recently did the illustrations for“Nuts in Nutland”, a children’s book by Mary Miriam,  is available through Headmistress Press.

For more information on Hannah please visit her website or instagram

dditional Images:


Max Colby visited by Paolo Arao

I met Max Colby while on an artist residency at The Studios at MASS MoCA in North Adams, MA this past April. I was captivated by his work the first time I saw it and instantly felt a connection. I was happy to meet another artist working with textiles from a queer perspective. Max’s work straddles the line between representation and abstraction. His work appears gaudy and excessive, but there’s something rich embedded beneath his opulent surfaces. I paid a visit to Max’s studio in Bushwick a month after we returned to the city from our residency at MASS MoCA. 

Can you please tell me a little bit about yourself? Where are you from and when did you move to Brooklyn? Where did you go to school?

I moved to New York City six years ago immediately after receiving my BFA from the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston and Tufts University in 2012. I grew up between West Palm Beach, Florida and Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

How did you start working with textiles and embroidery? Can you elaborate on the specific embroidery technique(s) you use in your process?

I began working in textiles in my senior year of college, 7 years ago. I was experimenting with very fragile collograph plates for printing. The plates were figurative and their destruction through the printing process referenced a certain degradation and malleability of the self and identity, but the work was missing something. An introductory textiles course opened up the exploration of embroidery in this work and turned into a series of several dozen prints each customized with embroidered accoutrements. I’ve been obsessed with embroidery and textiles ever since.

The technique I primarily use when embroidering is called Crewel embroidery, which arguably began in the 11th century with the Bayeux Tapestry, but became increasingly popular during the Victorian era. It was used on clothing, furniture, and innumerable domestic and personal objects. It’s a very full and rich form of embroidery, comprised mostly of different iterations of long and short stitches. The history of this specific technique is always interesting to me as its function, execution, and accessibility are emblematic of points of contention regarding gender equality, capital, class, and power while providing an intoxicating desirability. 

Can you describe the series of work(s) that are in progress in your studio?

I’ve been working on a series titled They Consume Each Other, which is comprised of many small sculptures resembling religious relics or ceremonial objects. I’m simultaneously expanding a series of embroideries on original photographs from gay porn magazines. I like to move between several modes of production. Embroideries and flat works influence the development of sculptural work and vice versa. They Consume Each Other currently has 20 pieces, though I’m several dozen away from my goal. I’m interested in developing the work towards an immersive, participatory installation as well as exploring their performative potential. Lately, I’ve been envisioning them littered in vacant churches and homes. 

What are the main questions/ ideas that you’re trying to answer/develop in the studio?

I’m interested in exploring some pretty big questions on sex and power structures. For instance, the limited representation of gender, race, and physicality in the LGBTQIA+ community which follows a larger discussion in our culture about who’s life is valued and idealized. Nearly all of the magazines I utilize keep their models within a certain type. They’re white, cis-gendered, able-bodied and masculine men. Whom are considered the standard bearers of beauty and attractiveness across queer communities. Embroidering with extreme richness over these images aims to disrupt that narrative while provoking the viewer to consider what’s behind these desires. These various elements act as echoes. Can one get past that pure desire?

There’s a lot in conversation here, but my hope is that the work can provide a new frame for conversation on these issues. Often the work doesn’t go there for people and it’s simply visible, queer work. Or maybe it’s a new, fantastical way of seeing materials they often associate with domestic work experienced through their family unit. If my work can provide a fresh lens for someone grappling with sexuality, representation or identity, that’s incredible.    

What persons/places/things have had the most influence for you and your work?

I grew up in a family that loves art. My dad collected outsider art, and I was always taking extra art and music courses outside of school and in the summer since I was very young. I think that early creative development made a big impact on my work as an artist today. When I started to get serious as I got older, artists like Nick Cave and Cindy Sherman were huge influences on me and my understanding of artistic practice and its potential. Recently, shows like Trigger at the New Museum in 2018 and Queer Threads curated by John Chaich, to name a couple, introduced me to a slew of queer artists whom have influenced my practice. 

Can you elaborate on your use of decorative pattern and color in your work? Are your decisions purely formal or is there a conceptual underpinning behind your choices?

I like to play with blind desire in my work and strive for lush, opulent effects when working. There’s a back and forth between formal and conceptual elements. In sculptural work, I keep my choices limited, i.e., only collect European or American floral fabrics and trims, typically in colonial or Victorian styles. When I embroider, I stick to traditional Crewel embroidery and copy designs from historic textiles. The materials alone carry a great deal of conceptual backing. They directly invoke conversations on class, capital, desire, domesticity, disparity, and gender and I’m interested in subverting those associations. After making those decisions, I leave a lot of room for play. Color, form and composition are all done organically – nothing is pre-planned.

I'm really interested in the multitude of ways that Queerness is being represented by artists now. Do you consider your work to be abstract or representational or both? Is this important for you?

Queerness to me is open, fluid, evolving, resistant. It’s important to me that the work reflect that. The fantastical, maximal, nature of the work leaves it somewhere between the two.

Do you listen to music/ the radio/ podcasts while you work? What have you been listening to lately?

I mostly listen to music. Lately I’ve been playing Erykah Badu, Cardi B, and Grace Jones in the studio. Making work is so much about play for me, and I laugh at it a lot of the time. It’s hard to avoid when putting fabric flowers next to Victorian brocade fabric shaped like a phallus. Making also helps mitigate and redirect some strong anger and frustration I have towards injustice and inequality in society. What I have going in the background usually reflects those things.

What is a typical studio day like for you? Do you work early/late? Do you work every day?

I work full time in my studio and typically work morning to night. Most of my work is pretty time consuming and almost always hand sewing, so I set production goals. I’m an obsessive worker and can lose track of time, but I try to stand and stretch every hour or so, and on the flip side keep my studio time under 50 hours a week. At a certain point my eyes give out.   
Writing and research are also important parts of my practice, which I end up doing on days I’m not producing.  

Are you reading anything interesting at the moment?

I recently finished Frames of War: When is Life Grievable? by Judith Butler and Close to the Knives by David Wojnarowicz. I also keep Queer (Documents of Contemporary Art) by David Getsy always handy in my studio. 

Knowing what you know now, what is a piece of advice that you would give to your younger artist self?

It’s easy to get lost, don’t waiver from your values. 

For additional information about Max visit his website or instagram.

Additional Images:


Carry That Weight

I got to know Edison and his practice during a month in a 3-storey, former thrift-store.

Elsewhere is a strange condition to engage with art in.

This “living museum” is simultaneously a space of creative incubation for makers, a site of contemporary community engagement, and a protean archive of stuff that the public come to see and touch and eat and drink up.

For a month, I lived with 7 artists - 4 of whom where live-in interns at Elsewhere. Everyone slept in dorms on the second floor, cooked together in the kitchen, and spent their days making art with portions of the museum collection. This includes former residents finished art works.

Living there felt like a process of autophagy - what is no longer relevant is transformed, whether that’s a vintage book with problematic views, an artwork that did not age well over the residency’s 15 year period, or compostable scraps from communal meals.

After an initial exploration period, residents propose a piece they’ll work on at Elsewhere. Peñafiel was drawn to the large collection of vintage suitcases as a starting point.

“(T)he symbol of luggage is belongings, is movement, is travel, is moving from one place to another.”

*

Born into a creative family in Ecuador, he made his way into music and visual art. He learnt to play instruments by jamming with cousins, and two college-age sisters reiterated their graphic design lessons to him at an early age.

He came to the US as a teenager, overstayed his visa but eventually obtained residence status. After enrolling as a business major, he found that it wasn’t aligned with his ambitions. Or morals. He shifted his attention to major in Fine Arts, after a serendipitous photography elective.

Earlier works, such as Barrio Alto, and Los Chupasangre coax the viewer into questioning what is real and what is not. Exploring the nature of truth by pushing the limitations of pre-production.

“Most of my work during my school years was camera based. I saw the camera as an element that captures evidence, and truth, and I wanted to distort that idea of the camera.”

Not long after, he began projecting moving images - his stop-motion animations - over objects and spaces. Creating immersive installations that viewers can engage and interact with.

As a member of Wild Beast, Peñafiel was recently invited to take part in the artist collectives’ pilot residency program wherein a performing- and a visual artist collaborate on a piece. The installation, And It’s Gonna Be Great!, featured hanging panels of chiffon which created a maze through the 4,000 sq. ft. warehouse. The panels were illuminated, as he tells it, by “(…)animations of walls that shift and move and destroy themselves and deconstruct and construct back and make pathways so that the viewer can walk through them.” The idea being his own version of a wall, albeit one with a permeable membrane participants could cross at without restriction.

At Elsewhere, Peñafiel reworked ideas of displacement and migration within new contexts - this time the museums’ luggage collection served as an anchor point.

“(I)t brought back the possibility of talking about migration, movement, displacement, weight (…) not just physical weight, but an emotional or a psychological burden that these migrants go through - and not just migrants, but anybody that could relate to it. Maybe it’s a burden from a bad relationship, social or economic problems, you name it.”


Ni Aquì, Ni Allà is tucked away on the third floor of Elsewhere, down a dark passage way. It’s a fitting location because it requires physical effort to reach. Climbing two sets of stairs and carefully feeling your way down a dim hallway while your eyes adjust to the dark. And his installation rewards tenure. The longer you stay in the space, the more fully you absorb it. The more layers you discover.

Initially, your only senses are of the light from a projected film on the left walls, and the accompanying low, uncanny baritones that take advantage of the old wooden floors throughout the building.

“I wanted something that resembles the inside of a human being, like the pumping of the blood (…) a sound that you can recognize in an indirect way, a sound that you’re familiar with,  but you don’t really know from where.”

Peñafiel collaborated with local sound designer and musician, Ellis Anderson, (who created the soundtrack for the piece), to fit the music to the specific visual rhythms of the piece.

Providing a physicality to the admonishment of “walking a mile in someone else’s shoes”, the rhythm of the characters walking in the video, quite literally resonate through your feet.

These sonic vibrations are absorbed somewhat by a dark mass in the center of the space, which makes access into, and navigation of the interior, something you need to be committed to. The mass is connected to the three screening walls by ropes. These cut and censor sections with their shadows. What you eventually make out, is that the anchoring mass is a collection of boxes, luggage and a single dish-display cabinet inscribed with a Derrida quote.

The longer you engage, the more layers you discover. Elements that been meticulously baked into the experience.

“The work that I used by Cosmo Whyte (Look Who’s Coming to Dinner) talks about Greensboro as a welcome city for refugees and migrants.”

Whyte’s piece, relocated from the communal dining area on the first floor was incorporated as a sonic disruptor - an overlay. While the installation audio visuals are on a 16 min loop, Look Who’s Coming to Dinner detonates a deep bass drone on the hour, every hour.  

“(T)he experience will always be different if you are lucky to catch it at the right moment, when Look Who’s Coming to Dinner starts playing.”

In homage to the space itself, Elsewhere, is translated into the most fitting Spanish phrasing for Peñafiel.

“The titles in all my works play as another layer to the pieces, In Ni Aquì, Ni Allà (Neither Here, Nor There) these characters are constantly walking (…) in a never-ending journey from the forest to the fields and cities and the sea and a desert, and trapped in this perpetual cycle.”

The projection itself spills out from one wall onto the surrounding room. Almost as if the virtual is merging with the physical space. Holes in the wall (from previous residents’ projects) are aligned with the backs of characters heads - a suggestion that some viewers take to it’s morbid conclusion, even though the bodies in the video are eternally struggling forward.

At the time of writing this piece, various media of migrant children to the US being separated from their parents and held by the US border control, are scattered through my social feeds. Tucked in between selfies, exhibition announcements, light-hearted fare about weekend activities and advertisements. This makes scrolling particularly jarring: the media following one of those solemn posts (i.e. emergency blankets over small, sleeping children on mats behind chain-linked fences) is definitely going to be less disturbing. Most likely it’ll be so stark a contrast in tone, that the said image of detained migrant children be trivialized. What’s the protocol for that situation? When that contrast in severity is disruptive enough, it forces me to exit the app and think about this new phenomenon for a second. Is this the virtual equivalent of smiling in a selfie at a site of genocide? I don’t know. What I do know is that I’m pretty good at fading out those reminders of a shared-reality, after they infiltrate my virtual experience.

Peñafiel is hyper-aware of this societal callous coping-mechanism.

“I think I just try to remind the viewer that these situations are still happening, because injustice and disgrace have become normal. It seems like these situations fade away very fast from people’s mind, so for me, it’s bringing back those events and transforming them into a surreal version.”

The black and white video, and the choppy nature of the frames remind one of the old “classic” cartoon style. He tells me that was intentional: the patterns on the performers garments (stripes, polka dots, plaid), and exaggerated movements help the live action blend better with the animated background.

Peñafiel draws from a variety of migratory experiences (Latin America, the Middle East, Continental Africa), each one with it’s own specific political contexts and historical influences. However, it’s the common factors they share, that he extracts for an installation. The more universal the elements in the installation, the more viewers might project their own experiences onto the work - it becomes more relatable as a result.

I asked him how he feels about the partially ephemeral status of work created at Elsewhere - especially since he curated an entire space, instead of fabricating an art-object that can be easily moved.

“I’m aware that the piece can change its meaning. I think of it as creating an entity of itself, and I can only be attached to it until a certain point, after that point it is up to the piece.”

He’s also aware of the effect of time on certain contexts. For instance, some of the amassed works by previous residents, have slowly become problematic as attitudes and understandings have progressed. The same will happen to contemporary works to some degree - they’ll be re-contextualized by future Elsewhere residents.

We chat about authorship, audience and how artist statements can defeat the entire point of interactive work. He mentions an exchange he had with a viewer, where they bounced ideas back and forth about the installation.

“And that’s the process I want to happen with the piece - I give you a starting point (…) I don’t want to tell you what it is about, because if I tell you what it’s about then it becomes a one way conversation.”

For more additional information on Edison Peñafiel’s work check out his Instagram and website.