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Between the Waters / Cy Gavin

Upon entering the group exhibition “Between the Waters” at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, curated by Elisabeth Sherman and Margaret Kross, the first thing one sees is Cy Gavin’s The Future of Tucker’s Point (2016), a large landscape painting in lurid yellows, oranges, fluorescent pinks, and notes of Caribbean blue.

Made with oil, acrylic, and chalk on canvas, the landscape plays host to a black male nude. Centrally located, the nude sits facing sunny skies with toes dangling in water, his eyes closed in ecstasy. Half covered by a cloak of black fur or some other luxuriant material, the drapery elegantly adumbrates the ever-lurking probability of a shadow of the Veil à la W.E.B. Du Bois. He also appears blessed against the odds, unperturbed by a total lack of racial anxiety. Beach, tidal ponds, rock outcroppings, and palm trees hotly surround him, complementing his nakedness with an acid glow. Since the painting’s title claims to present a scene from “the future,” it makes sense to suggest that what we see here is an eventual return to paradise. By way of reversal, Masaccio’s fifteenth-century fresco Expulsion from the Garden of Eden comes to mind, in which Adam and Eve are shown exiting paradise in states of pronounced agony.

Cy Gavin, The Future of Tucker’s Point, 2016
Cy Gavin, The Future of Tucker’s Point, 2016. Collection of Nick Cave. Courtesy of the artist.

Gavin’s work sometimes recalls Renaissance portrayals of the nude, except for two major distinctions: that Gavin is alive for the secular twenty-first century, and that all of his characters are black. He’s a sensitive minder of history, in ways specific to his Afro-Caribbean American lineage as well as to the complicated, canonical mantle inherited by any figurative painter finding his way in the West.

His figures and landscapes volunteer themselves for our allegorical consideration, just like the nudes and pastorals of former regimes. Unlike these past examples, however, Gavin’s are done in psychotropic color schemes and are often titled to identify icons of slave-trade-era Bermuda lore: the ancestral homeland of Gavin’s father’s family.

Tucker’s Point happens to be a resort town on the island that Gavin visits once or twice a year, a place that leaves him with two or three mixed feelings. Gavin told me that he posed for The Future of Tucker’s Point himself, and so I can’t help but interpret it as a euphoric vision of the artist enjoying a climate of rapture, located in days to come at the site of his ancestors’ prolonged and horrific subjugation under slavery as well as their first introduction to America.

Expanding on W.H. Auden’s notion that art is perhaps best understood when one prioritizes a search for Edenic pleasure, Dave Hickey writes: “Our Edens reside in a world that we can touch, that sings in our ears and shines before our eyes — the only world that we can inhabit while living in our bodies with all our senses intact.” And so I am reminded of microcosmic Bermuda, a real-life island off the coast of North America, held in the hands, ears, and eyes of Gavin, where I believe he has sensed what paradise has been possible, thwarted, and yet may again be attainable, even only if briefly, despite the tremendous powers that be and those that have been.

Cy Gavin, Bather II 2018
Cy Gavin, Bather II, 2018. Courtesy of the artist.

Full disclosure: Cy is one of my closest friends and we talk about art, either his or mine, constantly. Somehow, however, I think I am able to bring an appropriate measure of criticality to bear on his work. I think this because of what Auden says about writers or artists writing critically about work that they love: “So long as a man writes poetry or fiction, his dream of Eden is his own business, but the moment he starts writing criticism, honesty demands that he describe it to his readers, so that they may be in the position to judge his judgments.” So, honesty demands that I describe the dreamlike satisfaction of knowing Cy’s work, regardless or because of the fact that I enjoy the pleasure of his company. Here goes. I think he’s an artist nourished by the act and sensation of painting, in touch with the land from whence he came, viewing what he’s become since then or there and responding in kind, unsentimental, blissful in spite of it all. The locations cited in his work as landscapes set themselves up as apparatuses whereupon he can enact the experiential thrills of applying wild color, texture, depth, and perspective, all while meditating on the historical significance or folkloric meaning of a specific site in the natural world. More essentially, Cy’s project comes down to a poetic exploration of idiosyncratic mark-making on variable surfaces, subdued and/or roused by figures comporting themselves as flirtatious avatars of a rich legacy, shaded by human misery, and yet reimagined with joy.

by Sam McKinniss

New Wave is a monthly column profiling emerging artists.

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OTMA’s Body / Women’s History Museum

The art of dressing has historically been understood as a frivolous, feminine pastime, reserved for young girls, housewives, and queers of varying kinds. Taking place most often in the home, the salon, or the department store, these delineated spaces of consumption and display were important sites for femme recreation, socialization, and care.

The New York fashion collective Women’s History Museum, founded by Amanda McGowan and Mattie Rivkah Barringer in 2014, sets out to examine the psychic potency of such sites, insisting on dress culture as a space where identity is perpetually undone and reimagined.

Their first stand-alone gallery show at Gavin Brown’s enterprise gathers much of the group’s expansive archive from the last three years of production, spanning tapestries, idiosyncratically upholstered interiors, and lots of garments, all conceived and rendered in a distinctive collage-like approach to repurposed textile. Titled “OTMA’s Body,” the show references the acronym of the four daughters of Nicholas II, the last emperor of Russia, and his consort, Alexandra Feodorovna, all of whom were executed on the eve the revolution on July 4, 1918. Largely confined to their royal quarters, without any agency to alter their fate, the OTMA sisters instead enveloped themselves in a hyper-aestheticized universe, writing diaries, sewing, and endlessly photographing one another. At least this is what WHM imagines: their homespun phantom institution is as much about the sensory potential of storytelling and reverie as it is about reality.

Art’s historical avant-garde, with its militaristic inflection, emphasizes a kind of critique that enforces, transgresses, destroys; as many have argued, this is an inherently gendered imaginary, one that ignores the critical potential of the decorative, the body, and “women’s work” more broadly. Countering this, WHM instead critiques from a point of view of the body, but a body adorned, embellished, draped in thrifted silks and starched crinoline. Like OTMA’s time-passing diversions, WHM’s voice revels in the ephemeral, a historically pejorative term that for so long has been attributed to all types of femme aesthetic production (fashion most persistently).

Women’s History Museum, OTMA’s Body, Installation View
Women’s History Museum, OTMA’s Body, Installation View, Gavin Brown’s enterprise, New York,Courtesy ofthe artist andGavin Brown’s enterprise, New York / Rome.

But for the young collective, escaping what is considered normatively “productive” has political consequences beyond the gender-political and the art-historical: as a fashion label that functions as an art practice, the project transgresses conventions of the mainstream fashion economy by refusing to “produce” straight commodities for insatiable mass markets. Instead, their sartorial output takes shape as community-oriented performances, forms of collaborative imagemaking, and runway shows as much as actual collections: fleeting “fashion experiences” in the broadest sense of the word, sometimes documented, sometimes not. At Gavin Brown’s, McGowan and Barringer invited peers to host events over the course of the exhibition’s duration, including self-help makeup tutorials by downtown artist Gogo Graham, live music sets by Jack Scanlan, and poetry readings by Gabriela Rivera-Morales. Their garments, ranging from a few hundred dollars to several thousand (vernacular haute couture if I’ve ever seen it!), are unique, handcrafted, and meant to be worn, although they function equally well as objects of viewing, of touching, of worship. Stylistically, they provide a rare antidote to the overpowering utilitarianism of contemporary dress, which, via casual smart dress, athleisurewear, and, more recently, normcore, has taken over much of the world’s fashion imaginary since the 1980s. The baroque character of their work — corsets made from medical gauze, antique metallic French lamé — suggests an alternative canon of fashion (Susan Cianciolo’s RUN, Meadham Kirchhoff) that insists on craft not as a co-opted attribute of luxury, but one of psychic, social, and political gravity.

It was Julia Bryan-Wilson who once noted how craft sits with a strange and contested position within the schematic of contemporary consumption, “uniquely positioned to allow us to reconsider the politics of materiality and exchange — their labors, pleasures, and hazards.”  The torn-up, tattered, patchworked textiles that make up WHM’s garments and objects — former brand tags, stains, little holes incorporated as part of the designs — allow us to sense but never fully grasp the tumultuous lifespan of textile and fashion commodities and the hands that, over time, have toiled, touched, and repaired them. Like many of their institutionalized feminist predecessors, they recoup craft as a strategy of feminist institutional critique, while also accounting for the larger environmental and geopolitical context of mass production that all textile manufacture finds itself a part of today.

Ultimately, escaping the oppressive rhythm of the fashion calendar (biannual presentations, retail) allows for a practice that challenges fashion’s most defining characteristic: its relationship to time. With its atemporal approach and community-oriented infrastructure, Women’s History Museum is an institution of histories and dreams, of trauma and healing, of solidarity and friendships, all expressed through the hem of a shirt, in the draped fold of a dress.

by Jeppe Ugelvig

New Wave is a monthly column profiling emerging artists.

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When You I Feel / Issy Wood

Opulence calls for strong effects; wealth speaks its clout through ornament. To have choice parade as public dilemma evidences a kind of fortune. In the case of Issy Wood (b. 1993, USA), ordeals of the haute-monde and power relations based in the practice of real fantasies are part of an arena that shimmers as delicately feudal lacunae. Her oil paintings are born from a decadent climate populated by silver tureens, flawless manicures, compact mirrors as amulets and the odd, bizarre minaudière. In Back at the V&A (2017), for instance, a black necklace bust displays a wiry, filigreed Art Nouveau necklace. Oil on velvet, it is a frontal and saturnine image.

Such objects speak to a milieu composed of trite concerns, periodically engaged in mini dramaturgy such as consultations, lunches-as-event or vestibule gossip, each weaving a gendered commentary. It is an environment where taste hardens like lacquer, dietary requirements become indulgent declarations and styling bears the tracery of anxiety. Typically working a dark palette, Wood’s atmosphere haunts the elite, blending gothic antique, pointillist incredulity and Jean Dupas contours with allegory and necromancy. Like a monogram, “IW” appears in slippery ways, like a skin rash over breasts undone from corsetry in IW (2017) or as a tempestuous celestial core of Saturn in The Supervision (2017).

Her first solo show in London, “When You I Feel” at Carlos/Ishikawa, consists of three large paintings bordering a central room, its interior floor tiled and chalked with various calligraphic glyphs. A vis-à-vis or “confident” chair, two-seats conjoined in an S-shape, occupies the center — a set for disclosure, a therapy session. Wood’s paintings fall short of proper sexual identity, yet her choice of meticulous ornament generates the greatest articulacy. Though outside of historical category, should a clock start ticking, be sure it’s a Cartier keeping perfectly expensive and excruciating time.

This distance lends Wood’s aesthetic an alien seduction; it also extends Wood’s practice from sadomasochism’s play of violence to an exploration of genuine control. “Glamour” epitomizes what’s on offer here, that is: from early eighteenth-century Scottish origin to mean enchantment, a spell; and from the Latin grammatica, associating glamour as technique, a discipline. Here, glamour is put to use both as instrumental phantomic polish and illusionist, carnivalesque reserve. Arguably, Wood relays a flickering opacity to a culture understood as clear as plastic; you can see more should you want to.

Supplemental to the oil paintings in “When You I Feel,” a book includes notations, sardonic exchanges and diaristic entries from her blog, chewandswallow. On the cover is an alien face gawping into her cell, complete with Brazilian blow-dry, thick rouge at the lip and fresh manicure. Complexion pine green, her eyes are classic mutant: wide atramentous pebbles. Her nose is minute. At once earthen and nebular, her gloating is fossilized. Though extraterritorial as a woman, one would imagine her frequenting Harrods on the hunt for a fresh autumn stole.

It is through Wood’s writing that location becomes tangible. She is well aware that desirability rearranges space, and that solitude can accelerate the mind’s decay. Oftentimes, her attention is toward the female elite whose diaries are littered with consultations with the local surgeon and diagnoses from their svelte, modish dietician. In the dialogue THE HEART TO HEART, surgeon (2) and patient (1) renegotiate anonymous stretches of skin. “1: Somone’d better really encroach on my personal boundaries in the workplace after all this. 2: Oh you needn’t worry, and I can assure you he will be a GQ subscriber. Let me show you my pen before I begin my annotations, here it is.” The entries read like episodic vignettes and apologia, often mid-crisis, accusation or realization: “I am dripping in jewelry I am completely riddled with accessory oh god the EMBROIDERY.” (For Wood, epidermal strain is never far from adornment.) Polarities are assured, there is a predator, and there is prey. Peppered with imperatives, parochial whining and incidental tragedies of luxury, these notes are close to a body aware of medical enhancement, amplifying a psychology footloose. As though sampled from the doldrums of Sex and the City, the tone is both beleaguered and rapturous; seeing high society with both a medieval and dystopic spirit.

Grand dame of plastic artifice, American comedian Joan Rivers has made several appearances as surrogate in portraits of Wood’s mother, and in many ways Rivers’s scathing and indulgently vulgar stand-up echoes Wood’s writing. In Free to Chat (2016), her winking turquoise face hovers amid lunar cycles; in mother as young joan rivers (2016), a sweeping, tucked brown bob meets a vulpine gaze.

Rivers was a unique example of high society that reckoned with stardom via the expulsion of its vulgarity. She became a bastion of its mocking, using herself as damage control. Her life is something we may look back on and embellish, though to be a star, you also have to be a bit of a monster.

by Alex Bennett

New Wave is a monthly column profiling emerging artists.

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