Towards a Radical Honesty
Exhibition review of ‘Portrait of the Artist as a Young Sad’ by Steven Dolan
A crowd has gathered in the parking lot of the El Capitan on a Thursday night in mid-May. It’s Capitol Hill Art Walk and with the continuation of the MARQUEE series, this humble patch of concrete is buzzing with energy, but absent are the pretension and soulless schmoozing you might experience in a gallery. This feels real. There are drinks in hands, some snacks being passed around, and the vibrations of conversation encasing the crowd as they look up towards projections filling two windows separated by a floor.
One projection, “a short looped film on sadness,” displays the featured artist, Kim Selling, posed in her bedroom in variations on a slump, her fat white body demanding attention from the street and I-5 travelers. Some poses see her face down, while others are more fetal, her body communicating a limpness and a pain, disrupting the bank of images many of us have in our heads filed under nude. The screen beneath it is a loop of text pieces Kim wrote, white text on a black background called “it’s just noise.” These projections are looped in tandem for a piece called “Portrait of the artist as a young sad.”
The text begins:
IT’S JUST NOISE
IT’S JUST NOISE
IT’S JUST NOISE
NARCISSISM AS COMMUNITY GIFT
is it still a panic attack if it’s yr entire life
put on clothes & eat something
Kim started the piece as a private photo series examining the toll of chronic depression, anxiety, OCD, and PTSD on her body. “Sometimes you just wanna take a bunch of photos of yourself and feel like a human and not like a lizard,” she said over drinks at Pony. Set in her bedroom, her “#1 comfort space,” the photos are an intimate peek into a private experience of pain, isolated but no doubt affected by the wider, more chaotic world. “I am posed in that way because I can’t think of myself as upturned with disorders that make me feel so downtrodden,” she said. “I’m not taking in anything, I’m actively repelling everything around me because I don’t have enough space in my body to absorb anything.”
She then paired the images with a collection of short textual phrases, “detritus” she had collected over time. As with the photos, the text is to be understood as output from the artist’s brain, which functions solely within the framework of mental disorder. With “young sad,” Kim invited viewers to take part in a communal experience of empathy. “It felt great to just be like, here’s a long daisy chain of bullshit that is just floating in my brain miasma constantly and now you get to stand here in a parking lot and stare at what the inside of my brain looks like all of the time, because guess what, it’s really dumb and gross and exhausting being me, and I bet it’s really dumb and gross and exhausting being you, so let’s just stare at it together.” In this way, Kim’s work is a vehicle, a recognition of the ways in which we are all hurt by the brutality of existence, filtered through her own experience. “Our world is survival in the face of unrelenting suffering,” she said. “We all exist within this place at different levels of such harm, and more suffering happens when we refuse to see these connections.”
This piece is unequivocally an extension of Kim’s greater body of work, which is not centered around a specific medium or even creativity per se. Her presence on the internet, and on social media in particular, engages with current events, intersectionality, social justice, and various forms of art with biting criticality and necessary humor. A mutual friend has called her an “internet witch,” speaking to her ability to meld fields of engagement in a way that is overtly political and disembowels oppression, transforming experiences like street harassment into quips that incite laughter while the ever-present specter of a violent world hides in plain sight. Kim embraces the digital world as a venue to hone a sensibility in a space where she says “you can’t do anything wrong [creatively]. It’s just recensoring or reediting or recarving over and over again into the same space… I see it as limitless.” And whether you’re “unsure if it’s art” or not, it is creative labor that sees its continuation in “young sad.” In recreating moments of discovery she experienced through social media, Kim extends the visibility of fat queer bodies, representation that is life-affirming. Further, in utilizing the language of digital relationality, a kind of distanced, oblique authenticity, she speaks to a deeper truth.
By adopting the formal qualities of advertising via its projection, “young sad” steals from capitalist strategy to advance an ethic in which the market is absent. Within a capitalistic gaze, Kim’s body and words are antithetical to production. By employing them in this framework, she subverts this gaze by “selling” a radically human way of relating, one that is based in honesty and critical of conventional power structures. In the same way, “young sad” offers an alternative to the arts community’s self-propagating obligation to the production line. In directly connecting art and depression (see: “‘nobody cares’—a support group for young creatives,” “the loudest voices in yr head are always the ones that don’t support u”), Kim critiques the idea that one both should and can be constantly productive as an artist: you made me feel guilty for not working hard enough, here you go.
In experiencing “young sad,” rigor and tenderness coalesce. Kim is assertive in her use of vulnerability as a tactic, though it had not occurred to her as such given her identity and the emotional labor that it regularly demanded of her. “I think that for my own purposes, I’ve militarized vulnerability and I am so actively emotionally compartmentalizing everything that comes within view of my forcefield.” It is through the reclaiming of her narrative that this vulnerability becomes harnessed, rather than left to the vultures. “You are often sharing without even realizing it. Especially as a fat femme, my body is public domain and I didn’t choose that, but it’s always been that,” she said. “I choose to own it and steer it as I may, rather than myself being steered by public opinion.” It is in this space of volition and self-revelation, gifted narcissism if you will, that we are able to connect with each other at our most essential.
Artwork by Kim Selling
Images of Installation by Lindsey Apodaca & Sierra Stinson
A community of feeling
MKNZ and Erin Frost ‘go on take everything’ red velvet cake, frosting, 2015
Written by Steven Dolan
“It seems that we started with a deficit. And by the time we got to the show, we were in this major state of abundance, of surplus, which thematically tied into the show. You actually can take everything. We don’t need it anymore.”
MKNZ, Erin Frost, Leigh Riibe, and Sierra Stinson are spread out in the living room of Sierra’s apartment. MKNZ is describing the journey that culminated in the show “go on take everything,” marking the 5th anniversary of Vignettes. In a short expanse of time, the four artists and friends each found themselves left by their partners in the homes they shared. Over the course of these heartbreaks, the four women grew closer, further cultivating a nurturing web of relationships that gave birth to an interweaving of art practice.
Speaking with the artists, it’s clear that the emotional turmoil they experienced individually and cared for collectively, comes secondary to the new love and relationality that emerged. The show is more about their reverence for healing and the bounty that followed than about the pain they endured.
Leigh Riibe ‘Flammable’ Printed Matchbooks, 2015
The evening of the show, guests were greeted by a wall of Erin’s lipstick prints (“i want to lose them”) and other offerings, such as the red velvet cake by Erin and MKNZ that shared the show’s title and a pile of printed matchbooks by Leigh Riibe (“Flammable”). These pieces, composed of multiples that invited taking, constituting offerings of abundance. In giving freely to each other, the artists are equipped to share the loved they’ve reaped.
Wearing a wooden milkmaid’s yoke with two 45-pound salt blocks hanging from either side, MKNZ occupied the apartment’s bedroom, deprived of vision and most of her hearing. For the active two hours of the durational performance, she carried the weight of the salt blocks. Those that attended the show were invited to provide MKNZ aid by lifting the salt blocks in pairs, requiring the careful cooperation of those that stepped up. Anything less would offset her balance. Titled “The Inherent Codependency of the Heaving Heart,” the performance illustrates the kind of collective care taking that occurs in times of grief.
MKNZ ‘The Inherent Codependency of the Heaving Heart’ performance, 120 minutes, 2015
“It’s reminiscent to me of when you have a friend that’s really suffering and is kind of unreachable, in a dead-to-the-world sort of state,” MKNZ explained. “It takes a collaborative effort to care for that person. It can’t be one person’s job alone.”
Participants came in waves, gingerly taking up the weight, engaging in the tender ritual. A ring of viewers dotted the walls, observing the act, but also enveloping the performance in a network of symbiotic support and affirming energy.
The performance was not only a gesture of trust extended to MKNZ’s anonymous supporters, but also one of generosity. Individual identity was not relevant to this relation. Instead, it was predicated on the sheer fact of their shared existence. The burden of love is relevant to all of us, but it is up to us to answer its call.
Leigh Riibe ‘Letters to Leslie 1991-1997 (age 10-15), telephone, audio recordings, 2015
Tucked away in the bathroom sat a red telephone, with the words “I LOVE YOU” standing in the place of a number. When one answers, they hear Leigh Riibe reading letters she wrote to her sister Leslie from 1991-1997, between the ages of 10 and 15. Leslie kept these, gifting Leigh a binder of her side of their correspondence for her 30th birthday.
“My sister has always been the person that has seen me throughout my life,” Leigh said. “She’s been the one that listened to me when nobody else would fucking listen to me and pay attention to me when nobody else would pay attention to me.”
The letters detail everything from suburban ennui and adolescent existentialism (“I figured out today that I have no life.”) to appropriately dated cultural moments (“My neck? I can’t hold it up without it starting to vibrate because it’s so sore from headbanging to Nirvana’s Nevermind.”).
The Christmas lists alone illustrate a depth that culture rarely allows girls. Requests are at times endearingly specific (“Stuffed animal that has to do with snowy weather, such as a seal or Lamonts 1992 Christmas bear,” “Pink cat eye sunglasses with jewels in the corners at Hot Topic”), absurd (“Breakfast in bed for the rest of my life”), and brutally honest (“Don’t get rid of Stella, Clarence, Morris, or Stubby”—Leigh’s pets).
For as much humor as there is, one also hears Leigh’s despair. Demands to write back are a constant, suggesting an aching isolation. A particularly heavy letter sees Leigh predicting the death of a friend whose drug use has left her feeling helpless. Her narration of the past teems with feeling. She occasionally laughs, she invokes the gravity of adolescent anger and effervescent girlhood, and sometimes her voice quivers. In delving into these wounds and whatever other emotional remnants the letters mark for her, Leigh harvests an emotional abundance that is not tied to a specific time, for through the process, she is creating a future.
“I think the overarching theme for the show for myself was healing,” Leigh noted. “Talking and interacting with that time of my life without judgement and playfully was really healing.”
Erin Frost ‘that which has been your delight’ video still, 2015
Originally exhibited at Out of Sight, Erin’s “that which has been your delight” reaches a new intensity in conversation with her cohorts and the context of the show. Before the video’s creation, the death of a friend and her first love coincided within weeks. Having bought herself flowers after the first loss, she sat contemplating using the petals after the second, only to have them fall into her hand, sparking the piece that followed. One night swimming by moonlight, a friend, Adam Boehmer, put forth the phrase “making space for pleasure,” which became Erin’s mantra. “It just held me,” she explained.
The video begins with Erin face down on a bed of black fabric in a confrontational moment of grief. What follows is a sensuous exploration of feminine codes . We see a closeup of her sliding her arm through a sleeve of sheer, embroidered fabric and then slowly lifting the hem of her dress. Her hands dig into a visual field of flour. Milk glides down her nude body. Flowers are a near constant, even receiving their own milk bath.
What is achieved is not the masking of grief, but a cathartic moment of grief harnessed as pleasure. Erin taps these icons of femininity, articulating their potency and giving weight to beauty. She embodies a vision of emotional fecundity, illustrating the possibility of new life. Our culture teaches us to grieve quietly and conveniently, but her process rebukes that notion, instead choosing exhibitionism. Erin has no shame about her grief, nor her femininity, purveying and transforming these ideas as sources of power and strength.
“I think that when you’re feeling stripped when you lose things, you are faced with that power in yourself,” Erin suggested. “Everything falls away.”
Sierra Stinson ‘Two Vessels (Fill me up / Pour me out)’ 2 Channel Video still, 2015
In the kitchen, Sierra’s 2-channel video, “Two Vessels (Fill Me Up / Pour Me Out)” plays on a continuous loop. With a directness and simplicity, the video points at an essential emotional sensibility: one that not only externalizes or “pours,” but that also simultaneously internalizes or “absorbs.” One side of the video piece shows an amber-toned sponge taking in a steady drip, while the other demonstrates the mouth of a carafe pouring water. The shots are framed to focus on the actions, not the entirety of the objects themselves, nor the environment they exist in. In doing this, Sierra emphasizes a humble gesture that evokes clarity: perhaps it can be that simple to love and be loved.
“We are all vessels. I had that idea the week after I went through my breakup,” Sierra said. “I was like, oh, I’ve been this cup pouring out, pouring out, pouring out, to the point that I can’t do it anymore. And then I was like, I need to be the sponge. I want to be that. At first it was a negative outlook in ways, and then as I worked on it, I realized we can be both vessels always.”
It is through the realization of vulnerability and an active channel of loving that an emotional system as this can function and nurture the wellspring of love that we give and receive, the piece asserts.
As an exercise in vulnerability and an intersection of relation and creation, “go on take everything” realizes a radical form of artistic practice. It is often the case that patriarchal culture privileges a stoic approach to creation (and being in general) and a pointed separation between artist and work. Within this value system, transparent emotionalism, especially coming from feminine sources, is considered frivolous. Allowing oneself to be vulnerable is in direct defiance with a culture that would rather us remain isolated, navigating the world through dispassionate power moves, in lieu of a more considerate relation. The project of “go on take everything” envisages community as the space we create when we allow ourselves to care for and with others. In tandem, emotion, whether it inhabits typified avenues of relation or not, creates a community of feeling. Whatever social parameters exist, this field of being is indestructible. We need only open ourselves to its infinitudes.
Queer Resistance, Queer Resilience: The ‘Mo-Wave Art Exhibition
Naomi’s Birthday Song | Leigh Riibe & Lynda Sherman
4 1/2″ x 4 1/2″ | Movable type on doilie,text by Rosie “Awesome Witch of Rad” Melero | 2014
Written by Steven Dolan
The urgency of the current moment pervades seemingly every facet of modern life.
Davora Lindner and Steven Miller aimed to capture this energy in their curation of the forthcoming ‘Mo-Wave Artist Exhibition, now in its third year. The curators cite Okwui Enzewor’s introductory essay for the 56th la Biennale di Venezia as a starting point. In the essay, titled “The State of Things,” Enzewor details the Biennale’s proximity to massive and transformative global events and social movements, acknowledging the necessary presence of art alongside tumult. Lindner and Miller envision their curation as a “graphic and sensual call to action inspired by the Occupy Movement, Black Lives Matter, Transgender Activism and the use of social media in the pursuit of social justice.”
Since its inception in 2013, ‘Mo-Wave, a queer arts and music festival in Seattle, has been about disruption and resisting assimilation. By exhibiting artists that challenge and transcend normative ways of being, the festival has cultivated community that honors a queer heritage and imagines a compassionate, vital queer future.
The exhibition at Vermillion Art Gallery and Bar, will play close attention to text pieces, as well as “the most constructive forms of human bedrock”: nude bodies, painting, and encampments. The space they will create is inspired in part by another imagined by Benjamin Gazy and Anouk Rawkson, artists and bartenders at the local queer bar Pony, one of few holdouts of what some see as Capitol Hill’s storied past. Reimagining Mortville, the derelict, dystopian fantasy of John Waters’s Desperate Living, Gazy and Rawkson transformed Pony into part gallery, part artist flea market. A banner quoting Waters hung at the bar’s entrance by Grant Rehnberg expressed the unrest felt by many: “ONLY THE RICH SHOULD BE ALLOWED TO LIVE.” In conversation with the changing landscape of the Hill, the neighborhood that Pony occupies, the spirit of Mortville offered a biting critique.
The lineup of artists showing at Vermillion represent a diverse scope of identity and aesthetic sensibilities, connected by their capacities to actively engage in a discourse surrounding queer living in a state of emergency. The following highlights four distinctive voices the exhibition will showcase.
Medusa Head | Andrew Lamb Schultz | Walnut ink on paper | 11 x 14 inches | 2015
Andrew Lamb Schultz’s illustration merges the saccharine with the deadly serious. With an often simple, linear style that reveres the naive and the cute, Lamb engages ideas ranging from the existential to the political. Some of Lamb’s subjects are aesthetic objects, like potted plants, swimming pools, and pink flamingos. These are in fact, not simply objects, but symbols of aesthetic legacies, passages into alternate, created worlds. Other subjects are historical figures that Lamb interrogates and subverts with their playful hand. In classical mythology, Medusa’s hideousness is meant to incite terror. As Lamb renders her, with circles signifying cheeks and a gentle visage, her misogynistic smiting by history melts away. It’s not that she has been drained of her power. She has just been recognized as part of the depraved family. With whimsical irreverence, Lamb rebukes the canonical understanding of “serious work.” It is through this critical tenderness that Lamb liberates.
Another acolyte of tenderness exists in artist Leigh Riibe, who will be showing photography, as well as a text piece. Leigh’s work, which has had incarnations ranging from photography, illustration, and art objects speaks to a certain tangibility and physical relationality. Printed matter and the written word are among the most essential facets of her work. This sensibility has been instilled in mixed media sculpture and art objects, lending a poetic quality to these works. “Resurrection,” a piece composed of an alarm clock with a face that reads “Stop Waiting” in script, speaks to the urgency of living and creation. Riibe often makes grand gestures with text, enacting what some might construe as melodrama. An illustration featuring a nude and the text “Sometimes I Dream You Came Back from the Dead Just to Hang Out With Me” comes to mind. With Riibe’s work, however what may read as hyperbole is exacting expression that shows a vulnerability that people are often too afraid to allow themselves.
The 2012 retrospective exhibition, “Live Through This,” featured photography, handwritten memories mimicking diary entries, mixtapes, and other such personal artifacts. Recalling formative moments of the artist’s past, the exhibition recounted discovery and rebellion against imposing Catholic tradition and patriarchy at large. Tracing a feminist awakening through the music of riot grrrl and shared sisterhood, Riibe does not simply document. Portraits of the artist and those close to her capture the revolutionary act of girl love and the creation of space in time. In the spirit of sharing and information dissemination, much of the work was compiled in a zine by the same name.
Visibility also arises in the work of C. Davida Ingram, an artist whose work spans mediums, but is specific in its attention to the experience of being black in America. A recent photographic work, featured at Out of Sight this summer, placed multiple images of (presumably) the artist’s rear in fluorescent bottoms, accompanied by the title, “WHERE CAN MY BLACK ASS GO TO BE SAFE?” The mind reels, as harrowing news stories abound, detailing police brutality against black women, like Sandra Bland and the student at Spring Valley High School. It is this kind of confrontation, an upending of the gaze traditionally imposed on feminine black bodies, that makes Ingram’s work so vital. Elaborating on the vast reach, even absurdity, of misogynoir, additional text included, “Define: safe. Is this location actual? In this country? In this world? In this universe? This dimension? In my house? Maybe in her autobiography? Or epitaph?” In an interview coinciding with her exhibition “Eyes to Dream: A Project Room,” at the Northwest African American Museum, Ingram discussed marginalized people “being unimaginable to people in power.” With a social practice and love ethic, Ingram asserts her existence and breaks down the walls that make some invisible.
Excerpt from ‘bust. a meditation on freedom‘ | Rafa Esparza | Performance
Answering the call to disrupt the violence of erasure, the artists exhibiting at the ‘Mo-Wave Artist Exhibition incite action and demonstrate the values of communities that an increasingly normative society infringes upon. In the spirit of action and expression, the show runs through December 5th, 2015.
Thursday, November 12th Opening Reception | 6pm to 10pm
Exhibiting Artists :
Andrew Lamb Schultz | C. Davida Ingram | Free Witch Quarterly | Grant Rehnberg | Joey Veltkamp | Leigh Riibe | Liana Kegley | Lynda Sherman | Mario Lemafa | Rafa Esparza | Rio Abundez | Tara Thomas | Topher McCulloch | Storme Webber
Live performances by Mal DeFleur and Storme Webber
DJ Ozma Otacava