Embodiment is a group show about the representation of bodies and how melanin translates to pigment: how to represent black, indigenous and other people of colour in a manner that exceeds visual depiction alone and speaks to identity, ancestry and broader sociopolitical issues.
Questions of colour are most overt in four small drawings from Pope. L’s ongoing text-based series Skin Sets, each of which takes the format of ‘x people are y’. The aphorisms (Green People Are The Sky Above The City, 2010) and racialised stereotypes are matter-of-fact yet bear a curious generosity all the same. They are annotated with scribbles – ‘I’m talking about a continent of flesh, ya know!’, ‘the sun on retainer’ – that suffuse the reader with the sensation of sudden heat. In a much larger, earlier painting by Pope. L titled Gold People Shit In Their Vale (1995), legibility gives way to sage, grey, fuchsia and marigold, a palette that suggests a cactus in bloom. Occasionally the mixed-media drawings are terribly poignant, as with Blue People Are An Underwater Airport (2011), which invokes both the horrors of the Middle Passage and the popular Afrofuturist mythology of a black Atlantis – a hidden underwater city and space of liberation populated by the descendants of those who were thrown overboard from slave ships. By eschewing figuration for language, Pope. L seems to suggest that it’s more interesting – more fun even – not to depict the body at all.
But the younger artists in the show provide exuberant evidence to the contrary. In Jonathan Lyndon Chase’s trio of largescale figurative paintings, a pair of men are seen shopping for watches, boots and rings. Chase is particularly known for his intimate and sometimes explicit depictions of queer black men, but here the figures are seen out in the world, in multiple overlapping perspectives. The display cases in particular suggest a kind of ‘Rubik’s cubism’ in which segments and details of the painting have been swapped or rotated. In one painting a man is seen with pecs on his back as he peruses flashy gold timepieces; in another he has genitalia where a bellybutton might be, his formerly green skin now shades of brown.
There’s more fragmentation in Tschabalala Self’s collaged paintings constructing black women’s bodies from neatly sewn fabric appliqués. In the aptly named Chop (2016), bodies are intimated through an assemblage of extremities: heads wearing manic grins, breasts and a grasping arm, each body part in a different skin tone. Coupled with Self ’s practice of incorporating excess bits of fabric from old works into new paintings, there’s a sense of identity as an amalgamation of everyone who has come before, an epigenetic predicated on admiration and strength instead of trauma.
A number of dreamy self-portraits by Cheyenne Julien deploy colour to striking effect. She paints herself softly rounded and strong, whether having an out-of-body experience in the tub, looking down at her own supine body or sitting naked on the bed afterwards. Especially notable are the hot pink carpet and green soft furnishings of Can’t Go Out, Can’t Stay In (2019), which seem to glow so intensely that they are reflected in a pinkened shoulder, a smear of turquoise at the hairline. The work captures, with wry precision, the paralysing tension between the two selves that you could be – between the self-containment of staying with the soft furnishings inside and the siren call of joining the people lounging in the grass outside the open windows. Nearby, in Chase’s watch-shopping expedition, orange signs reading ‘out’ and ‘in’ propose that these options are one and the same.
Pope. L, Jonathan Lyndon Chase, Cheyenne Julien & Tschabalala Self: Embodiment at Mitchell-Innes & Nash, New York, 12 September – 26 October
From the December 2019 issue of ArtReview