February 19 – March 23, 2021
9 North Moore St, NYC
For better or worse, every art exhibition over the past year has been framed by the COVID-19 pandemic. At its onset, this connection occurred by default; but as time went on, galleries began to incorporate the pandemic into their programming as a subject or theme. The decision to contextualize exhibitions in this manner resurrected an age-old question: what purpose does art serve in periods of crisis? Home Body, an exhibition brilliantly curated by Nico Wheadon that features exquisite work by Elia Alba, Baseera Khan, Sola Olulode, and Maya Varadaraj, offers one poignant reply: when the relationship between art and the present is brought to our attention, we would do well to focus on the minutiae of the moment.
In an essay accompanying the exhibition, Wheadon emphasizes that one’s sense of isolation during the pandemic inevitably reshapes notions of embodiment. For Wheadon, this sense of embodiment senses the body as a “home, or interior world,” that we can “return to or seek refuge in.” The work of Alba, Khan, Olulode, and Varadaraj meditates on the idea of the body as refuge by suggesting, both literally and metaphorically, that your home is formed not only by how you arrange it, but how you arrange yourself in it. In Alba’s soft sculptures, the artist creates embodied portraits by photo-transferring the details of her sitters’ hands onto fabric, sculpting and stuffing them, embellishing their surfaces, and posing them. In addition to capturing the indexical signs of race, age, and labor, these hands also capture the indexes of how one person perceives another. Judy (Study #4) (2019), for example, features one hand lightly clutching cerulean feathers while the other is adorned with an assortment of brightly colored buttons, pins, and beads. While these hands give us a literal representation of Judy’s body, the adornments are reflective of how Alba perceives her friend. In this case, Judy is surely fabulous and possibly that friend who embodies joyousness even when crisis strikes.
The connection between the literal and the perceived is also prevalent in the provocative assemblages by Khan. These works, the majority of which are entitled Seat, are composed of mixed materials including pleather, grommets, shopping bags, and a prayer rug. The surface of Seat 22 Green and Yellow with Straps (2019) is predominantly made of a metallic teal Opening Ceremony shopping bag, which evokes the intersections of utility and brand preferences. By hanging these seats like portraits on a wall, Khan draws our attention to ways in which objects we use daily bear the unique traces of our bodies and tastes. The amalgamation of mediums and sources manifests in Varadaraj’s mandalas as well. With material pulled from calendar advertisements that are reframed in a series of collages, the artist reflects not only on how our bodies are constantly in touch with technology and industrialization, but also how these touches carry over time. In Between Observer and Observed (2021), a self-portrait of the artist is overlaid on a pre-1947 image of an Indian woman. As the artist reclines on her side and stares outside the frame thoughtfully, her body literally rests upon the older woman due to the collage technique. In this work and others, Varadaraj suggests that embodiment is formed not only through reflection on one’s heritage and identity, but also materially through performative elements like clothing and poses.
What at first glance appears to be the most straightforward artworks in Home Body prove to be its most stunning and thought-provoking. Across twenty-one modestly sized prints, Olulode depicts touching moments of intimacy between Black queer couples. As the press release details, the artist composed these works by “kneeling and drawing on the reverse of the paper to produce what will ultimately become an inverted image on the front.” Similar to the objects by the other artists on display, Olulode inscribes the body into her artwork. While some of these scenes clearly take place outdoors, most of them could take place anywhere. Therefore, the prints make clear that home is more about embodied practices than it is about place. For Olulode, these practices are imbued with a sense of trust not only between the partners themselves, but also between the artist and her work, the viewer and the figures, and one’s sense of home and another’s. By placing herself in close proximity to her depicted subjects, the artist invites the viewer into a moment of intimacy that never feels voyeuristic or intrusive. As the figures’ faces meet to kiss in the gorgeous A Series of Events 4 (2020), the artist’s body meets them on the paper while our eyes meet her and the couple in the gallery. By highlighting these series of intimate touches, Olulode, as well as Alba, Khan, and Varadaraj, demonstrates that while home might seem like something finite (like the moment of a kiss or two hands touching), its nature is actually something serial. Even in moments of crisis, home, like the body, ages, morphs, and, above all, meets the world.