This work began with my exploring the reluctance among women in the deep South to perceive patriarchal and racial structures. I remember myself as a little girl in Mississippi covered head to toe in lace, anticipating being fussed over, wanting to be the object. It sets up an early feeling of being doll-like and not owning one's body. And it sets up a very pleasurable, safe existence that rewards not questioning the system. I am interested in the way I have maintained my investment in this system—partly out of the privilege of not having to be aware of it and partly out of a conflictual relationship to beauty--beauty as emotional safety.
I started thinking about lace as a metaphor for this experience, the obfuscation of ugliness--a representation of the gentility and graciousness of the South made possible largely by a history of graceless and dark systems. This obfuscation is highly effective in maintaining the status quo of both the oppressed and the idealized.
This work is also about the portrait and my identification as a figurative painter from the South, an identity I find both rewarding and problematic. The Southern portrait is often a signifier, a status symbol, a decorative object, or a kind of pre-Instagram posting.
I am using neon (unraveling and lit) and plexiglass (crystallized and glowing) as "lace"--neither bonnet nor halo, but playing with both. I made large ruffled "pillow" paintings and stuffed figures--fringed or in altar-like configurations with mirrored plexiglass and glitter clouds, re-interpreting the "trophy" room, woman as trophy, a type of padded cell of Southern culture, church altar.
I am attempting to have a conversation with this girl I was and am, partly a confession, partly a blessing. I am also trying to expand the portrait beyond the confines of ego and decorative object, challenging the culture of gentility and nostalgia which is rooted in and particular to the South, but whose questions of privilege and beauty as both safety and entrapment are universal.
Thoughts on Ultralight Beam:
Whether one is invested in the status quo or progress, both cultural visions cause boys to suffer. We forsake their vulnerability or we emasculate. Being a mother of a teenage boy and watching him and his friends navigate this complex landscape, I wanted to create an altar to the boy. It is also an altar against the boy, attempting to bind my faith in boys with my disappointment. And to set this maternal crossroads on the stage/altar of a rap concert which is a primary ritual. Inspired by both Van der Weyden’s Descent from the Cross and Bernini ‘s Ghent Altarpiece and Ecstasy of St Theresa, Kanye is the center as the descended Christ and the ascended dove—Kanye as deeply problematic and unstable and Kanye as prophet/poet. Kanye succinctly represents to me the crossroads of culture--giving us visions of the Divine and visceral insights into mental illness while also undermining this vision with his alliance to our president. Kanye embodies roiling visions of expansiveness and small mindedness that cannot be separated from each other, which feel similar to the roiling feelings of boys and their mothers.
The Sweets Table:
For the opening I created a sweets table of petit fours, a traditional Southern dessert for celebrations, each with a word on it that my mother often uses to describe her ideal daughter—soft, poised, feminine, sweet, etc. In the center of the table is my mother’s epergne filled with sour belt candy. The tablecloth I made from wax print fabric, generally associated with African, particularly West African identity, but can be traced back to 4th century Egyptian mummies, 8th century Indian and Chinese batik, and most prevalently 12th century Indonesia. The Dutch industrialized the Indonesian batik process in the 1850s but ended up having a more enthusiastic reception in Ghana, Nigeria and Senegal. The patterns in the fabric changed to reflect the stories of these communities. Today wax fabric is a symbol of African power and identity. I used this fabric to create a frilly and colorful foundation for a buffet of nostalgic sweets, representing the dark side of gentility and the complexity of appropriation, the creation of beauty and ornament from dehumanization.