How to address the paradox of visibility, in which the circulation of one’s image carries both the affirmation of representation but also the threat of its exploitation? Recent years have seen increased exposure of artists of color in the spaces of art exhibition with major exhibitions and gallery shows organized around identity markers. As these subjectivities gain exposure, what remains to protect them from being consumed without recourse to structural change? What to do, when museums seem to want our art but not our bodies? These questions, endemic but not unique to the art world, were navigated in Not For Everybody, a recent group show that closed in December, organized by Allie Tepper featuring Baseera Khan, Hadi Fallahpisheh and Gloria Maximo at Simone Subal Gallery in New York. Considering “the process of adapting—or refusing to adapt—to a society whose messages and policies are increasingly unaccommodating,” the artists in the show don’t propose answers so much as practical strategies to this condition: how do we navigate the dangers of representation?
One way, they suggest, is to refract the representation of identity through artistic process. The artists in Not For Everybody work across mediums, through painting, video, sound, photography, sculpture, as well as performance. This multidisciplinary response is important, as it reads as one proposition of the exhibition: abstraction as armor. It is maybe what Martinican philosopher and poet Édouard Glissant called the “right to opacity.” For Glissant, opacity refers to the ways we remain unknowable against the transparency required from the institutions of “understanding” in western thought. Opacity is both an ethical and an aesthetic practice of un-understanding, of “unknowability,” a resistance to representation. The artists in Not For Everybody build and complicate this idea, arguing for a more complex interaction between opacity as well as transparency.
Consider Hadi Fallahpisheh’s The Truth Has Four Legs (Hidden in Translation), a large, ghostly photograph of a ceramic vessel with the outline of a body within the frame itself. Fallahpisheh works with camera-less photography, using a special darkroom process to expose objects to photographic paper, blocking out chunks of light with his own body. This process is a performance, and his body becomes a hidden actor, a material, and an object in the work.
The sheltering body can also be found in The Truth Has Four Legs (On Hold), where a rolled up carpet (one that Fallahpisheh has used for his performances) counterbalances a large ceramic vessel. An audio work hidden in the vessel emits cries for help in several languages, further evoking the obscured and imperiled body.
Yet in other aspects of Fallahpisheh’s practice, this body is made transparent, dematerialized into fictions of identity. The Truth Has Four Legs (Punishment II), another photograph in the show, is mounted on clippings from The New York Times referencing reductive narratives foisted upon him in an environment of anti-immigration policies. Fallahpisheh responded directly to this condition in a 2016 show at Kai Matsumiya, where he constructed a fictional character “Hadji,” weaving social constructions with his personal biography. In both cases Fallahspisheh’s work asks us to consider not the wholeness of identity so much as an ongoing process of identification, where we interpellate various fictions other produce for us into those that we produce for ourselves.
These fictions are not without their material precarities, and Gloria Maximo explores this in her Upward Mobility series, comprised of two horizontal plaster painting installations and a video work. “I am not portraying a fiction,” Maximo says about a related video work titled Client States on view at the Queens Museum International, “I am instead enacting a performance as myself, a painter, to create an abstraction that has a realist subject.” Upward Mobility, like Client States, transiently moves between realism, a form of art that unmasks social laws and circumstances, and abstract painted marks. Delicate lines follow the softly referenced underlying structure, both the societal and plaster form, and the liminal space of a woman at work, rest, and in death.
The three works in the exhibition represent a cycle that speaks to the precarity and vulnerability of a human relationship with low income attempts at upward mobility, respective survival strategies, and transiency. The subject in her video Upward Mobility (Woman Working) sits at a promotional table in Jamaica, Queens, with brochures soliciting the attention of passersby. At times, she looks down at her hands and they glow with a warm light. This small moment of contemplation depicts what Maximo has called the “interiority necessary to maintain hierarchical power relationships.” It is, in part, the tension of navigating the terms of your identity with the sites of its public display. It is a precarity embodied in the installation of her paintings as well. A plaster panel carved with the markings of a section of sidewalk is positioned on top of the same folding table from the video, as if just removed from the wall. A black tablecloth sits under the painting, which jutts off the edge sharply in a vulnerable fashion. The other lies on the floor, as if discarded or sheltering in the corner. Both evince a state of in-betweenness.
Precarity also alludes to some of the tension behind the idea of abstraction as armor, that this sheltering so often results in fractured, or dual, or multiple selves. It may function as a tool to resist the tokenization of identity, but it might also whittle away at our sense of self. We see this fracturing in Baseera Khan’s collages, which incorporate photographs of her family, past performances, and geometric cutouts into a visual assemblage of references and lineages. Dawn, the only collage of Khan’s that contains no personal material, speaks to this break. A simple collage that reveals the light refraction that occurs when clear mylar is scanned, it acts as a key to understanding the way the personal material in the other collages interacts: like so many particles of light refracting, colliding, within one identity.
This strategy is not only an obfuscation but also a negotiation of transparency, of protecting and revealing strategically. Khan’s Privacy Control develops that duality, placing a feminist translation of the Quran’s prayers for protection behind a two-way mirror. The installation, in practice, serves as both a selfie station and a clouded view, a play on the transparency and the occlusion of one’s identity.
Even when the body does appear, as in Khan’s video Planet Fitness, her immateriality is foregrounded by the green screen behind her. Dancing to a self-produced mix between Southasian music from Sufi musician Nustrat Fateh to more western pop music like Robyn, the artist dances in a way that looks like work, as if her body, of the queer Muslim artist, were a hologram to keep running. The projection of identity seems tiring, it says, and it might make one unfamiliar to oneself.
Abstraction, as a salve to the dangers of display and representation, presents its own challenges and pitfalls. The artists in Not For Everybody refigure Glissant’s opacity to include more porous identity-forming processes. They move us towards different formations of representation: between exposure and refraction, obscurity and self-preservation, as they are calibrated to pressing material circumstances. The strategies presented in Not For Everybody are not the bare-all light of exhibition nor the darkness of obfuscation, but rather an in-between twilight. It is a sentiment echoed in each artist’s process: Hadi Fallahpisheh working almost entirely in darkness to produce his photographs; Baseera Khan translating the Quran to emphasize the “refuge at day break,” the time between night and day, and Gloria Maximo exploring those things “unspoken but felt, brought out, not into the light of day, but the edge of night.”