I am drawn to wonderful people. Well, I am also drawn to wonderful art, but what keeps me coming back are the people who create it and support it. I visited the Elijah Wheat Showroom in Bushwick a few weeks ago because I wanted to see Roxanne Jackson and Shannon Goff’s uncanny ceramics. I’d written about Jackson’s work at SPRING/BREAK and had become somewhat of a groupie, following her exhibition schedule on Instagram like an angsty teen might follow their local alt band. I was eager to meet more artists/curators in her circle– there’s something so wonderful about the energy buzzing about a group of likeminded creatives. So I arrived with two friends of my own on a rainy Saturday afternoon.
Walking into the Elijah Wheat Showroom was like descending into the technicolor world of Oz after spending the first ten minutes of the film in dreary black and white.
We were surrounded by my favorite color– pink– but the room did not scream “commercial femininity.” In classic Elijah Wheat Showroom fashion, the exhibit “Flamethrowers” confronted preconceived notions of femininity, amongst other preconceived ideas of just about everything. We talked to gallerist Carolina about these ideas, the work, and her history as a curator and artist. At the end of the day, I fell in love with the gallery itself, not just the work lining its bubblegum pink walls.
Elijah Wheat Showroom is run by partners/artists/gallerists Carolina Wheat and Liz Nielsen, who opened their first artist-run space back in 2008. Located in Chicago, it bore the whimsical name Swimming Pool Project Space. The two later moved to NYC and established Elijah Wheat Showroom, first as a “nomadic curatorial experience,” and later as a permanent space in Bushwick. The gallery is named after the couple’s late son Elijah, whose independence, creativity, and integrity is felt in every project they participate in. “Part of our mission is to run the gallery with both his activist and playful values in mind,” says Carolina. Every day they burn Palo Santo and light a Mary de Guadalupe candle to remind themselves of Elijah and their loved ones in the afterlife.
One of the subjects we talked about at length was the Nasty Women Exhibition, founded by Roxanne Jackson and curator Jessamyn Fiore following Trump’s election (and use of the term ‘nasty woman’ to describe Hillary Clinton). According to their website, “Nasty Women is a global art movement that serves to demonstrate solidarity among artists who identify with being a Nasty Woman in the face of threats to roll back women’s rights, individual rights, and abortion rights.” The organization put up an exhibition in January 2017 to express this solidarity, but also to raise money for Planned Parenthood, a target of Trump’s administration. Carolina and Liz served as Inventory Specialists, with Carolina taking on the additional task of directing Communications and Marketing.
Carolina spoke of the experience fondly and proudly. “You [had] this committed core of individuals, all at the top of their fields, wanting to come together and make something to stand up for our rights and ourselves,” she said. It was also at Nasty Women, she explained, that collectors learned they could be activists. The exhibition completely changed the way people thought about fundraising. 680 of the sold out works at the exhibition were priced under $100. Nasty Women demonstrated that small donations add up to a lot of money– and that everyone literally can make a difference. The truth is in the numbers. The sold-out exhibition brought in $32K alone on opening night, and $45K over the course of the weekend, every cent of which went to Planned Parenthood.
The exhibition inspired seventy Nast Women exhibitions worldwide, including one at my alma mater, Tufts University, organized by my good friend Cecily Lo.
More recently, Carolina and Liz teamed up with Creative Debuts in London for International Women’s Day. They are now organizing what they call a rogue fair in Peckam, London, for this coming October.
They foresee large-scale interactive installations with many artists who have exhibited with Elijah Wheat Showroom. (I will actually be living in London come October and have a penchant for interactive installation art, so I might actually be more excited about this than they are.)
Carolina and Liz’s entrepreneurial and activist spirits are part of the reason that I am so drawn to Elijah Wheat Showroom. They see art as a tool to make social change– to raise awareness of issues by subverting social constructs we take to be set in stone. Their artists are “socially conscientious, politically engaged, and reflective of a creative community striving to cultivate interactions outside the status-quo.” The two are also focused on building a new generation of diverse collectors. “We want accessibility,” Carolina explains. “We want folks to support artists, become first-time collectors, or to help nurture professional collectors into the ‘other.'” As a young collector myself– who just realized that I CAN afford art if I am strategic about it, and buy from emerging artists– this is so important to me. I share aesthetic interests with Carolina and Liz– the uncanny, the otherworldly, the tangible and the participatory– but it is a desire to use art for social good that ties us together cerebrally.
The best insight into Carolina and Liz’s point of view is through their exhibitions. “Flamethrowers” featured work by New York ceramicists Roxanne Jackson and Shannon Goff. Jackson’s work is more obviously narrative. Her densely compacted creatures incorporate uncanny materials like fur and hair. They riff on the human figure to varying degrees, at times approaching humanoid, and sometimes resembling unidentifiable matter. Goff’s work complements these strange beings powerfully, providing landscapes in which Jackson’s creatures might roam. Her ceramics utilize negative space to construct structures that defy gravity and nod to the precariousness of universal balance. Always on the verge of collapse, her dioramas are simultaneously infinitely expanding.
Together, the works create a spiritual otherworld. This isn’t the first time that the Elijah Wheat Showroom has been witnessed the supernatural. Carolina and Liz are drawn to the fantastical and the paranormal because they provide access to worlds that just as real as what we call reality.
“We do not want an ambivalence to our spiritual duality,” Carolina explains. “Therefore we go all out with works that speak to an ulterior sensibility.” Like the mind and the body, the imagination must be exercised to thrive. The Elijah Wheat Showroom is a space where artists and visitors alike can explore their subconscious– where the otherworld dwells.
Heartbreaker (bong) is a work from Jackson’s 2015-2016 “Fiji Mermaid” series. A Fiji Mermaid is a Japanese and East Indian religious icon, stitched together with the head of a monkey and the tail of a fish. It is thought to have been used in religious ceremonies.
An Englishman trading (read: colonizing and exploiting people) in the East brought back one such mermaid, and after exhibiting unsuccessfully, leased it to P.T.Barnum for his traveling Freak Show. Classic 1842, am I right? Barnum, with his showman antics and eye for spectacle, made the Fiji Mermaid a sight to be ogled by the masses.
What I think is interesting about Jackson’s series is that she pinpoints the origin of people’s discomfort, and subsequent fascination with, the Fiji Mermaid. In western tradition, the mermaid is a creature that appears to be a beautiful woman from the waist up. She is thin, with beautiful breasts and an alluring voice. Her fish tail represents chastity and male lust for the unattainable rather than a pescatarian fantasy. But the Fiji mermaid disrupts that trope, afixing a monkey’s face where we expect to see a woman’s torso. Monkeys aren’t inherently grotesque; the audience’s discomfort comes from a place of cognitive dissonance. We expect to see a lovely woman, but instead see a monkey. We still call this creature a mermaid, suggesting an association between our red-headed friend Ariel and a monkey-fish. The blurred line between the two creatures is what creates discomfort. In Jackson’s words: “It is when the lines that separate a human and an animal become blurry–that it morphs into something that is ‘other’ and frightening to us.”
Heartbreaker (bong) expands upon this idea. Jackson illustrates the fearful symbol that the Fiji Mermaid represented- the female monster. But in doing so, she forces us to question what we deem monsterly. The characteristics in question all pertain to standard notions of female beauty and behavior.
Heartbreaker (bong) is bald– long hair has long been tied to femininity. Her breasts sag– for some reason men seem to think that gravity has a ‘don’t affect breasts’ policy but this is NOT the case. She has sharp teeth– fair. Humans are not known for their fangs. But this also lends the creature a strength and ruthlessness we don’t typically allow good female subjects. Everything frightening about Heartbreaker (bong) is a disruption of western aestheticism.
Jackson maintains that Heartbreaker (bong) is feminine, despite the fact that her likeness makes no references to motherhood or domesticity, hallmarks of western femininity. “The Fiji lady invites us to contemplate a more complex, and therefore more accurate, idea of the feminine,” Jackson concludes.
It would be remiss to get this far and not mention the elephant in the room: Heartbreaker (bong) is also a bong. Jackson is adept at juxtaposing high-brow and low-brow. In an excellent article about this same series, the Huffington Post described Jackson as “a contemporary artist exploring the murky territory where horror meets pop and myth meets kitsch.” These tensions– between aesthetic and unaestethic, female and monster, myth and kitsch– give Jackson’s work its dynamism.
Can’t you imagine Heartbreaker (bong) swimming between the yellow spokes, beneath the frothy white foam in Shannon Goff’s Thunder and Lightning?
Goff does not necessarily see ‘otherworlds’ as participating in a binary with reality. Rather, they are layered on top of one another, like olive oil and balsamic vinegar, resting without ever mixing. She imagines “an abandoned house choked with invasive kudzu vines,” or “a multi-lane highway interchange.” She also envisions “a sinking spewing oil rig, a thicket of scaffolding, and a satellite view of a fierce weather system.” These are all networks composed of lines with varying degrees of self-control.
I wonder if we truly understand these networks. Can biology alone explain why certain vines grow over brick walls, devouring their prey by blocking out the sun? Can the trajectory of a spewing oil rig be explained completely through the laws of physics? What if these networks possess a certain energy, an uncontrollable need to spread? And what if this energy comes from different planes– below, above, in between?
Goff is inspired by these dynamic networks. The Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill impacted her greatly. “The precarious balance between man and nature is forever on mind,” she explains. Perhaps this is what lends her work its sensation of delicate balance. In Thunder and Lightning, there are many more lines– and presumably, there is much more weight– above the work’s horizon. The entire sculpture is resting on ten-fifteen spindly yellow sticks. If a gust of wind, or bolt of lightning, were to hit the work, it could crumble.
The same is true of Ka Lae. This work is even more top-heavy, and the ‘sticks’ making up its base actually lean substantially in one direction. And yet, up it stands, its blue tendrils reaching defiantly towards the sky. Perhaps Goff’s networks defy gravity because they follow the rules of another plane.
There is also something extremely tangible about Goff’s colors. Her works are almost always one or two-toned. As a maximalist color-addict who likes to wear pink head to toe, I understand the power of claiming color as a source of strength. Goff is keenly aware of the emotional power color can have. In both Thunder and Lightning and Ka Lae she chooses contrasting hues to emphasize the tension between different networks and planes.
“Flamethrowers” felt very unified, in part because Roxanne Jackson and Shannon Goff’s approach to ceramics and subject matter. But the curation added an additional layer of support to an already strong artist relationship. Carolina and Liz worked with installation designer Chris Held to arrange the work on a two-story display case. Held built this case as well as an additional island near the window. “[The exhibit] seemed to navigate between a museum of artifacts and a department store display,” noted Goff. “Familiar but foreign.” This comment calls to mind the balance between kitsch and high art explored by both artists. The layout of “Flamethrowers” bears resemblance to the glass cabinets at the Met and the accessories floor at Lord & Taylor.
The curation also served to make the space feel sacred. “”I felt the show was undeniably feminine but fierce and powerful,” Goff remarked. “A German friend of mine came to the opening, smelled the incense burning and commented he felt he was entering a sacred space empowered by good witches.” Indeed, perhaps he was. This sensation of goodness, sacrality, and power, is a constant at the Elijah Wheat Showroom.
If reading about “Flamethrowers” made you hungry for more powerful artists, I have a treat for you. Here’s a little guide to who’s who at the Elijah Wheat Showroom, taken straight from the source: Carolina Wheat.
“Want some takes on capitalism, queerness and privilege? Check out Marcel Alcala. Ready to explore Frances Waite’s intricately rendered graphite nude-selfies of a female Instagram darling, bad feminist and capturing a brilliant ‘me too’ vulnerability? Peek through some rejected New Yorker political cartoons with Brendan Loper, a freelance artist for the weekly. Sit back and relax watching episodes of Peppré Ann, as she transes-it-up in scenarios of consumerism, beauty and celebrity. Get ready for Johannah Herr’s Snuggies for the Revolution printed with US GOVT issued crowd control weapons in psychedelic print. Natalie Baxter’s #WarmGun or #Altcaps taking back the term ‘Feminazi Libtard.’ More? How about Clive’s anti-art game of chance, or an interactive viewer becomes artist take-away.”
Speaking of Clive Murphy, it’s his exhibition that’s on now through June 24th. Murphy’s otherworld is the universe of the subconscious, which he accesses through elements of chance and audience participation. These tools allow him to reduce the influence of his conscious, self-editing mind on his liberated, subconscious self. The Random Composition Generator is a box filled with different objects. It is programmed to lock four different objects into a specific configuration for every visitor who shakes it. Carolina and Liz call this process “an occultist like pinball game,” comparing it to the tossing of runes.
You may recognize these ideas from Dada or Surrealism, two movements that emphasized the subconscious over the rational. Murphy’s other work in this exhibition also recalls ideas set forth by the former. Dada artists elevated everyday objects through slight alterations, and through the very act of exhibition. In “Random Composition Generator,” Murphy is not just interested in providing these objects newfound significance, but in rendering them uncanny.
Untitled VII incorporates a deer’s hoof into an angular wood and metal sculpture.
There is something very discomforting about seeing part of animal attached like this. The juxtaposition of organic and inorganic materials lends the work its eerie quality. Especially given the dynamic upward energy of the sculpture, we cannot help but wonder if there is anything animate about it.
In Murphy’s other work he achieves a similar effect. A rug, drenched in paint and afixed to a wall, takes on new grandeur and darkness. An orange carton, reconfigured into an infinity symbol, becomes synonymous with that which it represents.
Want to swing by Elijah Wheat Showroom? Take a trip with me. I’d like to see what you create with the Random Composition Generator. And if you can’t make this one, Carolina and Liz always have a fascinating exhibition on the horizon.
Until next time!