How do you express visually an abstract feeling? This questions has plagued and inspired artists for thousands of years. They have sought to materialize sacrality and pin down longing, amongst other intense emotions. But there is no sentiment more tantalizing than love. This subject has long enticed the artist duo Comita + Lee, named for photographer Julia Comita and art director/stylist Mary Lee. In their recent series “UnEarthed,” the artists explore the physicality of love through the lens of an otherworldly couple, whose bond evokes the sacred.
It is fitting that Comita + Lee are exhibiting “UnEarthed” at an exhibit entitled Transcendence, because I have often thought of love as this very word. In the times I’ve had the privilege of feeling love, I experienced a physical floating sensation. A lightness on my skin, an easiness of breath. It left me feeling disconnected from the events around me, happening in “real” time. I might walk an extra three blocks south by accident, because my mind was busy traveling a different plane, one populated by clouds rather than street signs. And so, because of my own spiritual connections to the sentiment of love, I was quite drawn to “UnEarthed.” I wanted to understand how Comita + Lee were able to translate such a conceptual, emotional experience into something tangible.
“When you’re in love, you feel that you’re a higher power than everyone else,” Lee says. “You create your own rituals within the dynamics of your relationship.” Baptism depicts one such ritual. In this striking photograph, the male figure bends the female figure over backwards, spilling water over her face and chest and onto the ground below. The ritual has Christian roots. In this monotheistic religion, baptism represents purification and admission into the Church. Comita + Lee have appropriated this practice for the purposes of depicting the couple’s sacred bond. For the two lovers, the ritual may symbolize their ‘admission’ to a higher form of existence in which they are one entity.
Comita notes that using religious imagery can help communicate themes of spirituality, though religion itself is not being depicted. This religious iconography provides a strong spiritual foundation, upon which Comita + Lee build their own story.
This story paints a narrative and visual picture of a world far away from this one, but close enough to dream about one day reaching. The viewer is privy to an intense moment between the planet’s two occupants, lovers in the midst of a sacred ritual. The man carries the woman’s entire weight with his left hand, and sprinkles water over her body with his right. It is not a simple action. His right hand hovers over her body with the dynamic power of a magician. Electricity buzzes between his finger tips and her breasts. He can lift her body and spirit through the air by way of this magnetism. She points her left foot, feeling his magnetic pull, beginning her transcendence from the earth.
Though the male figure may appear in control, the two are equal. It is her choice to relinquish her body to him for the purpose of this baptism. There is power in trust, and power in feeling utter liberation. Likewise, his motivation is not the desire to control. He is driven by his desire to provide this experience of liberation to his partner.
As world-builders, Comita and Lee make visual choices that contribute to this emotional narrative. The silhouette of a pink quarter-circle evokes a pink moon, rising or setting in a purple sky. It is clear that the planet these two inhabit is not our own. Their bond has allowed them to transcend to another plane, where the cosmos are rosy and bodies are clothed in silk and light.
Knowledge provides another window into this plane, providing a different aesthetic tableau of the lovers’ bond. The female’s back is towards us. She faces a glowing wall of red and orange light, her palms forward to welcome its warmth. An eye peers out of her scalp. It is the Third Eye, a symbol Comita notes is often associated with the feminine.
The man faces us, sitting or kneeling, while his hands ferociously clutch an open book. Comita + Lee have captured him consuming information at warp speed. Visually, this manifests as a body of white and yellow smeared light, with the semblance of facial features blurred left and right.
Knowledge highlights the intellectual bond between the two. It manifests itself as light, emanating from the book and from the world around them. They absorb it into their bodies– his face is bathed white in its glow. It is meaningful that the figures face away from each other in their quest for knowledge.
Lee explains, “It’s like saying, I’ve got your back. I’m watching you from behind, absorbing your knowledge and protecting you.” I also see the bodily composition as maximizing the consumption of information. Imagine the two connected spine-to-spine, spinning in circles throughout the cosmos. With all five of their eyes open, how could they miss a thing?
The stimulus for UnEarthed were the muses, musician Justin Bullock and fetish artist Maidenfed. You won’t find Comita + Lee using models as mannequins for an aesthetic alone. “We only work with strong people who are warriors in their own right,” Lee says emphatically. Justin Bullock and Maidenfed brought an actors’ discipline to the project, allowing their strength and emotionality to be guided by their directors.
The two inspired Lee to explore a vintage store in Joshua Tree, where she hunted for fabrics that would evoke a tribal connection to nature and a portrayal of regal ceremony. It is important to both artists that the stylistic elements not veer too far into one category. “If it’s looking too goth, then I want to throw another spoke in the wheel,” Lee says. Diversified visual sources keep Comita + Lee out of culturally appropriative territory. Creators often borrow from actual tribes to paint a picture of a fictional group of people living in nature. But Lee’s styling draws from so many different sources– the quilting is unidentifiable as indigenous or Americana folk or 1970s hippie– that it avoids being appropriative.
What’s next for Comita + Lee? The two see themselves heading in many different directions. They are interested in collaborating with fashion brands to create narrative stories around products that fit their aesthetic. I would be thrilled to see this artist duo team up with an emerging designer to tell a story– perhaps a designer who specializes in a specific material, like leather and other hides. What sort of tribal-goth leather army would come out of that collab?
The two are also drawn to the immersive installation art. “It’s definitely the next step,” Comita says confidently. “For something like that we’re thinking, what objects do we need? How can we mold this with content for an immersive exhibit?” I’m dreaming of a room filled with ceremonial objects that evoke Comita + Lee’s world… and their photographs positioned on pedestals covered in gleaming silk. Julia Comita and Mary Lee have created worlds so tangible and emotional with their photographs that I’m hungry to experience them with all of my senses.
You can catch Transcendence at Onishi Gallery through this Friday, July 20. The gallery is open Monday-Friday, 10:30-5:30. It’s truly mesmerizing to see Comita + Lee’s work in person. Their size is grand and their detail exquisite. It may also leave you wondering what love means to you. And isn’t that a beautiful thing?
Until next time,