Hi everyone! I’m beyond excited to be writing my VERY FIRST article on a London exhibition. As luck would have it, I moved to London RIGHT in time for Frieze Week. And so, I’ve been galavanting around, exploring different fairs and getting a sense of the London art scene. Pints have been consumed, and friends have been made.
Last weekend I attended the Anti Art Fair, organized by Creative Debuts and featuring the curation of both the Elijah Wheat Showroom and the Nasty Women collective. I know that was an excessive amount of hyperlinks, but the resulting art fair was coherent and powerful. These politically and artistically minded organizations brought their strengths to the table, and the result was electric. Let me tell you a bit about each.
Creative Debuts is an online art marketplace that connects buyers to a diverse array of emerging artists. The platform makes art more accessible for buyers who may be unaccustomed to the gallery model, while also elevating the voices of diverse artists. Queer artists, female artists, and artists of color are grossly underrepresented by galleries, so platforms like Creative Debuts are an alternative for them to sell their work. (Skeptical about that statement? Here are some statistics, thank-you very much).
Elijah Wheat Showroom is a Brooklyn gallery I profiled a few months ago back in NYC. The gallerists, Carolina Wheat and Liz Nielsen, curated half of the Anti-Art Fair with artists they invited. Wheat And Nielsen are heavily involved with the Nasty Women art collective, founded in 2017 by artist Roxanne Jackson and Jessamyn Fiore. Named after the derogatory term Donald Trump used to describe Hilary Clinton, the group staged an exhibition in NYC following Trump’s inauguration to protest his anti-women and anti-abortion agenda. The sold-out exhibition, which donated its entire proceeds– $42,000– to planned parenthood, spawned hundreds of copycat exhibitions around the world. Nasty Women is now a worldwide organization, and its global counterparts contributed curatorially to their own booths at the Anti-Art Fair.
Well, now that you know the background, let’s move onto the meat and potatoes (yes I live in England now): the art.
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The first three artists I’m going to talk about are all artists who show with the Elijah Wheat Showroom. First up? Ashton Attzs. Attzs’ series is called Queering the Quotidian. This series of paintings celebrates the presence of minority identities in everyday spaces, especially spaces that are traditionally exclusionary to people of color, Wxmen, and the LGBTQ+ community.
In Day at the Lake, Attzs depicts an economic center during what could be the morning or lunchtime rush. People buzz about in stylish slim suits, dashing to meetings and exchanging quick greetings. The silhouette of the Gherkin, London’s iconic commercial tower, further establishes place. Business is, of course, traditionally a man’s game. A cis, white man’s game at that. But Attzs diversifies this space, coloring their figures black and brown and engaging them in the “businessman’s” affairs.
The figures’ hair styles and hair colors differ as well. The artist uses green hair to represent trans*/non-binary people. “Derivative of the association which the color green has with nature and growth, I use this as a nod to all the everyday trans* heroes,” Attzs explains, “and anyone who has really blossomed into their authentic, natural, beautiful self.” This green shade is harmonious with the surrounding scene, popping brilliantly against cotton candy pink and off-white.
Day at the Lake depicts harmony in the making, not as it currently is. The world is slowly changing, but violence is rampant against these communities. The institutions that prevent people of color and trans* people from climbing the ranks in the business world still hold power. But Day at the Lake validates those who have smashed through the glass ceilings overhead. It defiantly situates them in this space, adding beauty and color to a once sterile, and toxically masculine, world.
Speaking of color, Attzs has a scientific understanding of color relations. They use this skill to draw the viewer in, before making us aware of the work’s social intentions. I made a beeline for Gals and Bois Club, simply because I am weak and fall prey to any combination of pink, purple, and seafoam green.
But once parked in front of this delectably-colored painting, I recognized how delightfully queer it is. The ‘female’ symbol decorates the bar’s light fixtures and a sign indicates that ‘gals n bois’ are welcome. Pink and purple abound, but transcend their traditional femininity thanks to Attzs’ graphic style.
The stools alternate purple, white, purple white just as the sinuous pants that sit on them alternate white, black, white black. The canvas is split horizontally in half, grayish-pink on the bottom and moody purple on top. In pattern-making, Attzs rids these colors of their gendered associations. They are instead parts of a delicious whole, just like notes comprise a harmonious melody.
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Another artist whose work I love from the Elijah Wheat Showroom is Natalie Baxter. She works primarily in soft sculpture and video, and the sculptures she brought to London tell a relevant narrative. Take a look at her installation:
A multitude of Warm Guns hang from the ceiling, their stocks and barrels dropping towards the floor. (Yes, I had to google “parts of a gun” to accurately explain that.) Baxter stitches these guns and deflates their shape in order to “bring macho objects into the feminine sphere and question their potency.” Seeing something so aggressively masculine in a traditionally feminine material disrupts the viewer’s interpretation of the object. Shed of its black metal shell, the gun is just a limp noodle of a thing.
It feels cathartic to see something so dangerous stripped of its power. But Baxter’s sculptures diminish more than the guns themselves. Her work punctures the very notion of toxic white male masculinity and deflates its menacing ego. I can’t help but equate the sagging guns to…um, flaccid phalluses.
While this irony made me laugh, it had quite the opposite effect on conservative right-wing internet trolls. After a particularly insecure bigot spread the news about Warm Guns, Baxter’s inbox was flooded with hate mail. But rather than internalize the misogyny, she retaliated articulately and powerfully, with the Alt Cap series.
Good Railing is my favorite of the bunch. The message is so disgusting, but Baxter refuses to give in to its ugliness. She has sewn the words in a lovely millennial pink fabric atop patches of red and purple floral print. To add insult to injury, the work is a usable pillow. Baxter has reclaimed the words so that the viewer is free to think of them what they will. Hang the work up, and discuss its political ramifications… or fall asleep on it, utterly unfazed by the misogynist’s burning rage.
Other phrases Baxter has reclaimed include Feminazi and Libtard. How charming! Think I’ll have a nap…
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It wouldn’t be an article featuring the Elijah Wheat Showroom if I didn’t mention Roxanne Jackson. I’ve written about her work twice now, for an article on SPRING/BREAK and a profile of the Showroom. I mentioned earlier that she spearheaded the original Nasty Women exhibition, and had a curatorial hand in the Anti Art Fair. Her work is incredible and I never stop talking about it.
I featured Lesser Evil in my review of Belladonna at SPRING/BREAK. In this article I praised both its campiness and serious ceremonial qualities. Here is an excerpt from that review, for those who are new to Canvas and Crumpets:
‘Lesser Evil’ immediately calls to mind the supernatural…TV renderings of dismembered body parts in witchcraft have made this association inevitable- think of Thing, the door-opening hand from the Addams Family. We relish the fake fur beneath the palm, allowing ourselves to imagine a being with scaled hands and furry arms. We visually consume the palm’s scaly surface, drawn to its tangibility. The cracks in the palm and its swollen knuckles make us wonder- how old is this severed hand? Like all ancient things, ‘Lesser Evil’ must hold some secrets, secrets that we must know. The candles puncturing the hand and the chains draped over its palm feel both campy and ceremonial, like Dr. Frankfurter’s last walk in Rocky Horror Picture Show.
Jackson also brought work I hadn’t seen before to the Anti Art Fair. I find Black Magic even more uncanny than its predecessor. Perhaps this is due to the metal rings piercing its humanoid skin. One can’t help but clench their palms, imagining the sensation of metal boring through.
This detail also renders the work more aggressive, replacing ceremony with monstrosity. Lesser Evil sits on a pedestal, putting the viewer in the position of a witch who must approach it with caution and purpose. Black Magic, on the other hand, is presented on the wall, its sharp nails and blunt metal spokes confronting the viewer. It is ready for an altercation.
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The next few artists I’d like to discuss were selected by Creative Debuts to design and install their own booths for the Anti-Art Fair. These independent artists went in many directions, but some of my favorites used the opportunity to create immersive installations.
I was immediately drawn to Hybrid’s work because of its participatory nature, use of tangible textures, and effervescent pink, blue and gold color scheme. If I could live inside an installation, it would be this one.
Hybrid’s installation, Lucidity, is a dreamscape, complete with clouds and shimmering walls that evoke a dripping sunset. A central image of a Madonna-like being separates daydreams on the viewer’s right from nightmares on the left. A demon and an angel inhabit each realm, though they take the form of the same body.
This good vs. evil dichotomy was not originally part Hybrid’s plans for Lucidity. She discovered this element in post-production, so to speak. These two photographs spoke to her; they felt like they were part of the same series, but gave off completely different energies. She then took to the computer to draw on top of the prints, and the angel and demon were born. This sort of instinctive art-making is fascinating to me. It’s almost as if Hybrid felt the energy in each work and channeled it through her body and back into the work itself.
I also love these photographs because they add structure and symmetry to the heavens. They give our eyes space to land amidst the fluffy white ether. Conceptually, they help us organize our feelings into different moral categories. Good/bad, daytime/nighttime… these opposing ideas feel calming because they help us understand ourselves.
There is also a participatory component to Lucidity. Hybrid placed a bottle on a silk-covered table and requested that viewers write their goals and dreams on an index card and slip it into the bottle. This performance adds another dimension to the stratospheres of Lucidity. It is one that we participate in, and that possibly brings us closer to our dreams– even “heaven.”
To experience Lucidity is to float between dimensions and morals, exploring what fear and anger are and how they relate oppositionally to happiness and goal-setting. To escape, but to take yourself with you.
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While on the subject of tangible installations, let’s talk about Mollie K. Komins. Her exhibition is a treat for the senses; a wonderland of palm leaves, astroturf, and popsicle sticks. But the taste it leaves on your tongue is sickeningly sweet. And that’s because the creatures who inhabit Komins’ fantasy land are actual people whose personhood has been reduced to mythologized ideas about race and queerness.
They are part of larger demographic groups in Florida, a political swing state, where they are discriminated against widely until elections roll around and their votes become useful.
In Florida, USA, Komins recognizes the othering that occurs in her home state by literally transforming people into mythological creatures. But in doing so, she simultaneously honors them, bestowing upon them magical qualities that represent real strength. It is an interesting duality, performed seamlessly.
The Unicorn, El Chupacabra, and the Yeti. Each a mystical creature, but painted in such a way that its human counterpart is respected and celebrated. The Unicorn represents a queer biker from Daytona Beach. Their hooves are crossed daintily, but their horn feels sharp and powerful. This dichotomy of strength and delicacy feels decidedly queer as queer discourse continues to evolve, and accept that femininity and masculinity are just constructs we choose to employ or subvert. The unicorn’s gaze is intense yet calm, and their tattoo’d thigh peeks out from the bottom of the frame. These details ground the work in reality, though the unicorn is painted in a fluorescent Daytona paradise.
El Chupacabra hails from Little Havana, the Miami neighborhood where Cuban immigrants flock. He stands defiantly, his arms crossed and his eyebrows raised. He is incredibly self-aware of his surroundings, from his culture– depicted by the hill of guava fruit behind him– to the way his culture is exploited. El Chupacabra is a creature known for sucking the blood of farm animals dry. But this teenage Chupacabra is poised. His fury is quiet… perhaps he is turning the tables on this myth, suggesting that we– the viewers– are the bloodthirsty ones.
And lastly, the Yeti. Rarely seen, and only in the winter, the Yeti is the wealthy, white snowbird who comes down from New York City to spend January in a gated retirement community. His fluffy white fur may as well be an expensive coat, and his beard’s shading recalls Tiffany Blue. There is something very elegant about the Yeti, but his demeanor is ice cold. The Yeti is not a minority, but he is plays a role in Florida’s segregated ecosystem. His presence provides context in this Wonderland.
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Speaking of creatures, I want to take a moment to appreciate Matt Sloe’s zoo of humanoid tigers. Take a look at his booth:
Sloe’s creatures bear the key characteristics of a tiger– stripes, a cat-like face, and ears atop their heads. The artist gives us just enough so that we get this reference, but warps several characteristics so that the tiger starts to take on the dual appearance of another animal.
Sloe doesn’t name his creatures until they’re given a home, so for the purposes of this article I’m going to call my favorite little guy Fritz. Fritz has the snout of a tiger, but his mouth– with teeth filling both sides– is more human than cat. If you’ve forgotten what a tiger’s teeth actually look like, here’s a reminder. There’s usually a gap between the front set and back set, and two giant fangs.
Fritz’ expression is also decidedly human because he has eyebrows. Tigers, whose faces are entirely covered in fur, don’t need eyebrows the way we do. Atop vertically stretched eyes with heavily dilated pupils, they signal absolute panic. But this tiger doesn’t look frightened of a hunter in his midst. His very human expression recalls my face when I think I’ve left my phone in a taxi.
It’s these details that give Sloe’s tigers an oddly human quality. Art historian Hal Foster calls this in-betweenness, ‘the creaturely.’ Humans notice the creaturely when they attempt to categorize something that doesn’t fit within society’s existing parameters. We have the irritating and detrimental need to label everything and everyone… and become wildly uncomfortable when we can’t. Fritz is fascinating because he inhabits both the human and animal worlds. The viewer doesn’t know quite what to make at him but cannot look away.
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If you’ve read Canvas and Crumpets before, you’ll know that I am literally obsessed with bodies. A lot of the work I’m drawn to deals with the destructive impact of narrow beauty standards and the act of radical self-love. But Richard Harris showed a different interpretation of the human form, one that I haven’t often considered, and I was very intrigued. The artist’s deconstructed mannequins reek of morbid eroticism, and I have made it my mission to unravel the psychological impact of these carefully arranged photographs.
Strings Attached is part of a series for which Harris took apart mannequins and suspended them to explore his love-hate relationship with the human form. As the series progressed, themes of violence and sexuality emerged. I find it interesting that Harris speaks of this as something that ‘happened’ due to his experimentation. He did not set out to confront the violent ways our society treats bodies. It was revealed during a process that involve deconstruction, construction, and sometimes the action of swinging a body part through the air.
Because of the importance of Harris’ process in the development of these themes, I think the work is largely conceptual. I am equally drawn to the idea of Harris playing with these forms as I am to the resulting images.
Which is saying a lot, because these images are gruesome and beautiful and horrible and exquisite. Take a look at Strings Attached #2, from the same series:
Harris positions the mannequin parts so that the metal ‘connector’ pieces are visible. Maybe I watch too much Dexter but I am reminded of that title character’s serial killer signature: body parts neatly incised with a sharp blade. Harris shows us these stumps and it feels revolting.
But he also lights this amalgamation of body parts in the most impeccable pool of cool light. It reflects white across the mannequin’s smooth synthetic skin, rendering it glossy, and honestly, a bit tantalizing. Harris also practices delicacy in his draping. The torso and leg are suspended at the same height so that they meet in space. The body’s hips rest gently against the thigh. This touch– almost tender in feeling– lends the composition some life. Had the body parts been separated by six inches a piece, the scene may have resembled a meat locker. Here we have sensuality– the sensation of grazing hands with a stranger.
What is the takeaway from such an oddly arousing depiction of deconstructed bodies? Harris says, “The images confirmed my suspicion that there is something inherently violent, or at least problematic, in contemporary depictions of the human body.” I am inclined to agree. It says something about the media’s sexualization of violence– frequently towards women– that I instinctively find sensuality in something as morbid as hanging body parts.
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I hope you enjoyed reading about the Anti-Art Fair. I’d love to know what intrigued you most. Are you stuck on Harris’ uncanny bodies? Or dying to step into Hybrid’s stratospheric reality? I personally would love to surround myself with Baxter’s Alt Caps pillows… I find it very empowering to surround myself with art that I connect to emotionally.
Let me know in the comments or send me a message if you have any thoughts! And if you’re interested in any of the work featured above, feel free to reach out and I can get you in contact with the gallery/artist.
Until next time,