“[…] to be embodied was to be the altar and the flesh and the knife. Sometimes the gods just want to see what you are going to do.”
This quote from writer Akwaeke Emezi’s novel Freshwater (2018) is on the first page of the reader artist E. Jane provides visitors for their exhibition the altar and the flesh at New York’s OCD Chinatown, open through January 10. Instead of a typical epigraph, this statement, in which the altar and the flesh symbolize the idol and the human, or perfection versus real life, is presented as a screen grab from Tumblr, with E. Jane’s notes scribbled on the side of it: “making myself porous and available” is written in the bottom right corner, while the word “knife” is circled with a note that they “wanna consider this through [theorist] Hortense Spillers.”
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E. Jane’s exhibition explores the contrast between the archetypal ideal and actual humanity through the cultural figure of the inspirational, and aspirational, pop diva and the legions of fans who not only adore these figures but see parts of their identity in them. The Brooklyn-based performance and multimedia artist — whose work was last seen in MoMA PS1’s presentation of the Studio Museum in Harlem’s 2019 Artists in Residence program — frequently explores this theme through their alter ego, MHYSA, a pop singer persona modeled after icons like Whitney Houston and Janet Jackson. Over the past few years, MHYSA has become a pop diva in her own right, releasing two acclaimed LPs (E. Jane uses they/them pronouns while MHYSA uses she/her pronouns). While E. Jane’s artistic explorations have often focused on the freeing possibilities of pop performance through MHYSA, the altar and the flesh looks at the influence pop divas have on their audiences and how identity can be shaped by media personas.
The current exhibition opens with a series of portraits by photographer Elliott Jerome Brown, Jr., which shows MHYSA dressed in her pop star finery. She smiles coyly at the camera, styled in a manner that recalls the fashions in 1990s gossip magazines. The glossiness of these photographs contrasts with the five-installment Vinyl Studies series (2021), a selection of collages featuring ephemera and album covers from musicians such as Sheila E. and Anne Peebles. The centerpiece of the altar and the flesh is You are a light on the dance floor! beautiful! (2021), an installation consisting of a floor-length mirror and a single-channel video. The grainy video records MHYSA mid-performance in what appears to be a fan’s Instagram story, singing and writhing to the beat as club lights flicker in the background. The mirror next to the screen is obscured by rhinestone heart decorations and the piece’s title is scrawled in child-like cursive. Together, the mirror and the video place the viewer in the position of the fan inspired by MHYSA; not only are we inspired by her grace and talent, but her visibility allows the viewer — particularly a Black femme viewer — to imagine a space in which they are the star.
In the altar and the flesh, E. Jane blurs the line between the diva and her fans by exploring the ways in which these figures shape and inspire us, as simultaneously unattainable and relatable. The homespun aspects of the pieces, such as the mirror or the collage aesthetic in Vinyl Studies, and the invocation of pop divas past portray the artist toggling between their identities as both artist and admirer. The singular creation of an artist who knows the intricacies of the idol and fan relationship, the altar and the flesh provides the space for viewers to revere our shared icons while making space for the superstars of the future.
E. Jane: the altar and the flesh continues at OCDChinatown (75 East Broadway, Chinatown, Manhattan) through January 10, 2022.