“I am perception, perceive me as you will.”
—Robert “Cyclona” Legorreta, from The Fire of Life: The Robert Legorreta-Cyclona Collection
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This quote truly defines the exhibition The Body by Design and its community of artists. Not only do they have power as creators to fashion their own images, but identity is mutable, fluid, and evolving. Image making is power.
The selfie is performance art made accessible. Despite an era of social media oversharing and content restrictions, artists can reclaim the representations of their bodies on these platforms through drag, painting, performance, and photography. The challenging of body norms is especially relevant for many LGBTQIA+ individuals. For the Chicana/o/x artists in this exhibition, the body can be shaped, molded, performed, and reclaimed. Without an ideal to follow, they become the model to inspire. By collaging their bodies onto a drawn image of the artist Cyclona, they form a larger body to print and share.
Glamour wouldn’t exist without violence — both are exaggerations. Artists can straddle and blend both arenas in their work. For Christopher Velasco, drag can be made from Texas Chainsaw Massacre references, tape, and makeup at home.
Christopher Velasco: My drag character, Krystal Lake Carrington, allows me to go against beauty standards in both a straight and queer sense. I want to challenge and remind others to have a sense of humor.
The domestic space is similarly remade into a stage by José Ángel, who uses drag as a character in video format. He becomes both a mother and monster to a plastic baby.
José Ángel: I look at different people from across practices. My favorite people would be Grace Jones, Björk, Keith Haring, Frida Kahlo, David Lynch, Jean-Paul Goude, Franz Szony, and David LaChapelle. I started doing drag mostly as performance art. I don’t really look to other drag queens or the climate of drag for inspiration. Drag to me was born as a parody of masculinity. Being a gay man, I enjoy the freedom to teeter on both ends of gender identity and drag is the perfect avenue for exploring exactly that.
Nao Bustamante and Juan Velasquez exaggerate gender even further through performance and painting, respectively. Bustamante deconstructs gender through performance and objects. Her body isn’t just a canvas to be stained red in the photo, but a gender the artist chooses to define. Her performances are both visceral and beautiful across public spaces and video art.
Similar reshaping can be found within painting. Velasquez collapses and exaggerates gender through oil on canvas, refashioning the human body. Gender isn’t just a painting, it’s a playground.
Juan Velasquez: I suppressed a lot of instinctive interests growing up. A lot of them being that I was curious about femininity and its role within my behaviors and characteristics. I try to honor that now in my visual art. It peeks through and sometimes in very direct ways. I feel that I need to be able to get it out in some way.
All of the artists in The Body by Design are linked through color and texture, but also fantasy and horror genres. The myth-building and hero’s journey of fantasy can be retooled as one discovers their identity. This is relevant in the printmaking of Nauj Leunam, which plays into a storybook aesthetic. The evolution of their work mirrors the discovery of their own identity.
Nauj Leunam: I made “Birth of Nauj” in 2017 when I was taking a Chicana feminist art course in undergrad. I’ve always loved the Botticelli piece, and wanted to find a way to draw it back in my practice. As I kept learning and embracing myself — my body, my queerness — I got the idea to subvert Botticelli’s “Birth of Venus” and recreate the work after my image. To build my digital collage, I used conchas, nopales, the Los Angeles skyline, all part of the Chicanx visual lexicon. I wanted to draw viewers in with a little humor, though sometimes it’s hard to say if they’re laughing with me or at me. I felt empowered creating this work, and I love seeing the wide range of reactions viewers express when they come across it. “Birth of Nauj” can elicit multiple points of conversation, but at the heart of it, this work is about liberation. I hope it sparks inspiration and hope that we can break free from our own insecurities informed by patriarchy and white supremacy.
Art can be used to rebuild and redefine oneself. Jynx Prado reinvents “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” and other fairy tales from a nonbinary perspective. Anyone can — and should — become Snow White.
Jynx Prado: “Mx. Burlap is a personified burlap character that I started as a performance identity back in 2019, initially named Mr. Burlap to criticize capitalism intervening in environmentalism for profit. Inspired by the growing trend of TikTok personified characters based on the masks used to conceal content creators, I created the initial character as a metaphor for environmentalism, with burlap masks and tailored burlap outfits I made myself. However, during the COVID-19 pandemic, while in isolation, I explored the years of my gender dysphoria and came out as genderfluid. Afterward, I looked back at my performance work and I changed Mr. Burlap to Mx. Burlap to fit my comfort and identity. This shift made me realize that there aren’t many characters or personas that explore gender fluidity, let alone nonbinary identities, anywhere, therefore I felt that it would be a great opportunity to explore my gender dysphoria and identity for those who have never seen themselves this way. I spread out the idea from just being a persona to its own being by creating burlap sculptures that represent fluidity, and as my performances evolve so does Mx. Burlap.
That fluidity is also seen in animation and humor. Cartoons not only have a history of shaping children’s identities, but can be reclaimed and transformed by artists like Frankie Gutierrez in clown-like paintings and zines. Gutierrez moves past the self-portrait to allow for transformation for anyone. Gender is a party and everyone is welcome.
Frankie Gutierrez: No, [I don’t] really [consider the figures in my art as self-portraits]. I’m not quite sure that the figures are meant to resemble people, but the feeling of being a human that can be considered as “wrong” by those around you. When it comes to trans bodies in art, especially trans artists, and especially trans artists from multicultural backgrounds, it’s expected that all your art is about your experience, oppression, and the need to celebrate your identity. My work does those things in a not-so-obvious way, but I still struggle with my own identity as a queer person and with my self-image. So if anything my work is exploring how I feel about my own body as a trans person, my desire, and the desires of others imposed on me, while trying to break out of societal (and generational) pressures to look and behave a certain way.
Audiences are invited to take their own portraits and challenge their use of materials, props, and lighting. The body is not a dull, static form, but full of color, drama, and possibility like artists presented. Print the first image of a combined body and place your image onto it. Become a part of the collaboration.
Recommended Additional Readings:
Hernandez, Robb, The Fire of Life: The Robert Legorreta-Cyclona Collection (UCLA Chicano Studies Research Center Press, 2009) — The Robb Hernandez essay and accompanying collection of photos explore the breadth of the artist Cyclona’s art across photographs, performance documentation, collages, and archival objects.
Cox, Julian, Anthony Friedkin: The Gay Essay (Yale University Press, 2014) — This book covers Anthony Friedkin’s historic documentation of the Los Angeles and San Francisco gay communities from 1969 to 1972. Cyclona is featured, showing how interconnected both he and the gay scene were. These individuals paved the way for younger queer generations to express and challenge gender.
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Dakota Noot and Hrag Vartanian will further discuss the curator’s process and exhibition on Tuesday, February 28, at 6pm (ET). Register via Zoom.
This is the first in a series of five online exhibitions presented by curators selected as Hyperallergic fellows in the 2022/23 Emily Hall Tremaine Journalism Fellowship for Curators. As part of their fellowship, each curator was asked to consider an article format as an exhibition that presents a body of work while offering some insight into their curatorial process.