“We have to confront ourselves. Do we like what we see in the mirror? And, according to our light, according to our understanding, according to our courage, we will have to say yea or nay – and rise!” ~Dr. Maya Angelou
We are arguably our most vulnerable when we are alone with a mirror. It’s that brief period of time when we look at who we are and envision who we want to be — then the transformation begins. It’s also that quiet moment at the end of day when we remove the masks we show the world, the ones that protect us. We strip away the veneer in our most comfortable space becoming our true, vulnerable selves once again. There’s also this curious space in-between— a space that’s free from the polarities of how we see ourselves and how others see us. Genevieve Gaignard brings the subtlety of these moments into view in her latest show called The Powder Room at Shulamit Nazarian.
Gaignard examines the process of self-identification using a sacred space where glamour is defined–the Powder Room. The show is a pared down extension of her 2016 exhibition, Smell the Roses at CAAM where Gaignard explored the process of grief through the binaries of her identity as a biracial woman. In this latest show, the immersive installations in Smell the Roses are replaced with a mixed media installation that exposes a more private space. In Altar, a 1960s wooden vanity table contains the stylistic accoutrements that bring Gaignard’s photographic characters to life. Bangles and baubles are decoratively placed on lace doilies next to makeup brushes and a vintage hand mirror. Above the table are Gaignard’s signature wigs resting on shelves: a blonde afro and Solange inspired duck clipped tresses rest on wig forms that loom over other costuming essentials like lashes, bejeweled hair combs and nail polish… The vanity is a laboratory of personas, where one can be remade, reinvented and re-designed. This process of transformation is symbolized in a series of porcelain figures Gaignard fabricated for this show.
Gaignard’s installations frequently contain white porcelain dolls placed alongside black caricatures. The figurines are often placed among novels by black authors that contain titles that either speak to or for the objects. In I Am Not Your Mammy, Gaignard literally recasts these porcelain figures by placing them in an entirely new context. The heads of black memorabilia (many of which are salt & pepper shakers) were removed and placed on the bodies of white porcelain dolls in decadent gowns, transforming them from parody to nobility. The placement of these porcelain figures on the wooden vanity in Altar symbolizes the transformative power of the space the vanity occupies. It’s both a triumphant display of progress and a sober reminder of the past as the remains of exaggerated imagery linger, signaling the origins of the figure’s prior life. Much like Betye Saar’s Liberation of Aunt Jemima, the reframed figurines not only possess new narratives, but they now occupy an interstitial space between black and white worlds where affixed labels no longer adhere completely.
Gaignard’s self-portraits offer viewers a brief glimpse into the lives of the characters she inhabits, using the space they occupy to dictate their narrative. In The Powder Room, her portraits illuminate the subtle fluidity between vulnerability and perception. Elephant in the Room features a haunting portrait of a suburban Stepford wife plaintively sitting at one end of a brown couch with vacant space at the other. Hanging above the couch in the upper right corner of a wallpaper wall is a cloudy black and white portrait of Jesus who is almost undetectable due to the distraction of a curiously placed toy monkey resting on the back of the couch. The toy wryly calls attention to the open space.
In another photo called Neighborhood Watch, our Stepford wife looks longingly out a window possibly in search of the elephant not mentioned in the prior photo…. In the former photograph Gaignard looks straight into the camera, while in the later Gaignard’s character appears unaware of the camera’s presence. This toggling between perception and vulnerability, what we choose to show vs what’s concealed, is a theme carried through many of Gaignard’s portraits. In a third photo cleverly titled Get Out, the same character appears caught off guard by the camera outside as she’s watering plants with her church heels comfortably removed. In an eerie role reversal, the subject is exposed, caught in a moment of authenticity and in the photo her gaze now rests on the viewer, judging…
The transfer of gaze is important. It’s a process repeatedly used by Gaignard in her use of mirrors which invite us to look at ourselves. In Selfie Stick, the artist pays homage to the original symbol of vanity with a gallery wall adorned with mint green, baby pink, yellow and blue vintage hand mirrors. As much as it is an astute commentary on our selfie obsessed culture, the piece asks much more of the viewer. The Powder Room challenges us to examine the specific roles we play in society’s treatment of race, class and gender.
The Powder Room at Shulamit Nazarian is on view through May 20, 2017.
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