On a humid evening at the end of June, I walked into Fort Greene’s BRIC House and found myself surrounded by a sea of diverse faces of all ages and backgrounds. Not your typical gallery opening vibe, if I say so myself, but definitely reflective of the identity-heavy work being presented.
The group exhibit–currently on display through Aug. 14–is titled, aptly, Look Up Here, I’m in Heaven, and is presented by always-acclaimed BRIC. According to BRIC, Look up here, I’m in heaven is meant to Highlight “the Use of Unconventional Portraiture to Question How Identity is Constructed.”
The group exhibition of the unconventional portraits features paintings, works on paper and mixed-media work by artists David Antonio Cruz, Yashua Klos, Tschabalala Self and Yoon Ji Seon — representing a melting pot of NYC-based artists of multiple backgrounds.
Vice President of Contemporary Art at BRIC Elizabeth Ferrer explained that: “The portrait has become a loaded subject in contemporary practice. Particularly for artists (or subjects) of color, it often becomes a socio-political tool, a pointed declaration of ethnic or racial identity.”
And so for the curation process, Ferrer explained that while selecting the four artists, she and co-curator Jenny Gerow asked themselves “if it was possible for artists to portray traditionally marginalized subjects while looking beyond the specificities of the here and now.”
Throughout the exhibit, it’s evident that genres and materials used forego the clichéd outlook of portraits as a singular representation of an individual.
As BRIC’s statement describes it: “In exploring issues of race and representation, the figures portrayed by David Antonio Cruz, Yashua Klos, Tschabalala Self, and Yoon Ji Seon, also seem to be bound up in gazing upon, or imagining a different reality. They aim for a form of transcendence—not quite heaven, but a place where the self can exist on its own terms.”
On the topic of heaven, one of the most unique aspects of this particular exhibition, which is accompanied by an illustrated catalogue, is the fact that all the work is placed higher up on the walls than is typically expected by galleries.
Visual artist Klos, employs techniques like woodcutting and etching to produce innovative, large-scale collages, had “heaven” on his mind while creating his striking work. Klos tells us that, “The concept of Heaven for people of color has long been one of salvation from a physically and politically oppressed condition,” he says. “As a visual artist, I accept the idea of ‘Heaven’ as a space where one’s identity can be actualized beyond the earthly constraints of the colonial gaze, so my work aims to craft that space as a new context for representations of the black body.”
Klos goes on to explain that his work The Face On Mars avoids depiction of the body altogether. “The head form is abstracted, as its identity is both collapsing and emerging, avoiding clear definition.” As for the title of the work, it refers to photos taken by NASA’s Viking 1 satellite in the 1970s which show a ‘face’ on the surface of Mars. He explains that he knew “many Afro Centrists who would liken the photo evidence of this ‘face’ to depictions of African pharaohs in ancient Egypt.”
For her ongoing series Rag Face, artist Ji Seon “pairs photography with colorful multilayered machine-sewn thread to create a totally new form of self-portraiture.” As the abstract portraits show, the artist photographs herself with comically exaggerated features and then further distorts her printed face, allowing the thread to pull, cinch, and twist her features into painful submission. This technique is meant to speak to the pervasiveness of plastic surgery in South Korea, with Yoon’s eyes being the only part of her face not obscured by thread.
The artist Self, who employs printmaking, painting, fabric and other materials to create fragmented collages portraying black femininity, says that her three works portray three distinct characters, each with their own personality and affect. “These are portraits of black women, not representations of black femininity, in this regard I believe this body of work challenges the conventional conversation around identity politics in art,” Self tells Brooklyn Magazine.
Meanwhile, Cruz’s work spans across painting and mixed media, performance and video to explore his identity as a queer artist dealing with the politics of gender, race, immigration and cultural difference. In Look up here, I’m in heaven, Cruz portrays erotically charged self-portraits, which he dubs his “chocolate works.”
“The paintings were influenced by Gilles Deleuze’s ‘Corps san Organes’ (The Body Without Organs) and the later works of Federico Garcia Lorca’s poetry,” Cruz tells us. “I wanted to explore the nuances of gender queerness, race and public and private space. Part of Deleuze’s Corps Sans Organes, explores the physical, emotional, and metaphorical disjunction between the body, society, and structures.”
Cruz says the work The Chocolate and Black Painting Series was created between 2011 and 2016 “as a response to the backlash of immigration in the United States and the invisibility of black and brown bodies in the wider discourse.”
As evident throughout the exhibition, one theme that seems to lace them together is finding an identity among a tumultuous political climate. Given the state of the country and upcoming presidential election, Look up here, I’m in heaven feels fitting for what immigrants, minorities and marginalized groups are going through at the moment.
According to its mission statement: The artists in Look up here, I’m in heaven have created imagery that “aims to transcend the here and now to establish a more transcendent sense of self.” And that’s exactly what they do with their interpretation of theirs, and their respective community’s, self image to the world.
Look up here, I’m in heaven is on view from June 30 to Aug. 14 at BRIC House (647 Fulton Street), with free admission. Visit BRIC’s Website for hours and directions.