featured gallery for June 2020

Collective Breath: Material & Imagery as Identification

Images hold the power to tell a story. Images hold ideas and feelings, space for existing, space for seeing and for being seen. They can be an unspoken contract between the maker and the witness: identification, revelation, transformation. Within that space of transformation lies the opportunity to discover community. As an art therapist, I continue to find magic in the wonder of art, not only a modality for self expression, but as a catalyst for connection. Art and images allow us to connect with ourselves and with each other.

I witnessed such connection not only with the artists and images seen here, but with the members of Visual AIDS Women’s Empowerment Art Therapy Workshops, as well. Last month, I facilitated a workshop with the group, inviting us to look at the April web gallery together. As each member connected to the artwork contained in the web gallery, the transformational power of art became evident. Each participant bore witness to the work, verbalizing what had touched them and what resonated with them. I, in turn, listened for language that I was able to connect with. As I listened, reflecting back to each member the words that the art stirred inside them, a sort of poem unfolded, another layer to the emotional and visual connection contained within the works we admired. The power of witnessing, of being seen, is something that each person was able to experience that day. It is what we see before us as we bear witness to the thoughts, emotions and lives of the artist, of the maker, of the artwork. During this moment with the Women’s Empowerment Art Therapy group, I was listening to language, pulling from verbal interaction. Here, we are given images. As we continue to witness visually I cannot help but wonder: how does one listen visually? And in our ability to listen, how can we connect? How do we identify with?

Merriam-Webster’s dictionary defines identity as the distinguishing character or personality of an individual and or the relation established by psychological identification. What role do art and artists play in making those characteristics recognizable? The answer can be found in as many ways as an artist explores and selects art materials. Artists and artworks that explore identity often transcribe the internal dialogue with oneself into a visual manifestation. What was once internal is offered an external breathing space, and as seen here, a communal breathing space. Artists collectively use objects, materials, and metaphors to speak to shared living experiences.

From a psychological perspective, art can be seen as a self-object, and as such I always like to think of artwork occupying space akin to the artists, as people, standing around in a room having a conversation. Each individual was invited to the party. Upon entering the room, I listened as one work informed the next informed the next. I listened to what moved me, what I connected to and identified with, and in turn found a connection between the art and the artist, much like the members of the Women’s Empowerment group. Guided by color, image and material, these visual elements thread together to create a visual narrative about self and object. The magic of art, its power, is that it has just as much potential to reveal identity and identification with the maker as it does with the viewer.

Guy Birch speaks to the experience of living with HIV in his work Flightless Captive, considering art as alchemy, realizing “I needed to somehow transmute the bad stuff, to transmute the poison in me into something else, and get it out in a way that communicated.” The object becomes a form of communication, a social and cultural signifier, found also in Joe Lewis’ Desire a Quilt and Jonathan Ganjian’s Gold I. These artists use creative voice as evidence of experience, making, as Ganjian says, “the unspoken and unspeakable visual.” The visual becomes the verbal: giving language and narrative through imagery, giving space to a shared experience and understanding. These works omit the body, whether by removing specific parts, as with Guy, or obscuring the details and specificity of the body, as with Jonathan, or by completely forgoing the representation of a physical body, instead presenting it in the form of a symbol, as with Joe’s work.

How then, does material choice create a space of recognition around identity? It is possible that thoughts, sentiments, and feelings directly impact the selection of material, of the making that will give shape to a narrative? Perhaps the gathering of the material, the collecting itself is a radical act of self care, self regard and connection to oneself. Artist Frederick Weston’s Exposure/Disclosure references the potential camouflage of one’s identity through the choice of material and object making. Much of Weston’s work subtly dissects identity, relationship to Blackness and the experience of living with HIV. Art is a way of life, and to create is to live. Material becomes metaphor as objects and images are sourced from everyday life, echoing days past, considering the future that lies ahead.

Olga Garcia Guerra often uses imagery channeling nostalgia, real and imagined memories, stories that she hopes to capture and connect. Similarly, Anthony Wills Jr. abstract paintings to create recollections of memories and stories, reclaiming and recapturing dreams and desires. Much like Weston, Wills’ work considers how one shapes, changes, and shifts in order to assimilate, questioning expectations of gender, race and identity. The artists’ use of found materials give new meaning to discarded items while celebrating emotions and experiences, sometimes forgotten. Many of these artists, including Alexander Hernandez use objects to tell stories, sharing and building connection to community, making space for the visibility of those in society often overlooked.

Fred, Olga, Anthony and Alexander all create images that allude to the body, some more overtly than others, while also hiding elements of the figure. This feels very protective in nature. To camouflage is to survive, to find beauty hidden within the body, to give light to the parts of self that were once dark, to give space to what was once overlooked. Each of these artists speak to the body through their choice of material, using their medium as a metaphor to speak to their relationship to self and other. Their work becomes an entry point to identification and connection.

The use of one’s physical, literal body is a part of the visual narratives that these artists create. What role can the body play in forming and expressing identity and how does this manifest visually in an arts practice? The work of Jonathan Ganjian challenges the limitations of the body and society, a triumphant resistance, a celebration of self and identity. Artists such as Pedro Zagitt, IMH, John Kelly, and Grahame Perry explore these questions through their use of the mystical, the unexpected, and the personal. Both IMH and John Kelly use shadow, literally and metaphorically, as a tool for storytelling, creating portraiture that celebrates the physical body while communicating what it means to identify as an artist, as an individual living with HIV. Whether using one’s body as a method of self reflection, like Pedro Zagitt, or using one’s body to explore lived and imagined moments, like IMH and Scears Lee, these artists and artworks reflect an interrogation of the physical and psychic spaces bodies occupy.

The question of what psychological identification looks like can be found here among these artists. Individually, their work represents personal experience, a manifestation of a visual dialogue with oneself. Collectively, they have the power to transform their experiences into a collective unconscious, capable of transcending and transforming material, body and mind.