When we look back on Art History’s seminal moments, it’s clear that most of the stories that make their way into the minds of future generations are often headlined by figures who are white, male, straight, or a combination thereof. As criticism of these legacies becomes more and more mainstream, museums are forced to grapple with the problem of untangling the selective narratives that they have had a hand in creating across all mediums—photography included. Churning out retrospectives and group shows highlighting the marginalization of overlooked artists, many institutions perform allegiance to these forgotten histories, patting themselves on the back for finally hanging up under-represented work on their walls, publishing major projects in long-overdue coffee table catalogues. But this tokenizing method often poses further problems in the construction of creative lineage, rather than solutions.
In a new publication and exhibition curated by photographer, writer and educator Efrem Zelony-Mindell, the medium of photography is approached as a queer practice in and of itself, rather than a normative practice put to use by queer individuals. “Photography can abet the forming of personal characteristics,” Zelony-Mindell explains. “The camera is a crafty thing, it is dangerous and intelligent in the hands of hungry and humbled makers. The self is not nearly as solid and definitive as it is pliant, abstracted and ephemeral. Queer is about acknowledging the state of possibility.”
When artists are reduced to their race, their sexuality or their gender, checking the marginalization boxes of guilty institutions, their display feels like more of a spectacle than subversion. In many cases, a decision is made to put bodies on view, whether through portraiture, sculpture or painting, because they are the easiest and most immediately identifiable marker of difference. But what of those artists who make personal work using other methods? “There’s a boom of interest in gender, identity, queerness and the study of these subjects,” says Zelony-Mindell. “It’s often exemplified by a kind of idealized sexuality. The body gets in the way. What’s behind that flesh? A person is not the simplicity of their genitals, nor is their gender, character, or their desirability. A person is a whole wonderful thing.”
In Zelony-Mindell’s book, titled n e w f l e s h, the curator ambitiously brings together the work of sixty-eight artists, including Katinka Goldberg, Vasantha Yoganathan, Sarah Palmer, Patricia Voulgaris and Daniel Shea. And while the publication starts with two works incorporating the body—by KC Crow Maddox and Patricia Voulgaris, respectively—they unfurl across the page as collaged contortions, their sources not immediately recognizable until our eyes land on the subsequent works, sequenced through a flow of geometric shapes and experimentation that doesn’t necessarily call to mind the human form at all.
In n e w f l e s h, bodies and recognizable materials are abstracted, made difficult to pinpoint with a conventional mindset. It’s not about capturing images with perfect lighting and familiar information; instead, the work is about displaying different ways of mastering the camera, embodying what alternatives are possible in front of a lens and in post-production. What’s more: titles and explanations of the work are not included, so that the viewer is left to draw conclusions themselves, about their own reactions and tastes. “It’s my hope that making room to question the status quo in this way will lead to new paths of equality and interactions between us as individuals,” Zelony-Mindell reflects. “New concepts and conversations may be hard, but it is time to start having them.”
Bringing sixty-eight artists together to form a cohesive narrative is no easy task, and Zelony-Mindell attributes their success to hard work and dedication. “The bulk of the artists’ work came to me through countless hours of research and honing what I wanted to say, and how I could say it,” they explain. “I spend a lot of time looking. I spy, I eavesdrop, I’m nosy, and I am never afraid to ask who someone is. A lot of the time I feel like I trip over great work, and tripping is like falling in love. The heart may be deceptive, but the exciting thing about curating is having the confidence in the concept, and the drive to find artists who epitomize the ideas I care about, including the body, gender, sexuality, being innately (and metaphorically) human, and pushing the expectations of these things through photography.” In the hands of Zelony-Mindell, the wealth of artists’ work obtains new curatorial meaning, anchoring each piece in the greater purpose of art, rather than the reductive space of tokenization. “Being strange or unusual is about acceptance and understanding people as individuals—queer is not about corners or exclusion. For me, it’s about the excitement of exploring the unknown.”
The book’s title, a reference to flesh, calls to mind a number of exploratory possibilities. In one of the three texts included amongst the visual works, Charlotte Cotton addresses the re-definition of what Zelony-Mindell attempts to harness. “I think I am beginning to discover what you mean by the ‘flesh’,” she says. “The muscular, metabolic substance between the skin and the skeleton—and the celebration of a porous transformative idea of what I call ‘the photographic’ and you [Efrem] refer to as ‘photography.’” In this sense, the medium of photography is queer and fluid, making itself malleable in the hands of Zelony-Mindell to shape a new visual narrative that upholds dozens of artists as the protagonists, with their work—not their bodies—as their primary modes of representation.
That representation is strengthened further by the sense of community within the book. “Frankly, I wanted to include more artists,” Zelony-Mindell explains. “As individuals, we have common ground in our differences—in the things that make us uniquely who we are. I wouldn’t say the volume of artists is the motivating factor behind the work, but the network feeds the theories and concepts that n e w f l e s h is meant to reveal. I’ve never said this before, but this is socialism. I want the group to represent the whole, and I want to flatten the hierarchy that exists in the art world so we are all working together. There is enough room for all of us, and we are more when we are together.”
By bringing so many artists together, the compulsion and ability to focus on identifiable, defining factors like race, gender, sexuality, or any other bullet points that have been identified as hot-button issues in the art world, become less possible. Flipping through the pages of n e w f l e s h, we are more likely to see the works of art in their rawest interpretation, for what they were intended to be. And inciting that state of pure interaction is exactly what Zelony-Mindell believes the purpose of art and curation should be.
“It’s so important for me to show an audience something, rather than tell them what to see,” Zelony-Mindell explains. “I want to empower folks to navigate their confusion, taking time to find something that they could either love or dislike, but to navigate the reasons behind those feelings. The ‘why’ tells us something deeper about how we interact with the world around us, and how we can nurture those feelings, extending that knowledge to others. I want to promote the support of others, so that they know that what they see and how they read visual art isn’t about being right our wrong—it’s just their own. I want to trust imagination, to empower people to see deeper into the lives they lead and where they want to go.”
Editor’s Note: An exhibition coinciding with the release of n e w f l e s h is now on view at The Light Factory in Charlotte, North Carolina. Details about the exhibition, on view until October 11, 2019, can be found here.