Reverent Encounters: “Re-Adorned” | Catharsis at the Cincinnati Shakespeare Company

October 28th, 2018  |  Published in *, October 2018

Tucked into a passageway on the second floor of the Cincinnati Shakespeare Company’s new building, re-Adorned | Catharsis displays the lavish results of collaboration among artistic specialties and diverse media. Photographer Tina Gutierrez and clothing designer Da’Mon R. Butler (a.k.a. NOMAD3176) mix cultures and materials in ways both delicate and flamboyant, bringing her Cuban-Appalachian sensibilities into contact with his daring rendition of African-American remix. While the exhibit is immediately challenging in its complex textures and its uses of light, the show also works as a critique of the marginalization of specific bodies in mainstream history as well as the visual and tactile arts. Butler strikes that political posture by repurposing cast-off materials as garments and high-fashion accessories, constructing necklaces, bracelets, and cloaks from scraps of nylon, wooden slats, rubber, inner tubes, valve stems, and medical hoses. Gutierrez photographs men wearing these clothes with a kind of regal poise, neither scornful nor subdued but utterly self-possessed. Although the dominant pose is meditative and still, the collection occasionally passes from solemnity to ecstatic movement, which is all the more vibrant for its high-resolution detail, evading the stylized distortion of much action photography.

re-Adorned No. 8 (2018)

 

re-Adorned No. 9 (2018)

Whether unmoving or mid-sway, the models embody the sort of mindfulness that Gutierrez describes as key to her artistic practice. She works with the men on forms of deep relaxation that unclench muscles throughout the body while also producing an affect of serenity that expresses itself in the face. The aim is to peel away the guard of her subjects, though the technique also works to foster their calm, organic relationship with Butler’s apparel. At times, the garments and bodies echo each other’s contours, as a curve of translucent tubing catches the shape of a shoulder or biceps. With re-Adornment No. 8, the outline of that tubing resembles a breastplate or harness, though the transparency of the material and the way it opens onto the torso dispel any sense of defensiveness or restriction. In other instances, Gutierrez features juxtapositions in which the smoothness of the models’ skin contrasts the ridges and spikes of the clothing. Such effects become especially prominent in the show’s ninth entry, where the solemnity of a profile and the delirious asymmetry of Butler’s muffler bring each other into relief. Other pictures demonstrate both tendencies at once: billowing cloth rhymes with the figure’s musculature, while the flaps and folds of the accessories bring tension and intricacy to the visual field. But whether the design of the image stresses continuity, dissonance, or the interplay of both, it does so in ways that amplify the dignity of the artists’ subjects.

re-Adorned No. 7 (2018)

 

re-Adorned No. 6 (2018)

That dignity emanates from the picture plane as a kind of glow. The photos hum with light, which owes in part to Gutierrez’s studio work and the crisp staging of the exhibit, but also seems to derive from the pieces’ own liveliness, as though they were digital video stills that might at any moment burst into motion. The fullest realization of this action-potential comes in No. 6: face turned one way, hair whipping the other, the model presses forward with joyful intensity, grabbing Butler’s woven beads with a dancer’s flourish. The beads gleam an impossibly clean white, which reverberates in the bulb-flash on his skin and the pattern on his pants. Swirling locks cover his eyes, giving the photo an edge of rowdy abandon. And still the gravity of the other photos remains, the impression of grace and tremendous confidence. In that way, the model reflects the photographer’s own ethos, signaling identification between artist and subject, or better yet, between artists on both sides of the lens.

A similarly robust connection exists between Gutierrez and Butler, as both revel in merging the smooth and the bristly, the dappled and the stark. Among the most memorable of Butler’s pieces, 07 creates those contrasts to brilliant effect, combining inner tube valves with pony beads and nylon cording in ways that appear both majestic and a little dangerous, simultaneously suggesting barbed wire and otherworldly garland. Mundane, mass-produced objects become strange flowers in his hands; rubber bands and neon cutouts become wreaths. With 01, he mixes in brightly hued Lego tracks, which warp and melt like objects in a Dalí painting. He follows in the tradition of sampling and remix by assembling materials whose potential has been neglected, situating those materials in new contexts and configurations, blending them with novel statements or forms of expression, and then molding the whole into something magnificent. The models in the photos bring out that magnificence just as the clothes highlight the wearers’ vitality. A comparable mutuality exists between the garments and the pictures, each infusing the other with electricity, the almost audible buzz of energy that pulsates through the show. Those instances of mutuality indicate once more the highly collaborative character of the exhibit, the dialogue between human agents as they converse with and adjust to their media. Re-Adorned | Catharsis thereby holds an ethical dimension that many shows lack with their insistence on the isolated output of single artists.

Pamela Rhodes Myricks gives additional fullness to an already bursting collaboration with poems that grace the entryway catalog. The first lines of “Black and Blue” concentrate the sensuality of the exhibit:

You spin me from gray

To Black anytime

Day and night

Stroking rhythm

Licking a chord

Mind to thigh.

In the context of the show, the invocation of a presence that spins “me from gray / To Black” implies a reverent encounter, moving from tedium to exultant life. It is the movement of catharsis, the opening of suppressed possibilities into cleansing passion. That passion expresses itself in imaginative and erotic terms, linking intellectual pleasures to those of music and sexuality. The poem attunes us to the show’s patterned juxtapositions of textures and colors, its coding of harmony and tonality as optical rather than purely aural experiences. It also hints that identification between creators yields more than just cognitive delights.

As such identification involves portrait photography and fashion design, there lurks the danger of translating the show’s dynamic energies into the commodity form, flattening out its inventive, subversive capacities into something repetitive and predictable. That risk has particular exigency when the artists and models embody under-represented positions, and when many of the show’s materials have undergone a process of reclamation and recycling. Gutierrez and Butler diminish that risk by infusing offbeat touches into each new work, whether in confounding Western gender ideology or disrupting the conventions of denim use. There arises from the work an invitation to honor the African tribal traditions from which Butler draws his inspiration, but at the same time, an effort to hinder the easy consumption of those traditions by viewers who have not lived them. The models’ poses and expressions remain open to any number of interpretations, and in their enigmatic tranquility, they make plain the incapacity of those readings to limit or contain their communicative potential. Instead of harnessing that potential, re-Adornment | Catharsis opens it up; instead of merely reintroducing under-valued materials into the assembly line of production and circulation, it casts a critical eye on the politics of the landfill, a phenomenon the exhibitors describe as “the fingerprint of our existence.” That fingerprint may be indelible, but artistic collaboration can still devise a principled vision from what remains, one that preserves diverse histories while retaining faith in the future.

–Christopher Carter

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