Ashlyn Diaz sat in her Brooklyn apartment, conflicted. It was early June, and outside her window thousands of New Yorkers were marching.
Diaz, an artist who recently earned her BFA in drawing from the University of Florida, felt the groundswell of anger and activism that swept across the country since the May 25 police killing of George Floyd. She felt pulled to join the protests, both to advocate for her own rights as a Black woman and to stand in solidarity with others, but as the danger of police brutality loomed large in her mind, the nebulous and invisible threat of disease was just as strong.
“I found myself in a vulnerable space and not really sure how to advocate or participate in the modes of resistance taking place,” she said. “There’s this threat to health in going outside and being in large crowds (right now), but at the same time there’s this threat to my own life in not advocating for changes that need to take place.”
With black poster board and acrylic paints on hand, Diaz got to work.
“I relied on using my voice in the way that I knew how,” she said. “I resorted to creating something.”
Diaz’s piece “Unarmed” is one of 38 paintings, sculptures, tapestries, video pieces and more featured in the 2020 Chautauqua Visual Art School of Art Student and Emerging Artists Exhibition. The exhibition will open virtually at 10 a.m. EDT Monday, July 20, on the CVA website and will be available to view through a 3D virtual tour until Aug. 19.
Chautauquans on the grounds can view the exhibition in person starting at 1 p.m. Tuesday, July 21, in the Gallo Family Gallery of the Strohl Art Center.
The exhibition, curated by Susan and John Turben Director of CVA Galleries Judy Barie, Sydelle Sonkin and Herb Siegel Artistic Director of the Visual Arts Sharon Louden, and the School of Art’s core faculty, features work from nearly all Students and Emerging Artists enrolled in this year’s virtual School of Art. The intergenerational cohort is made up of artists from across the country ranging from 21 to 64 years old working with a diverse array of mediums.
This year, for the first time, all 38 participants were awarded full funding to attend the program, thanks to CVA’s partnerships with more than 30 institutions and arts organizations.
According to Diaz, “Unarmed” is a self-portrait in so far as she used her own body as a reference, but her intention is that it represents something much more universal about the experience of being Black in America.
“The idea of going outside (right now) is like, what sense of protection do I have in being out there?” she said. “(But) at the same time, what sense of protection do I have in not being out there? I feel like any Black person can relate to that position of being totally stripped of protection and safety.”
Artist Quinn A. Hunter’s work similarly examines Black identity, through an explicitly female lens. Hunter recently graduated from Ohio University with her MFA in sculpture and expanded practice. She is currently living and working in Athens, Ohio.
Her piece, “34 Hours of Negotiation Between the World and Me” is a woven tapestry created with artificial hair extensions. The tapestries black- and brown-striped pattern is meant to invoke cornrows, in more ways than one.
“They operate as what we think of as corn rows in the sense of farming, but also cornrows in the way that Black people tend to braid their hard close to their scalp,” she said.
“Negotiation” refers to the struggle for Black women to escape the stereotypes and cultural narratives thrust upon them.
“We don’t necessarily get to define who we are as much as the world gets, unfortunately, to define us, and we (have) to operate in that culturally defined space,” Hunter said. ”(Identity) is not necessarily a statement; it’s a negotiation.”
Her use of braided, artificial hair is a reference to the politicization of Black hair, another way Black women are stereotyped.
“I have natural hair, meaning my hair is the way it grows out of my head,” Hunter said. “For most cultures that isn’t necessarily a political stance, but because of the Black Panther movement, having an afro is seen as this radical political stance.”
For her, the labor expelled in its creation is as essential to the piece as the tapestry itself. It took 36 hours to create the work, therefore, 36 hours of negotiation took place.
“I am talking a lot about the erasure of Black women from spaces, and how weaving hair is trying to re-inscribe their labor back into place that has already been erased,” she said. “For me, this labor is redoing the labor that has been done by the Black women before me.”
Los Angeles-based photographer, video and performance artist Mathew Chan also explores identity in his work, although he uses a significantly different, and newer, medium: deepfake technology.
Deepfake technology is used to virtually manipulate videos by superimposing different faces, onto the bodies of the video’s original subjects. The technology gained notoriety in 2017, when amateur creators began creating deepfake pornography by placing celebrity faces on porn actors.
“The idea of using that technology for my own practice happened last year,” Chan said. “It’s an amalgamation of a lot of processes that I work with already, like photography, appropriation and collage.”
In his video piece, “Draw me like one of your French girls (Chop Suey),” Chan took a scene from James Cameron’s “Titanic” and superimposed his face over actor Leonardo DiCaprio’s.
This is part of an ongoing video series where he is inserting himself, an Asian man, into the white leading-man roles of popular films. With this project, Chan seeks to subvert narratives about masculinity and race portrayed in popular movies.
“(Growing up), there was (almost) never a film where there was a male protagonist played by an Asian male lead,” he said. Even in action films starring Jet Li or Jackie Chan, the main characters were never portrayed in the same way as white male action stars.
“Their masculinity was, in a way, taken away from them; (they) were kind of neutered because they were never given a romantic interest or pursuit,” he said. “In every Bond movie — I don’t even need to explain it — but whenever we have an Asian male lead, that aspect of the character is withheld, and I think that’s a purposeful thing, that’s a purposeful choice by Hollywood.”
By inserting himself into a romance like “Titanic,” Chan is seeking to see himself represented in a narrative that was absent growing up.
“It’s no longer Leonardo; it’s me now, and even seeing myself in the scene, ‘acting it out’ is kind of surreal,” he said. “It’s a very weird feeling.”
In the scene he chose, the poor artist Jack is drawing a portrait of upper-class Rose. Instead of subtitles, throughout the video a recipe for chop suey flashes across the screen. Chan added this to comment on the historically transactional relationship between Asian Americans and white America.
“Chop suey was created for Chinese Americans to sell to white patrons,” he said. “It parallels the scene to me. They both represent this idea of transaction between patron and laborer. There’s a socioeconomic and a racial relationship that I found interesting to pair together.”
Sculptor Katie Shulman graduated this spring with her MFA from Syracuse University. She uses dyed bed sheets, knitted bra straps and found objects to create her own “material language.” Shulman normally makes large-scale, fiber-based sculptures, but for this exhibition she was challenged to create a smaller piece.
“I made this piece specially for the show, because how I usually work is so outside of the (exhibition’s) size requirements,” Shulman said. “It has the same elements of all the work I’m doing right now.”
She creates improvisationally, and is inspirited by the physicality and bodily forms. Her sculpture “Hybrid Body” is an amalgamation of two kinds of forms she works with: “hard and soft bodies.”
“This felt like such a perfect distillation of another iconic shape that I could make by combining what I usually do,” Shulman said. “It turned out to be this new category that I can employ very specifically in future sculptures.”
The bottom fell out of all of our lives,” Shulman said. “Having this program exist online has been a godsend, truly. It’s been so stabilizing. It’s been a space of abundance, rather than a space of scarcity.”
With her work, she hopes to create instant visceral reactions that make viewers think about their own bodies.
“You might think of it as gross as guts, or as normal as an arm flailing and bending over,” Shulman said. “It’s super abstract, but if you look at it and think, ‘(This) makes me feel a certain way in my own body,’ that’s good for me.”
In the midst of so much uncertainty, both personally and professionally, she said attending the School of Art has been “a lifeline.”
“The bottom fell out of all of our lives,” Shulman said. “Having this program exist online has been a godsend, truly. It’s been so stabilizing. It’s been a space of abundance, rather than a space of scarcity.”
Although the 2020 Students and Emerging Artists won’t set foot on the Institution’s grounds this year, Shulman finds peace in the knowledge that their work will stand together.
“It’s so beautiful that the show goes on when so many things can’t,” Shulman said. “I touch every part of everything I make. It’s so joined with my body and my movements. It’s at Chautauqua, so therefore I am.”