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Exhibition Essay
February 7, 2024

Elusive Meaning & Precarious Boundaries in beLONGING

About the Author
Christa R. DiMarco

Christa R. DiMarco is associate professor, director of art history, and coordinator of the Interdisciplinary Art BFA at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia.

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beLONGING, an exhibition curated by Clare Finin and with collaborative exhibition design by InLiquid staff, asks viewers to stand in uncertainty. The work of four LGBTQIA+ artists––THECOLORG, Abbey Muza, Carmel Dor, and Meg Wolensky––does seem to not offer a choice of direction nor provide an indication of how we should think about the topics and issues at hand. Longing and a sense of wanting predominates the exhibition and places viewers at a crossroad, dissipating expectations and halting meaning as symbols move in and out of view.

Exhibition view: THECOLORG, B(e)arcode, 2023

In B(e)arcode (2023), two large stuffed bears in floppy positions dominate the center of the gallery. The artist, THECOLORG, placed the bears so that they seemingly sit sweetly on the floor, but one rests with its head on the ground so its backside is vulnerably exposed. The bears’ overstuffed, rainbow-colored fabric reveals a pattern of QR codes. Once the codes come into view, hundreds of them snap into focus and quickly necessitate the familiar use of a smartphone’s camera app. The codes lead to links of, for instance, definitions (“demisexulaity”), books for purchase on (Glitch Feminism by Legacy Russell), and over-the-counter vitamins to soothe anxiety (Nature’s Calm Gummies). The experience of clicking generates a system of meaning that relies on quick internet fixes––a metaphor, perhaps, for the impulse to seek balance amid unpredictability.

Abbey Muza employs geometric forms and a sense of weight to defy the typically practical approach to weaving. In Desire (2021), the letters of the word “desire” appear inverted and spaced apart, making the word difficult to read. On the left, the letters float over an ocher-toned grid, and at right a series of five thick deep-red lines appear from the top and bottom of the piece. The deep-red lines seem as if they may meet and add to the grid, but do not connect. The presentation of Downrushing (2023), moreover, suggests a sinking feeling. Two halves of delicate silk and organza handwoven fabric are sewn together, but are only held to the wall with tacks strategically placed at the top two corners and in the center where the two halves meet. The fabric organically sags downward, generating an asymmetrical form.

Carmel Dor, Diaspora as Horizon, 2021

Mirrors appear in Carmel Dor’s imagery to subvert the notion of a linear progression of time. Diaspora as Horizon (2021), is a painting that includes an abstraction of a car’s side mirror. By the shape of the oval––it narrows to the right––the artist depicted the passenger’s side mirror. Dor included similar mirror images in their zine, Economy of the Droplet (Bummer Books, 2022).* In both the painting and the zine, the mirrors reflect a similar view: telephone poles linked by  wires and an expanse of road drawn with graphic lines. At the road’s end, a semi-circular arch implies the barrel vault of a tunnel pass. The pictorial space above the pass’s arch is left without detail and thus obfuscates the location of origin. While the painting remains ambiguous, the zine assigns feelings with text and strikes a difference in meaning between being in the driver’s seat versus riding along in the passenger’s seat. Around the left driver’s side mirror, Dor inscribed a causality between “agency and stress.” Above the right passenger’s side mirror, they wrote: “passive and nostalgia.” The relationship among these feelings conveys an unmoored passage with emotional consequences.

Likewise, Meg Wolensky includes a car side mirror in Love Letter (2023). Unlike Dor’s image, the mirror in Wolensky’s painting appears in sharp detail. Its frame, angle, and base are all depicted precisely. The mirror’s reflection and its environment, however, offer a counterpoint. There is a person reflected in the mirror. Their arm reaches sharply over the wheel toward the windshield. By the cool confident gesture and straight arm, the figure looks masculine, but the face is void of detail. Additionally, the composition surrounding the mirror is intentionally whitewashed. Thin strokes of white paint cover the image’s background, where shapes and colors barely poke through. Omissions are also a key aspect to Wolensky’s zine, Made for Others (2011). Made is a stream-of-consciousness account of deep trauma, troublesome family relationships, and attempts at partnership. Signs of South Philadelphia emerge, like mention of the bar The Dolphin and The Melrose Diner. These seemingly innocuous signs contrast complicated themes of shame and vulnerability at the core of Made. Like the painting, Wolensky’s zine provides reference points but offers no resolution to an opaque narrative.

Meg Wolensky, Love Letter, 2023

beLONGING is part of (Re)Focus, a Philadelphia-wide event marking the 50th anniversary of Philadelphia Focuses on Women in the Visual Arts (1974). (Re)Focus appears in the wake of a series of first long-awaited career-defining retrospectives for women artists, such as Artemisia (The National Gallery, London, 2020), Joan Semmel: Skin in the Game (Pennsylvania Academy of fine Arts, 2021), Judy Chicago: Herstory (New Museum, 2023). Recent publications on women writers and artists have also become cultural flashpoints that speak to the need to highlight the work of women: Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar’s Still Mad: American Women Writers and the Feminist Imagination (2021), Katy Hessel’s The Story of Art Without Men (2023), and Lauren Elkin’s Art Monsters: Unruly Bodies in Feminist Art (2023).

Detail: Abbey Muza, Downrushing, 2023

Increasingly, curators and scholars have woven LGBTQIA+ artists into surveys of feminist discourse to recover a widening scope of effaced histories. The work of intersectional thinkers thus expands as the histories of the 1970s feminist artists, like Focus, remain bottlenecked in a historiography still grappling with centuries-old histories that have yet to be written.

beLONGING contributes to this conversation by providing a way to think about art that neither leads with a domineering narrative nor offers dichotomous ideals, a refreshing perspective that is in contrast to the often direct point-of-view of 1970s feminist artists (a perspective that was necessary for the time). In this way, the exhibition empathizes with elusive issues specific to LGBTQIA+ artists. beLONGING ultimately highlights the ability to rest with art that conveys how the precarious nature of skirting socio-cultural boundaries can be a vital and generative process.

*beLONGING includes a zine library generously on loan by Soapbox Zine Library and East Falls Zine Reading Room. In addition, the exhibition hosts a zine-making station to celebrate the role zines have played in the process of self-fashioning and self-defining an autonomous voice.

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