Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts presents Cassils: Phantom Revenant | Chimeras | Paula Wilson: The Backward Glance
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Cassils: Becoming An Image Performance Still No. 1 (Edgy Woman Festival, Montreal), 2013
C-Print face mounted to Plexiglass 36 x 24 inches Edition of 5
Photo: Cassils with Alejandro Santiago Courtesy the artist | Ronald Feldman Fine Arts, NY
Cassils: Phantom Revenant
February 2–April 29, 2017
Illustrating the limits of endurance and empathy, interdisciplinary artist Cassils produces potent evidence of unseen violence while questioning the act of witnessing in contemporary media culture. The exhibition and its title, Phantom Revenant, speaks to the double invisibility of LGBTQI+ people across the world and the ways this violence is archived in public consciousness. Cassils exposes this timely concern through three works that aggressively bring cyclical forms of oppression, disregarded histories, and haunting realities to the forefront.
Challenging the audience's ability to see while bringing an invisible history into focus, the performance Becoming An Image (2013–present) is a body-intensive attack on a 2,000 pound clay block. Performed in total darkness, Cassils is visible only through the flash of a camera that momentarily illuminates the scene and sears the assault into the viewer’s retinas as an afterimage. The corresponding sounds of physical exertion and exhaustion break through the darkness as abrupt reminders of Cassils presence. The camera’s flash not only illuminates Cassils’s confrontation, but the audience surrounding their assault as well. Cassils’s performance implicates each viewer as participant and turns the act of viewing into an ethical dilemma. This visceral exchange between the artist, audience, and clay monolith archives—through the act of collective witnessing and accumulated strikes upon the clay—an insistence of being seen.
Each blow upon the clay mass makes visible the physical and emotional violence directed toward LGTBQI+ people. After a previous iteration of the performance Becoming An Image, Cassils cast the clay block, first in concrete, to ultimately make a bronze cast. Cassils deploys the history and function of monuments, which traditionally memorialize significant people and acts, to instead memorialize the undocumented, overlooked, and often purposefully ignored histories. When cast in bronze, the clay block became The Resilience of the 20% (2016), a title that points to an appalling statistic from 2012 when murders of trans individuals increased by 20%. In late April, the Bemis Center will premiere a new processional performance where Cassils will push the 1,200 pound bronze from the Bemis Center to locations in downtown Omaha where acts of violence against LGTBQI+ people have occurred.
The six-channel video installation Powers that Be further extends the theme of witness-as-participant in violence. In 2015, Cassils staged a brutal two-person fight with an invisible opponent in a parking garage, lit by car headlights. Viewers of this performance were encouraged to document the event with their cells phones; their video footage provided the source material for the resulting six-channel video installation Powers That Be, (2015–2017). As an installation, Powers That Be reverses the terms of the original performance as well as Becoming An Image by putting the audience at the center of the attack. The amount and intensity of information offered during Powers That Be is overwhelming, calling attention to the trend to document violence while failing to intervene.
Accompanying Cassils’s exhibition, a display of objects from the Queer Omaha Archives, housed at the University of Nebraska at Omaha Libraries Archives & Special Collections, connects the artwork to a local context and attempts to bring visibility to lost, disregarded, or forgotten histories of LGTBQI+ people in Nebraska.
A dark presence runs throughout Phantom Revenant, bringing to light the restrictive forces of power present within and beyond the lived realities of flyover country; ultimately speaking to the the radical unrepresentability of certain forms of trauma and violence.
Cassils: Phantom Revenant is curated by Alex Priest, Bemis Center Exhibitions Manager.
Cassils is from Montreal, Canada and is now based in Los Angeles. Their work uses the body in a sculptural fashion, integrating feminism, body art, and gay male aesthetics. Recent solo exhibitions include MU Eindhoven (Netherlands), Trinty Square Video (Toronto), and Ronald Feldman Fine Arts (New York). Cassils’s work has also been featured at Institute for Contemporary Art and The National Theatre (London), MUCA Roma, (Mexico City), Yerba Buena Center for the Arts (San Francisco), Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions (Los Angeles), Utah Museum of Contemporary Art (Salt Lake City), ANTI Contemporary Performance Festival (Kuopio, Finland), Museo da Imagem e do Som (São Paulo, Brazil), Museo de Arte y Diseño Contemporáneo (San José, Costa Rica), and Deutsches Historishes Museum (Berlin, Germany). Cassils is the recipient of a 2015 Creative Capital Award. They have also received the inaugural ANTI Festival International Prize for Live Art, Rema Hort Mann Visual Arts Fellowship, California Community Foundation Grant, MOTHA (Museum of Transgender Hirstory) award, and Visual Artist Fellowship from the Canada Council of the Arts. Their work has been featured in New York Times, Wired, The Guardian, TDR, Performance Research, Art Journal, and Vogue Brazil and was the subject of the monograph Cassils published by MU Eindhoven in 2015. Cassils received a BFA from Nova Scotia College of Art and Design (NSCAD) in Halifax, Canada and attended the MFA program at California Institute of the Arts from 2000-2002 on a highly coveted merit scholarship.
Cassils uses plural gender-neutral pronouns (they, them, their) and asks that journalists do likewise when referring to them. This plurality reflects, through language, the position Cassils occupies as an artist.
February 2–April 29, 2017
In ancient Greek mythology, Chimera was a hybrid creature merging goat, lion, and snake body parts into a new whole. Today, Chimera is a term that describes a single organism with multiple, genetically-distinct cell lines. From bacteria and viruses in vaccines, horse urine in some birth control and hormone therapies, and the possibilities of pig and primate organ transplants, human and animal bodies are increasingly integrated in medical, pharmaceutical, and biotechnological realms. Chimeras is a group exhibition that explores the boundaries between these socially-constructed categories.
But what qualities define who is human and what is animal? While our minds, consciousness, and a capacity for complex thought makes humans human, our most fundamental biological functions, including the necessity of eating and defecating and the inevitability of dying, keeps us animal. Composed primarily of women artists, reproduction and the biological functions of the female body are important themes in Chimeras. Brooklyn-based Leah DeVun's photographs feature breastfeeding women wearing a variety of milk-pumping apparatus that make them appear animal-like while acknowledging how technological interventions in “natural” bodily functions are often necessary. Miriam Simun also enlisted the collaboration of breastfeeding mothers. Simun used donated breast milk to make cheese and offered samples at an art gallery she transformed into The Lady Cheese Shop. A video and diagram detail the production cycle for making Human Cheese while raising questions about food production, reproductive labor, and the commodification of human and animal bodies.
Chicago’s Rashayla Marie Brown addresses reproduction from a different angle: mechanical and digital. Her photograph You Can't See Me Fool is a self-portrait of the artist as her grandmother dressed in multiple layers of leopard print. The image quickly “went viral” and is frequently reproduced in print and online media. For Chimeras, Brown compiles the archive of her photograph’s many lives, in a sense, recapturing this fugitive and wild image. Julia Oldham of Portland, Oregon performs the ritual-like behavior spiders and insects use to communicate. The bugs provide the soundtrack for Oldham’s intricate dance-like movements, which call for a reconsideration of the choreography humans unknowingly repeat everyday to communicate with each other.
Lucie Strecker and Klaus Spiess, who collaborate in Vienna, approach questions of life and death through the work of Joseph Beuys. The late German artist often used the hare as a spiritual medium that transgresses planes of existence, notions rooted in European folktales of the Hare’s Woman. Stecker and Spiess vivify the archived blood of one of Beuys’s hares and keep the cells alive via a cooling system that sets a different biological time into motion. The actions occurring within the petri dish function as a performance with the growth rate of the cells timed to the auction values of Beuys's artwork and the trading value of livestock on the New York stock exchange. Brooklyn-based Kate Clark also enlivens the dead when she transposes human facial features onto taxidermied animal bodies. Each pair of animals enact a different relational dynamic. Clark’s sculptures embody the ways in which human characteristics are projected onto animals, but, like all of the work in the exhibition, equally suggests how humans are more animal-like than we accept.
Chimeras is curated by Risa Puleo, Bemis Center Curator-in-Residence.
The Curator-in-Residence program's inaugural year is made possible by Carol Gendler and the Mammel Foundation. Chimeras is supported, in part, by Joan Gibson and Don Wurster. Additional support is provided by Melanie and Fred Clark and Catherine and Terry Ferguson.
Paula Wilson: The Backward Glance
February 2–April 29, 2017
Paula Wilson’s work in painting, printmaking, video, and installation generates a world simultaneously realistic and otherworldly. Dense layering of color, image, and pattern in her pieces act as a visual metaphor for the complex stratum of histories and cultures that inform the work.
For her exhibition, Paula Wilson: The Backward Glance, the artist creates a processional space wherein ancient themes meet contemporary expression. Mining her ongoing investigations of race, identity, and objectification of the female body, this mise-en-scéne transports viewers into a mythical creation story composed of paintings, video, and prints on fabric. The six columns in the gallery’s center are a reimagining of the Athenian Acropolis’s caryatids—supporting marble pillars carved as draped female figures. In 1803, Lord Elgin removed one of the caryatids for his own collection, now housed in the British Museum. Wilson’s stoic females allude to this controversial event and show the five remaining caryatids as variant profiles of the artist herself. By seizing the identity of these historic heroines, the artist takes control and constructs an alternative narrative—a new and imaginative way forward for the displaced figure separated from her five sisters.
The black-and-white, four-sided caryatids on the square pillars give way to a colorful wall-sized collage. Released from the static block, each portrait becomes its own figure and strikes a bold pose against a cerulean sky. Their contemporary outfits, layered like spolia, show a fiercely creative spirit while the grouping argues for a bi-racial and multi-faceted embrace of self. Holding their own, goddess like, they are one. We and the caryatids are free to move within new and imagined landscapes of our own.
Based in Carrizozo, New Mexico, Paula Wilson is a multi-disciplinary artist whose work is included in the collections of The Studio Museum Harlem (New York), Yale University Art Gallery (New Haven), Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum (St. Louis), and Saatchi Gallery (London), among others. Previous solo exhibitions have been at Cherry & Lucic (Portland), The Fabric Workshop and Museum (Philadelphia), and the Center for Contemporary Arts (Santa Fe). She holds a Masters of Fine Art from Columbia University and presently co-runs the artist-founded organization MoMAZoZo and the Carrizozo Colony.
Paula Wilson: The Backward Glance is curated by Chris Cook, Bemis Center Executive Director.
About Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts
Founded in 1981, by artists for artists, the Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts supports today’s artists through an international artist-in-residence program, temporary exhibitions and commissions, and innovative public programs. Located in the historic Old Market district, the Bemis Center serves a critical role in the presentation and understanding of contemporary art, bridging the community of Omaha to a global discourse surrounding cultural production today.
Old Market, 724 S. 12th Street, Omaha, NE, 68102