Romancing the Mirror: An Exhibition with a View

By Jessica Borusky

Highlighting women artists continues to be a trend within international, national, and community-aligned art institutions. While women-identified artists make up the majority of nationwide graduate programs, their commercial gallery and museum representation remains at a dearth. “Romancing the Mirror,” now on view at the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) Jacksonville, aims to close that gap through a group exhibition contending with contemporary issues in femme identification. 

©Tschabalala Self, “Unrequited,” 2020. Oil, acrylic, flashe, handmade paper, fabric, and found material. 72 x 60 inches. Private collection. Image courtesy of the artist and Pilar Corrias Gallery.

“Romancing the Mirror,” curated by MOCA Jacksonville Senior Curator Ylva Rouse, showcases contemporary painting and sculpture, extending beyond an antiquated gendered representation and reaction within Western canon art. Painters Frances Goodman, Jenna Gribbon, Hayv Kahraman, and Tschabalala Self’s work surround sculptural pieces by Diana Al-Hadid, Karen LaMonte, and Nevine Mahmoud. Specifically, these artists reexamine the role and force of the figure, adding a critical lens to the relationship between artist, subject/object, and the viewer. This is a notable curatorial choice, tightening a conceptual and linguistic relationship between selected artists and the mirror asking: For whom is the mirror for?; What is its relevance?; How do these artists consider the language of figurative work within an intersectional and global context?; and How does the subject (or absence of), alongside a (re)working of material, connect to complex issues of labor and intimacy, of consumption and production? Artists’ work is intrinsically connected to feminism and to race, labor, class, and gender identification. 

“Romancing the Mirror,” installation view, Museum of Contemporary Art Jacksonville, December 4, 2020 – June 20, 2021. Photo by Doug Eng.

The exhibition operates from a position that the viewer understands the concept of the male gaze as an entry point into the work. This is directly noted in the wall text for Jenna Gribbon’s paintings claiming to, “remove the male gaze and turns this notion on its head…” It is important to note that Gribbon is openly gay, therefore depicting images and moments that connect to the Sapphic gaze and relishing in quiet, intimate moments through the act of painting. The mirror here, similar to Tschabalala Self’s, pushes materiality and portraiture toward reflecting subjects which profoundly hold space and literally bookend the exhibition. More than a reaction to cis-hetero white male artistic expression, Gribbon and Self provide a mirror where minoritarian viewers may see themselves: an acutely nuanced way of experiencing femme culture and identification within art. 

©Diana Al-Hadid, “Woven Woman,” 2019. Polymer modified gypsum, fiberglass, gold leaf, pigment. 82.5 x 63 x 4 inches. Courtesy of the artist.

Self’s epic and compositionally sound portraits combine craft materials, such as hand-dyed fabric, into domestic spaces where the figure expands and upholds herself within the frame. “Sill” depicts the subject in a reclining pose, with a Yonic-seeming object (mirror?) among an amalgamation of domestic materials within a refracted, layered composition. “Unrequited” shows a figure whose face is deeply intricate and complex, set in front of a harlequin-patterned background—the shadow of the figure feels significant here—operating as motion, perhaps as an echo.

Across from, and in contrast to, Self’s large-scale and personalized paintings, Frances Goodman’s portraits evoke mid-twentieth century glam-femme through languid subjects akin to the cinematic. However, Goodman toys with placid seduction through her use of sequins, almost in a latch-hook execution, to transform these craft materials. The result, a painterly pixeled production, recalls televised scramble-porn while, arguably, imploring the viewer to spend time with these figures: not because of what may lie beyond the frame/screen, but due to her meticulous employment of material. 

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Author: Arbus

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