The pandemic has forced many of us to reexamine our connections to others and develop a new appreciation for intimacy and interaction with other human beings. Intimacy is not unique to relationships. Mutual understanding and personal communication have been intrinsic to the making and viewing of fine art since the first person drew a mark on a cave wall.
The current exhibit at Bemis Center, Intimate Actions, is centered on the theme of intimacy, representations of the body, and its connections to space, surroundings and relationships. The show features three solo displays by artists Paul Mpagi Sepuya, Joey Fauerso, and Maria Antelman.
Separately planned before the pandemic, Bemis Director of Programs and Chief Curator Rachel Adams brought the three accomplished artists under one banner, emphasizing connections to intimacy within their disparate styles. In similar fashion to other venues, the Bemis has instituted an assigned, directional procession through the three shows. Be sure to follow the blue arrows
In the first gallery, Photographer Paul Mpagi Sepuya presents Drop Scene, a series of color prints comprised of selections from several ongoing, individual projects the artist was involved with over the last several years.
Sepuya shoots his images in-studio, and they first appear as candid shots taken between or after formal portrait sessions. Though initially appearing casual, closer scrutiny reveals carefully choreographed vignettes. The works feature mostly nude male bodies, often twisted into an appreciative or slightly teasing embrace. Some feature mirrors or subjects holding cameras pointed back at the viewer or phones depicting the same scene at which the viewer is staring. This allusion to the voyeurism inherent in all photography is subdued and does not seem overly judgmental toward the viewer.
The scenes portrayed are quiet and bold but fragmented; white walls and black fabric backdrops provide the basis for each composition, exposed stands and sparse furnishings are either incidental or placed about each piece’s overall design. Occasional off-camera “extras” give an arm or leg to complete many of the compositions.
Much has been written of the racial, homoerotic, sexually provocative nature of Sepuya’s work. However, nothing here is overt; the images are sensual, and the subjects are comfortably passive yet engaged. Each model portrays dignity and vulnerability, and all have a serious, even matter-of-fact expression. The work stops well short of being prurient — the result is about intimacy, touch and being touched.
Following the blue arrow, across the main hall is work by Joey Fauerso of San Antonio. Inside the Spider’s Body, the exhibit consists of stark, black and white paintings, metal sculptural elements, and two video installations. At first, the work appears to be an installation piece of various images, welded wire sculpture, and video because labels are not evident. The artist preferred her titles be further off to the side than usual or around the corner, and they disappear on the white walls. Although slightly confusing at first, this ultimately didn’t matter. Just remember to take a little extra effort to discover titles for each piece.
Fauerso’s paintings are similar in style to each other; each is done in layered and scraped blacks and whites on unstretched canvas. Done in a bold, expressive, and somewhat primitive hand, the graphic, layered paintings are loose canvas panels or strips, torn in straight lines. As Fauerso states in the exhibition catalog, “I make collections of things that can be arranged in different ways. I am interested in using modular components to convey an underlying mobility of signs and circulation of meaning.”
The sculptural elements, welded wire cubes, and enigmatic “sticks” provide a playful, solidifying structure to the presentations. However, their precise meaning, like that of the paintings themselves, is left to interpretation.
At the room’s center is “Coda,” a five-panel painting, each surrounded by a welded wire cube. The imagery portrays a group of non-descript people walking or marching across a landscape. Many flags dot the landscape, making it appear as if this is war or a funeral procession.
Fauerso also presents two video displays worth mentioning, “Inside the Spider’s Body” (2020) and “Attendance” (2016). Although the first is a bit long at almost 30 minutes, it is a two-channel performance of a woman “interacting” and deconstructing; loud sounds of painted canvas tearing and sliding against her body fill the room at times. Both video pieces seem to add a touch of humor and personal warmth.
Her work emphasizes the dichotomy of making and destroying and then remaking. The imagery within each is a cryptic agglomeration of landscapes, bodies, faceless groups, flags, fruit, animals, rocks, and various abstract patterns. Each initially appears to be some sort of story based on a dream or folklore.
The blue arrows lead us to the last exhibit, Maria Antelman’s Soft Interface. Antelman’s black and white photographs often are presented in two, three, or four images in bold, dark frames. The photos depict unclothed arms, legs, torsos, ears, all partial portraits of herself, friends, or family. When presented in a group, the frames work as graphic elements tying elements together and directing the viewer’s eye to connect the disparate parts, but always leaving pieces missing or incomplete.
Some of these assembled photos are backlit video Gif’s, closed-loop animations. The animation is minimal and unnerving, simply two or three combined stills that make a chest look as though it is breathing or legs as though they are twitching. Antelman’s human subjects often partially morph into carved stone statues and sometimes further into raw rock, as portrayed in her video presentation, “Stone People” (2020).
Implicit in the three artist’s work are those basic principles that play a role in all forms of intimacy — trust and vulnerability, recognition of our mutual connections to the past, and, our shared immutable quest for the archetype. In Intimate Actions, Bemis has gathered three very diverse artists that find common ground in those foundations.
The exhibition continues through April 24th. The show includes three sessions of Bemis’ “Public Assembly,” an open community forum that uses the exhibit as a starting point in how questions related to the art impact the current social, political, and artistic landscape. Public Assembly’s final session is Thursday, April 8th, from 7 to 8 p.m. RSVP is required for Zoom details. Information is at bemiscenter.org.