By Aaron Su, Columbia University
Originally published in the 2018 print edition.
The question of selfhood has occupied a central problematic in nearly all the work of multidisciplinary queer artist and punk icon Vaginal Davis. Most notably, Davis is “the key proponent of the disruptive performance aesthetic that José Muñoz termed ‘terrorist drag,’” in which her body becomes a “car-crash of excessive significations.”1 The aesthetics of embodiment and their accompanying politics are always of significant concern in her practice.2 In light of this, I am interested in attending to her choreographic strategies as a point of reference and departure as she investigates the particular regime of visual art in “Chimera.”
“Chimera,” an exhibition held at Invisible-Exports in New York, NY, features a series of gossamer, index-card-sized vignettes, within each sit figures representing famous women of color in film and television.3 Yet, ignoring their names in the titles of the works, nothing inside the twenty pieces formally reveals Davis’ subject matter as such. In fact, a most nominal sense of her project would be entirely disallowed by formal analysis alone. The title of Davis’ showcase of portraits is etiological: “Chimera was first used by the ancient Greeks to describe a mythological, multi-headed, fire-breathing monster. In modern genetics, a chimera exists when a single organism is composed of cells from different zygotes, often resulting in a living thing with both male and female sex organs. Something illusory, that which we can never quite grasp, is commonly referred to as a chimera.”4 It therefore comes as no surprise that each painting is but a heap of contours and strokes that sloppily suggest the blueprints of a portrait.
Among Davis’ works in the series, Miyoshi Umeki (2017) abstracts its subject most dramatically. A quasi portrait of a late Japanese American actress, Miyoshi Umeki takes hold on a small sheet of watercolor paper, and is a combination of just a few hues of white, gray, pale pink, and blue. The bulk of the painting is a muddy, darker shade that is indistinct yet unsuccessfully blended to its entirety. Small variations in color interpolate a certain roughness that corresponds to what we expect of a backdrop. Moving toward the focal point, Umeki’s figure is isolated incompletely by a central intervention of white paint, which, after mixing with the other hues, forms a long, slender configuration in the middle of the scene. Strokes of bright blue emanate from the area, hinting at a site of animation but disallowing any detail apart from this brisk allusion to essence or motility. Umeki’s humanoid configuration lacks limbs, appendages, or any other anatomical features, such that the viewer only ascertains her presence because it is referenced within the title of the piece.
The posturing of the vignettes in “Chimera” as viable forms of portraiture is already a contrapuntal gesture against a historically charged visual episteme that has meticulously regulated the articulation of bodies within various categories of artwork.5 Specifically, this tradition was inaugurated by Leon Alberti’s De pictura (1435), which chronicled the ideal composition and function of visual arts at the height of the Renaissance. In our encounters with portraiture, the revered art theorist requested that “through painting, the faces of the dead go on living for a very long time.”6 This anxiety to preserve the discrete identities of subjects through iconography was fundamentally a technical one, relying on a careful attention to “circumscription, composition, and the reception of light…everything should conform to a certain dignity.”7 Alberti’s text was unknowingly transformative. Given that the emergence of the bourgeois class in Europe was triangulated with centuries of sedimented cultural hegemony, rubrics of virtuosity within dominant spheres of cultural production were still unilaterally enmeshed with coeval epistemologies, and vice versa. Namely, Alberti’s desires for patrons to be depicted with great detail, circumscription, and accuracy mirror the strategies with which the self-possessive and privatized individual was shored up textually in the works of Locke, Hobbes, and others.8 Thus, I situate the portraits of Vaginal Davis’ “Chimera” series as an amendment of the hermetic subject, by means of what I will call the chimeric subject.
Frustrations with the body as a diacritic entity have often been enunciated in the form of phenomenological critique. Hortense Spillers and Alexander G. Weheliye brilliantly envision a “hieroglyphics of the flesh,” a corollary of the Fanonian moment in which Black subjects are racialized not through their own agency or a naturalized schematics of the body, but through the political imaginary that the semiotics of their very skin activates.9 Yet, in Habeas Viscus, Weheliye also reminds us that no “absolute biological substance” exists below the substrate of these racializing assemblages.10 Davis’ “terrorist drag” performances articulate with this argument, such that she demonstrates the instability of her identity by hailing novel morphologies to represent her own body.11 But a tension precipitates in “Chimera,” a static art-object that must possess a surface by default, while seemingly refusing inscription by eliding any sense of a bodily surface. Can the immobile piece of visual art, whose surface is always extant, be a viable form of critique? The divergent registers of “surface” in a portrait indicate that new formulations might more appropriately characterize the chimeric subject in its specifically aesthetic valence. What forms and anatomies capture the chimeric subject’s qualities as it is mediated across all sorts of visual substrates?
Structurally, I argue that Davis inflects a semblance of bodily surface through tactics of diversion. She plays with an exaggerated fixation on the materials she uses to construct her work, mirroring, but also complicating the ardent task with which Renaissance artists were charged to paint their patrons accurately and beautifully.12 In this sense, the vignettes of “Chimera” are portraits as they invest careful attention in each of the subjects depicted, though in a displaced manner. A cursory glance at the printed matter reveals that what initially seems to just be paint of various hues is actually an elaborate synthesis of “nail varnish, glycerin, witch hazel, mascara, eyebrow pencil, Jean Nate perfume, Afro Sheen hair conditioner, hairspray, and pomade.”13 Jessica Holmes of Hyperallergic describes this spectrum of sensual registers appropriately as a diverse “interpretation of their essences.”14 The lexicon of “essence” is important here, suggesting that some of these famous women’s most fundamental attributes can be found outside of their bodily surfaces on the canvas. There are both productive and tragic elements that accompany this proposition. Addressing the latter, one must observe that these women’s public identities are undergirded by commodities deemed feminine by their social milieus at large, and that some legitimate femininity can be discovered in objects like perfume and hairspray. On the other hand, there is great potential that lies in Davis’ strategy of diversion, in that it relocates determinations of subjects outside of their bodies themselves, into their surrounding social and aesthetic anatomies.
Gernot Böhme’s “Atmosphere as the Fundamental Concept of a New Aesthetics” provides a compelling entry point to the predication of a body’s surroundings as a distinctly aesthetic strategy.15 Drawing on previous ethnographies on atmosphere—a new “ethics and politics” first developed by Peter Sloterdijk—Bohme proposes atmospheres to be “conceived not as free floating but on the contrary as something that proceeds from and is created by things, persons or their constellations.”16 In a formal application, Böhme argues that the body’s environment, conceived of in its broadest register, is the surface that displaces traditional regimes of attention to its figure in isolation. This redistribution of visual investment in the case of Miyoshi Umeki is most conspicuous in its formal composition, and attests to Davis’ understanding of her subject’s highly permeable status. Umeki is blurred and assimilated into the color palette of her surrounding atmosphere, suggesting its intimate relation to her own character. Her presence is porous; terse brush strokes refuse to outline the boundaries of her body, facilitating a spillage into the ambiguous environment in which she is placed.
In many ways, these warped modes of attention to the body espoused by Böhme and other atmosphere theorists hinge upon the similar miscalculations and slippages that occur when female actors of color are examined in real time. In Miyoshi Umeki and the other “Chimera” paintings, female subjectivity is strongly anchored to the material presence of cosmetic products, but in any other respect, it is fleeting and unidentifiable. Atmospheric aesthetic theory uniquely identifies a site of action within this visual conundrum. In the space of indeterminacy forged by the ascent of the chimeric subject, we are accompanied by new modes of confronting subjectivity in ways that more suitably predicate these bodies on what they might lack the ability to control. The ethics and politics of Sloterdijk’s atmospheres reveal dispersed vectors of agency in the status of these actors’ bodies, and bring forth important questions of power.17 They also locate scenes of radically alternative subjectivities when we are forced to encounter these bodies differently.18
I hope to conjure a sense that the modern invention of “atmosphere,” even as metonymy, bears registers that stretch across and redefine all domains of social life. The porosity of the body, in its most expansive conception, might even take us to reconsider objects and taxonomies of the nonhuman. For instance, if we treat the art object as a body, what can this decay of Enlightenment individualism provide in terms of how we valorize and critique its outputs? In the postmodern era, where the body of art is no longer an autonomous object ipso facto, might a return to art’s contexts actually be the fairest acknowledgement of its indeterminate ontology?19 With the status of the hermetic subject under siege in “Chimera,” we must attune ourselves to the symbolic transformations that will accompany its seizure by the chimeric subject.
1. Dominic Johnson, “Vaginal Davis’ Biography,” frieze, accessed April 10, 2018, http://www.vaginaldavis.com/bio.shtml.
2. Ibid., 1.
3. Jessica Holmes, “Delicate Paintings from Drag Icon Vaginal Davis Meet Monumental Sculpture From Louise Nevelson,” Hyperallergic, October 10, 2017, https://hyperallergic.com/404968/delicate-paintings-from-drag-icon-vaginal-davis-meet-monumental-sculpture-from-louise-nevelson/.
4. Ibid., 3.
5. Ibid., 3.
6. Leon Battista Alberti and Cecil Grayson, De pictura, (Bari: Laterza, 1980).
7. Ibid., 6.
8. Don Mills, The Political Theory of Possessive Individualism: Hobbes to Locke, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011).
9. Hortense J. Spillers, “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe: An American Grammar Book.” Diacritics 17, no. 2 (1987): 65-81, doi:10.2307/464747.
10. Alexander G. Weheliye, Habeas Viscus: Racializing Assemblages, Biopolitics, and Black Feminist Theories of the Human, (Durham: Duke University Press, 2014).
11. Ibid., 1.
12. Ibid., 6.
13. Ibid., 3.
14. Ibid., 3.
15. Gernot Böhme, “Atmosphere as the Fundamental Concept of a New Aesthetics,” Thesis Eleven 36, no. 1 (1993): 113-26, doi:10.1177/072551369303600107.
16. Peter Sloterdijk, “Airquakes,” Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 27, no. 1 (2009): 41-57, doi:10.1068/dst1.
17. Ibid., 16.
18. Ibid., 16.
19. Walter Benjamin, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” Illuminations, (New York: Schocken, 1978).
Alberti, Leon Battista, and Cecil Grayson. De pictura. Bari: Laterza, 1980.
Benjamin, Walter. “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” Illuminations. New York: Schocken, 1978.
Böhme, Gernot. “Atmosphere as the Fundamental Concept of a New Aesthetics.” Thesis Eleven 36, no. 1 (1993): 113-26. doi:10.1177/072551369303600107.
Holmes, Jessica. “Delicate Paintings from Drag Icon Vaginal Davis Meet Monumental Sculpture From Louise Nevelson.” Hyperallergic. October 10, 2017. Accessed January 11, 2018. https://hyperallergic.com/404968/delicate-paintings-from-drag-icon-vaginal-davis-meet-monumental-sculpture-from-louise-nevelson/.
Johnson, Dominic. “Vaginal Davis’ Biography.” frieze. Accessed April 10, 2018. http://www.vaginaldavis.com/bio.shtml.
Mills, Don. The Political Theory of Possessive Individualism: Hobbes to Locke. Oxford University Press, 2011.
Sloterdijk, Peter. “Airquakes.” Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 27, no. 1 (2009): 41-57. doi:10.1068/dst1.
Spillers, Hortense J. “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe: An American Grammar Book.” Diacritics 17, no. 2 (1987): 65-81. doi:10.2307/464747.
Weheliye, Alexander G. Habeas Viscus: Racializing Assemblages, Biopolitics, and Black Feminist Theories of the Human. Durham: Duke University Press, 2014.