Category Archives: Newsletter

Newsletter

Melissa Watt: Symmetry Breaking

It’s tempting to walk into Symmetry Breaking, a small but richly ambiguous exhibit of photo collages by the gifted Lexington photographer Melissa Watt at Institute 193, expecting it to be more about style than substance. Watt’s virtuosity with computer software and her apparently compulsive attention to detail in these heavily layered images might have called so much attention to themselves that we could have been forgiven for missing the forest for the digital trees.

It doesn’t, hasn’t, turned out that way. Although we’re aware that the show (in which Watt is continually sampling, inverting, repositioning, overlaying and otherwise obsessively manipulating her photography) is the product of an elaborate, no doubt intensely cerebral process, said process is not what the show is about. It has many things on its mind other than its own making. 

What those things might be, viewers must determine on their own, not least because the artist herself offers nothing remotely like an explication. (Consistent with Institute 193’s practice, there are no wall labels – a mistake, I think, as Watt’s witty titles do sometimes contain small, valuable clues; nor does she offer an artist’s statement.) This is less problematic than it might seem, however, since there are so many possibilities to choose from.  

One obvious place to start is telegraphed in the show’s title. The mirroring of duplicated and/or flipped elements in the pieces is saved from the status of a gimmick by the fact that Watt is always setting us up to expect the images to be perfectly symmetrical and then impishly, perhaps gleefully thwarting that expectation. The effect of having that optical rug pulled out from beneath us so regularly is to make us look harder at every element, searching for things that don’t face its twin across the median of the frame. 

But this cat-and-mouse game that the artist is playing with us may be a bit of a feint. Watt is less interested in smoke and mirrors, it seems to me, than in setting up odd scenarios that feel like premises (or in some cases aftermaths) of eerie, dark, perhaps darkly comic fantasies that carry some of the dreamlike potency of fables and magic-realist folklore. She’s a storyteller, finally, or at least a suggester of stories – a fabulist who gets the tale started, then sends you off to finish it on your own.

Melissa Watt, “After You”, 2019, composite photograph, 18.5 x 47.5 inches.

In a collage called “After You” (2019), for example, two great blue herons – the same heron, fairly obviously, only cloned and flipped by Watt’s digital wizardry (though not entirely; notice, as the artist wants you to, the slightly different angle of the two heads, the two hungry, spearing beaks) – seem locked in a staring contest. The prize laid out between them, as if on a buffet table, is a small fish, not dull gold like the common koi underfoot but a delicate silver morsel, perfect for swallowing whole. After you, my ass. This is winner-take-all.

Or not. The above flight of fancy is just one possible interpretation of the piece. It might evoke, like Leonardo’s The Vitruvian Man, ancient notions of balance and, yes, symmetry. It might be an Orwellian allegory of nature’s cruel, sacred circle of life. It might be some form of self-dramatization by the artist, in something like the vein of Cindy Sherman, Anthony Goicolea, or that other Central Kentucky photo-collage artist named Melissa (Melissa Hall), except with animal avatars instead of human ones. It might be an oblique passion play – the crucified Christ (symbolized for centuries as a fish) lying on a slab, attended by winged angels – or an even more oblique reenactment of the Christian sacrament. Eat, this is my body.

Melissa Watt, “Spring Lamb”, 2016, composite photograph, 18.5 x 37 inches.

If these interpretations sound far-fetched, they’re unmistakably reinforced – chillingly or amusingly (or perhaps both at once), depending on your perspective – in two other pieces in the show. “Spring Lamb” (2016) features another altar of sorts, upon which three lamb heads appear to have been flayed and arranged like delicacies on a plate in a fine-dining restaurant. Religious rites and symbols, including the burnt offerings of Abraham and the Lamb of God, come inexorably to mind. 

Melissa Watt, “Meanwhile, the World Goes On”, 2019, composite photograph, 18.5 x 43.5 inches.

Then there’s my favorite piece in this group, “Meanwhile, the World Goes On” (2019), in which a dead opossum is ritualistically, perhaps ominously surrounded by a semicircle of chickens. The hens are doubled (plus one) in Watt’s usual symmetrical/asymmetrical manner, but that’s the least interesting thing about the picture. The mind – at least my mind – reels at the narrative and dramatic possibilities of the scene. Was the opossum shot as an intruder, and if so by whom? Was it murdered with malice aforethought? Was it sacrificed as an offering to the dark poultry gods? Is this a vigil of some sort, at the end of which the opossum will ascend to the heavens, leaving his flock astonished, awaiting a second coming?

You think these responses are over the top? I refer you back to the pictures.

In the end, of course, the artist’s intent is less important than what we make of what’s in front of us here, which is plenty. Certainly the works in Symmetry Breaking are not merely decorative pieces, despite the many ways they ravish the eye. They’re most assuredly not empty exercises in digitally manipulated photography. Their visual density and resonant webs of symbols invite not just interpretation – in something like the way objects in commissioned portraits from the Renaissance tell us about their human subjects – but multiple, sometimes simultaneous interpretations. That’s one of the overall show’s chief strengths, though not its only one. 

Melissa Watt, “Monkey in the Pawpaws”, 2019, composite photograph, 18.5 x 47 inches.

Another pleasure the artist offers us here, for example, is the opportunity to register her echoes of various threads and periods of art history, from 17th-century Dutch and Flemish still-life paintings of dead game animals and fish waiting for the stew pot to the koi ponds and water lilies of ancient China and feudal Japan. The emphasis on the sky’s reflection on a pond’s surface in “After You” seems to locate us in a funhouse version of Monet’s home in Giverny. The grinning beast with bloody teeth in “Monkey in the Pawpaws” (2019) seems like a descendant of Henri Rousseau’s jungle critters. And the intricately cloned and mirrored borders that frame each piece in the show bring with them musty whiffs of fairytale book illustrations, which have a way of fostering the romantic and/or gothic atmospheres of the pictures, and of medieval illuminated manuscripts, which may nudge some viewers in ecclesiastical directions.

Watt has expanded and extended those ornate borders in vertical elements affixed to the wall behind most of the pictures at Institute 193. In a much larger exhibit space, this might have been a coup de théâtre, an amplification of the decorative aspect of these images in multiple dimensions. As it is, these secondary elements threaten to overwhelm the main events they’re meant to enhance, not to mention the small gallery itself. They overstate, unnecessarily so, what is already abundantly clear: that Symmetry Breaking is one of the best art shows Lexington has seen in quite a long time.

“Melissa Watt: Symmetry Breaking” continues through September 30 at Institute 193, 193 North Limestone Street in Lexington.

Newsletter

Review: Fenton Johnson’s Meditation on Solitude as a Way of Life

In this pandemic year of lockdowns and social distancing, many of us have spent more time in solitude than we ever have before — or would ever like to again. Events have been canceled and gathering places shuttered. Close encounters with others feel strangely uncomfortable, even risky.

But for some people — especially creative people — solitude has always been a way of life. Many writers, artists, musicians and thinkers prefer to spend long periods of time alone. In silence and reflection, they draw on their imaginations to create.

Fenton Johnson has always been one of those people. The Kentucky-born author of seven books, including three acclaimed novels, explores this idea in a timely and beautifully written new book, At the Center of All Beauty: Solitude and the Creative Life (W.W. Norton, $26.95).

Author Fenton Johnson (Image by Hannah Ensor)

Like the concept of solitude, Johnson’s book is hard to label. It is part memoir, part philosophical musing and part biography. While exploring his own lifelong relationship with solitude in almost lyrical prose, Johnson profiles a diverse cast of 11 famous creative people from the 19th and 20th centuries and examines how solitude shaped their lives and work.

“The word single, which is what we commonly use, has no meaning outside of marriage,” Johnson said in a recent interview via Zoom from Tucson, Arizona, where he is an emeritus English professor at the University of Arizona. “Solitary is something completely different.”

Johnson noted that many solitaries are married or in relationships. Many of them like to be social and spend time with others — just not all the time. Solitude, he said, is very different from loneliness.

“We don’t like to believe this, but loneliness is an invention of capitalism,” he said. “The word lonely prior to 1800 is used to mean something like what I mean with solitude: a noble, exalting place from which one can look at the world and nature. Take Wordsworth’s poem “I wandered lonely as a cloud.” He’s comparing being lonely to this beautiful floating independent phenomenon. Then industrial capitalism comes along, and people are forced from the countryside into cities and the alienation that arises produces a phenomenon that we in English call loneliness. It’s interesting to note that the word loneliness is almost unique to English. French, which I speak pretty fluently, has no equivalent for it, nor does Italian. They have only solitude, which I use to mean that place of deliberately choosing to be alone in order to explore your own thoughts, the beauty of the world, your relationship to the infinite however it is you define that. All of those grow out of solitude.”

Solitude is especially important for creative people.

“The playing field of the imagination is silence, is solitude,” Johnson said. “Our lives are like water. If we don’t have a vessel to pour them into, they dissipate and are lost. What you do in those moments of silence and solitude is effectively you create the vessel into which you pour the material of your life. Otherwise, experience, as we all know, slips away from us.”

Johnson grew up in Nelson County, the youngest of nine children in a working-class Roman Catholic family. Despite that — or perhaps because of it — he realized early that he was a solitary. Being gay also had a lot to do with it.

Johnson had good role models for solitude. Despite presiding over a hectic household, his parents each found time for their individual pursuits — his mother raised orchids, cacti and founded New Haven’s public library. His father, who worked for a bourbon distillery, loved to tinker. His passion was building a remote cabin in Grayson County, near Rough River Lake.

“They spent long stretches of time alone,” Johnson said of his parents. “In my imagination, the ideal relationship is to have parallel lives, where you have two people who enjoy their time alone, have separate lives and then come back together and have the pleasure of ‘show and tell.’ In the most profound relationship in my life, with my partner who died of AIDS in 1990, that was the nature of our relationship, and it was very satisfying.”

Johnson’s best early role models for solitude were his famously solitary neighbors, the monks at the Abbey of Gethsemani, and especially the late Thomas Merton, the famous writer, thinker and mystic. Johnson was named for two of the abbey’s monks, who often joined his family for dinner. As a boy, Johnson knew Merton and often visited the abbey. Later, as a writer, Johnson would make monks characters in his novels. His 2004 book, Keeping Faith: A Skeptic’s Journey, was based on time living with Catholic and Buddhist monks and exploring Eastern and Western contemplative faith traditions.

In 2003, when Johnson turned 50, he applied for a writing grant from the Arizona Commission on the Arts. “I needed something to put down,” he said of trying to decide what to explore with the grant. He realized that much of his work revolved around ideas about solitude. So he proposed a memoir that also would include traveling to the haunts of famous solitary creatives.

“I also realized a demographic fact, that people who live alone are one of the fastest growing demographics, not just in the United States but throughout the developed world,” he said. “Especially women. If they’re given the economic opportunity to live alone, they will frequently do so. So what’s that about? One of the pleasures of being a writer is that one gets to pay attention to circumstance.”

While the most poignant and beautifully written parts of this book are about Johnson’s Kentucky childhood, his profiles of eleven famous creatives open new windows onto their lives and work. Many of his choices are no surprise: the writers Henry David Thoreau, Emily Dickinson, Eudora Welty and Henry James were well-known loners. So was Bill Cunningham, the quirky street fashion photographer for The New York Times. But who knew the French painter Paul Cézanne, who lived and painted alone, visited his wife and son only one afternoon a week? The writer Zora Neale Hurston was a solitary, despite many stormy relationships, as was the singer Nina Simone. And then there is Rod McKuen — “the poet that critics loved to hate,” as Johnson describes him — whose lived a solitary life, yet had rich working relationships with other artists ranging from Frank Sinatra to Dolly Parton.

One profile subject unfamiliar to many readers is Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941), the Bengali poet, writer, painter and composer who won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1913. Johnson writes about a fascinating journey he made to India in search of Tagore’s legacy.

Johnson spent many years writing this book. The manuscript was finished months before the killer virus emerged from a wet market in China. It is terrible timing to publish a book at the beginning of a global pandemic, when bookstores are closed and in-person readings and signings are banned.

But, in many ways, this book is timely, which is why his publisher had him write a new epilogue for a paperback edition that will be released next March. That gave him a chance to put the book in context — not only with the pandemic, but with Black Lives Matter protests and other events.

“The biggest philosophical question is, can we learn from experience?” Johnson mused. “We need to confront our history — racism, class, misogyny, homophobia. We aren’t going to figure out a response to that unless we sit down and shut up and really think about our society and our particular individual place in it. Addressing these issues is an act of imagination. You’ve got to imagine a better world before you can act to achieve it.”

Johnson’s book is a rich examination of solitude — something many of us tend to avoid, at least when we’re not forced into quarantine. Even if you don’t consider yourself a solitary, this book can help you see value in personal reflection, contemplation and enjoying without shame time spent alone with your imagination. At the Center of All Beauty is a good book with which to shelter in place.

-0-

UnderMain book reviews are provided in partnership with the Carnegie Center for Literacy & Learning where Tom Eblen serves as literary liaison. Eblen, a journalist, writer and photographer, was metro/state columnist for the Lexington Herald-Leader from 2008 to 2019 and the newspaper’s managing editor from 1998-2008. He returned to his hometown in 1998 after 14 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and five years with The Associated Press. Tom has won many awards, including the 2013 media award in the Kentucky Governor’s Awards in the Arts. He was inducted into the Kentucky Journalism Hall of Fame in 2016. He was a contributing author for the  book Bluegrass Renaissance: The History and Culture of Central Kentucky, 1792-1852 (University Press of Kentucky 2012).

Newsletter

Harvesting Home: Nicolette Lim

Strange Harvest was on view at the Lexington Art League’s Loudon House from July 1st to July 24th.

Upon entering Nicolette Lim’s 2020 solo exhibition Strange Harvest, the viewer was greeted by two giant women. These figures, Amazonian in stature, towered over the viewer. Their eyes straight forward, gazing upon something undisclosed in the distance. They were nude save for a pair of thick woolen socks and the bundles of sticks (also known as faggots) strapped to their backs. The weight of the bundles evidenced by the rope pressing into their fleshy torsos. The figure in the foreground stood tall while the figure in the background crouched as if to collect the single charred matte black stick just out of her reach.

“Perempuan Minyak”, 2020, drawing on customized rice paper soaked in palm oil

Malaysian-born Chinese-American artist Nicolette Lim draws from a wide range of influences and experience; her art is inspired by Kiki Smith, Louise Bourgeois, and Ann Hamilton just for starters. Lim grew up in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, where she attended a rigorous and conservative traditional Chinese all-girls school. Lim’s identity as a mixed-race person, child of an American and queer woman made her the subject of intense hazing, bullying, and scrutiny from students and teachers. These experiences shaped Lim for life and the rigid disciplinarian structures of her girlhood play into her visual iconography. Images of girls in pinafore uniforms (similar to the one Lim herself was required to wear), books, and even an old school projector occupy space within the exhibition. One image which I found incredibly striking is a drawing of a girl standing upon a chair and tugging on her earlobes. This strange ritual feels both foreign and familiar all at once. Lim’s girls exist in a space void of distinguishing characteristics but occupied instead by bugs, sticks, anatomical illustrations, tears, seeds, and veins.

Strange Harvest recounted Lim’s experience of the haze, an annual human-made phenomenon in Malaysia where a thick smog blankets the country for weeks at a time as a result of slash burnings done by those in the palm-oil industry. These dangerous and ecologically disastrous practices, according to Lim, contribute to the disintegration of Malaysia’s ecosystems and environment. Lim recalls, as a child, perceiving the haze as a natural phenomenon, it being something persistent and unavoidable.

“Burung Puki”, 2020, soft sculpture with porcelain

A piece that best exemplifies the soft-violence of the haze is a large nest placed upon a table. The nest constructed of sticks and bows is occupied by several bird-girl figures who appear to be in the midst of a secret ritual, the purpose known only to them. One cannot help but feel concerned for these creatures, whose porcelain legs and sock-clad feet further emphasize their innocence, fragility, and humanness. Lim investigates the larger power structures of capitalism behind this ecological destruction, focusing on the laborers of the palm oil industry (usually women) who are paid poorly and work in unsafe conditions for long hours. Lim also metaphorically demonstrates the destruction of the haze through charred and blackened objects: wooden chairs, tables, and books.

“Seeds of Our Flesh”, 2020, drawing and installation

“Twelve Canes”, 2018, drawings and found sticks

Yet another layer to this exhibition was Lim’s addressing of anti-LGBTQ attitudes in Malaysia. Moments of female intimacy, girls holding hands, and close-ups of women’s bodies persisted through the show. Lim juxtaposed this sensuality with images of violence, notably a row of hands, flayed open and speared with black sticks. These “switches” are representative of caning, a popular punishment for homosexuality in Malaysia. Lim juxtaposes this violence with the ecological violence, the economic destruction of capitalism, and the violent traditional power structures she came up under in her schooling.

In Strange Harvest, Lim presented a body of work that is both soft and violent, dark and tender. Her investment in examining the underlying power structures of oppression within her home country, and that exist globally, is refreshing. Too often in contemporary art, our artists mine this trauma for material, then cast it aside. Lim’s investment in these issues rings genuine and, although she is halfway across the world, Malaysia is her home.

Newsletter

Taking Care: A Studio Visit with Diane Kahlo

Care is a complicated word. On the most basic level, it means to keep something in mind and to attend to it. But the attention lavished on those things that we care for can range from the simple gesture of placing a precious object in a safe spot to the arduous and onerous labors of parenting and tending to the sick. Throughout her art practice, Diane Kahlo weaves together these two approaches to care. The objects she produces bear the marks of meticulous craftsmanship, highlighting the attention and labor she has put into each one, rendering them unique and precious. They are the result of careful work and are thus items deserving of care. The care that Kahlo imbues in each object is reflected in the care with which she treats her subject matter, specifically the lives and memories of those who have experienced gender-based violence and the exploitation of human beings and the lands they inhabit. Moreover, in attending so closely to these particular narratives, Kahlo implores us, her viewers, to consider and thus to care about those who are marginalized, victimized, and oppressed.

Care is something we do with precious and singular objects, items that cannot be easily replaced, and the objects that Diane Kahlo creates are marked by the care she takes in crafting them, rendering them worthy of preservation. Although she trained initially as a painter, Kahlo felt that she “[needed] even another visual language, sometimes painting wasn’t sufficient. I didn’t feel that painting could really address some of those things I wanted to address. So I felt that I needed to do a lot of exploration.” That exploration took the form of meticulously hand-crafted, “multi-level” paintings, in which she would “take a scroll saw and cut out these elaborately…kind of almost like a web work” consisting of cut out birds, vines and flowers, which she would overlay and integrate into her paintings, imbuing the works with a greater sense of delicateness.

“Babes in Postcard Land 1”, mixed media, 2001

One of the first works in which Kahlo began utilizing this kind of multilevel painting approach is her series Babes in Postcard Land. In this series, Kahlo appropriates the images of women from 1940s and 1950s vacation postcards – the kind that would feature wholesome white women in minimal clothing posing as an enticement for visitors – and places them in a hand-carved frame in the shape of a religious niche. The forms of the women and the various props that they hold, like long shafts of wheat in one or a pitchfork in another, are also carved, giving each piece a tangible, physical depth in contrast to the illusory ones that populate traditional painting. The multidimensionality that Kahlo ingrains in these works stands in stark contrast to the mass-produced flat postcard images from which the works originate. The handcrafted nature of Kahlo’s works makes each piece feel singular and precious, and the layering of each element gives the subject matter considerably more depth than the original ever could.

In adding new dimensions to these images, Kahlo is then able to challenge the relationship between gender and commercialization implied in the originals. She notes: “I really began to question these postcards that were enticements to vacation land, like come to Florida, come to California. Why were there always these sexualized ‘Girl Next Door’ images? Was it to entice the man to the land of fertility? Even that dichotomy between the girl next door as a sexualized image, the virgin/whore dichotomy.” In literally overlaying the land with the figure of a conventionally attractive white woman, Kahlo ties together two forms of objectification: the commodification of women’s bodies and the capitalist exploitation of the landscape and its natural resources. Presenting them this way demonstrates to her audience her care for these issues and, in turn, asks us to pay closer attention to the systems that inform our world that have become so ingrained that they become our form of kitsch.

“Myths and Revelations 4” (detail), mixed media, 2001

Kahlo has more explicitly used her work to incite care amongst her viewers with regard to the issues of gender-based violence. As in her series Babes in Postcard Land, in Myths and Revelations (2001) Kahlo combines the visible care of handcrafting with the emotional efforts of empathy to create several portraits of survivors of sexual violence. Kahlo depicts each woman carefully draped in the nude surrounded by a variety of natural and religious symbols; as Kahlo describes the process: “I had long conversations with each friend to learn about her hopes, dreams, fears, things that made her feel weak, symbols that she felt empowered by. I surrounded her in these objects and symbols, draped her in fabrics of her favorite colors, and photographed her so that she would appear to be floating. All these images became her ‘attributes’. I often carved some of these symbols to add to the framed portrait. About half of the dozen portraits had carved elements, and in the others, these symbols were represented in the painted object.”

The result is a series of large-scale triptych portraits that celebrate the power of the women depicted, highlighting their triumph over trauma and their ability to thrive in adversity. Kahlo equates their experience with the subjects of art historical masterpieces by integrating several highly traditional elements, like the contrapposto positioning of the legs, the classical billowing of the drapery, and several elements of religious iconography, ranging from blooming lilies – a common element of Renaissance Annunciation scenes – to elaborate gilded halos. Great care is taken in the selection of the images accompanying each woman and the rendering of the figure, objects, and drapery within the composition. Moreover, as in Babes in Postcard Land, Kahlo has added physical depth by incorporating both found objects and hand-carved elements, and in so doing reveals that the experience of trauma is, in fact, multidimensional, and a survivor’s narrative cannot and should not be flattened to focus only on victimhood.

Pink cross installation from “Wall of Memories: Las Desaparecidas de Ciudad Juárez” at the Human Rights Institute Gallery at Kean University in NJ.

Entrance view, “Wall of Memories: Las Desaparecidas de Ciudad Juárez” at the Human Rights Institute Gallery at Kean University in NJ.

The care that Kahlo offers those who have experienced sexual and gender-based violence extends beyond those she knows personally. In one of her most substantial works, Wall of Memories, Kahlo offers a similar kind of attenuation to the victims of the femicides of Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, a human rights tragedy wherein more than 350 women and girls have been targeted and murdered because of their gender since 1993. Stirred by the ongoing violence that has plagued this community, Kahlo worked for more than five years to create portraits of the various victims of this violence, 150 in total.

In conceptualizing the work, she wanted to build on other traditions of memorialization and thought particularly of the power of Maya Lin’s Vietnam Veterans Memorial, in which the names of those lost during that war are simply engraved upon a polished granite surface. “I had seen the very visceral response just to the name imprinted on the wall. People would walk up, they would touch it, they would make tracings of it, and it begged the question: ‘How do we respond to memory?’”

Whereas the power in Lin’s Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial comes from reading the individual names of the approximately 58,000 American deaths in that war, Kahlo takes the gesture of individuation a step further in her Wall of Memories. In creating her portraits, she’s literally putting a face to the names, deriving them from photographs of the women who perished or creating them herself in the case of the unknown victims. As such, Kahlo makes real for her audience the pain and loss of a tragedy that is depersonalized because of the sheer number of victims. She noted in our virtual studio visit, “We hear names and unless you’re concerned with specific populations, they’re just names like Maria Jesus Rodriguez or something that doesn’t mean anything to people. I felt that if I put a face to it, and then I put numbers […] if I made enough so that I would create what I called a Wall of Memories.” In creating these portraits, Kahlo herself becomes the caretaker of the memories of these victims and, in imploring us to look, she asks us to share the weight of remembrance.

The work is challenging to view, and it was challenging for Kahlo to create. “I began and then it grew,” she says, “Then I became obsessed with my increasing pain, and even something beyond melancholy – a sinking feeling. And then people would ask why I continued, why I was doing what I was doing. Why are you looking at the faces of these little girls and imagining? And my answer was in the fact that the mothers couldn’t walk away.” For Kahlo the intense feeling of empathy – not only for the victims of this violence whose lives were cut short, but also for the families who only have memories left of their loved ones – meant that she had to keep working. She asserts: “I can’t walk away. I have to make it. So it at least does something – maybe brings attention.”

“Sanctuary 1”, Mixed media, 2019

The sense of overwhelm involved in both the creation and viewing of Wall of Memories has led Diane Kahlo to her more recent body of work, her series of Mandalas. For the last few years, Kahlo has been hand crafting mandalas – a geometric pattern derived from Buddhist cosmology – from discarded and cheaply made objects. The impetus to make the mandalas came from a desire to present something other than portraits following an interaction with a viewer. She notes: “I had shown it in one place where a woman walked in, and she was part of the Latinx community. And she held her heart and she needed a place to sit down and she said, “I can’t take it in. It hurts too much. I feel the spirits.” Kahlo decided that she wanted to offer her viewers “some areas of comfort” while also suffusing the installation of Wall of Memories with a sense of the sacred.

“Mandala 6, Sanctuary 2”, mixed media, 2019

And yet, Kahlo’s Mandalas hardly shy away from the harsh reality of femicide or violence in general. These Mandalas consist of elaborate abstract patterns created out of everyday mass-produced objects and, like most assemblage work, function to pull us into our own lived experiences. Scattered among these found materials are clear references to the violence of the femicides, such as bullet casings or the plastic beads that young girls – like those whose lives were cut short – often play with. Moreover, that these materials are mass produced within factories by low wage workers is a clear reference to the victims of these femicides, workers in the assembly plants, or “maquiladoras” that had sprung up in Ciudad Juárez, particularly after the implementation of NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement) in 1994.

Not only does the mass production of the objects contained within each mandala allude to the individuals who produced them, but that facet of their creation makes them inherently disposable. That so many of the component parts of each Mandala could easily be understood as “trash” is central to the point Kahlo conveys with each work. She notes that “these objects had been discarded into the trash, ending up in landfills and polluting our water sources and I use them as a symbol for marginalized populations that are considered ‘disposable’. A great deal of my work has attempted to address the intersection of human rights violations and the human assault on our environment. I attempt to link environmental justice and social justice by using these disposed, discarded objects in a work that symbolizes life, death and rebirth [the mandala].”

By using these disposable materials in a work that ruminates on “disposable people,” Kahlo provides both with a kind of attention that undercuts their ability to be discarded. In placing the refuse from our daily lives – items we use, discard, and replace with such regularity that we never fully apprehend their forms beyond their function – into an elaborate undulating pattern on a monumental scale, Kahlo makes them part of something that is singular and precious, which bestows a similar preciousness on each component object. The care she takes in cleaning, arranging, and affixing each object in her Mandalas reflects the care that Kahlo took to create each portrait in the Wall of Memories.

“Jakelin’s Quince”, mixed media, 2019

Currently, Kahlo has been turning her attention to other circumstances of girls and young women whose lives have been cut short, often because they are treated carelessly and their lives are considered disposable. She recently completed a piece entitled “Jakelin’s Quince” in which she has created a memory box of found objects for Jakelin Caal.  Seven-year-old Jakelin died in Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) custody in 2018 from a lack of medical care following an onset of severe illness, after being apprehended with her father. Accompanying the memory box, Kahlo painted a portrait of Jakelin as she might have looked if she had reached the age of 15, when she would have had her quinceañeara. In this piece, Kahlo considers what Jakelin herself would have cared about, including objects like rosary beads, dress fabric, flowers, and tiaras in her memory box, all items that refer to important instances in a girl’s life, like a First Communion or a quinceañeara. As such, she reinvigorates a narrative that has largely fallen away from our collective consciousness, and she also takes the time to attend to the memory of Jakelin Caal, separating her personhood and her lived experience from the conditions of her death, much in the same way Kahlo does for the victims of the Ciudad Juárez femicides. 

Throughout her practice, Diane Kahlo ruminates on what it means to care. Whether in the form of the meticulous labor that she puts into her work, from her inclusion of hand-carved elements in her multilevel paintings to the careful collection and arrangement of found objects in her Mandalas, or with regard to the emotional labor she exerts in memorializing victims of systemic and systematic gender-based violence, Kahlo makes apparent that care is an active process. Moreover, the power of her caring is itself infectious; by creating works that draw a viewer in so deeply and that present multifaceted opportunities for connection, Kahlo implores us to empathize and to feel deeply for the subjects of her work, to lavish attention where we often would not and do not, and in so doing, begin to shift our perspectives and, hopefully, advocate for change.