“Phone Home” at EFA Project Space, featuring VCUarts Painting + Printmaking MFA Alumni

Above: Liang Luscombe, She Inches Glass to Break, 2018, HD video with custom seating cushion element, 14 minutes 23 seconds

“Phone Home”

An exhibition featuring VCUarts Painting + Printmaking MFA Alumni,
Classes of 2018 and 2019

Diana Antohe, Katie Barrie, Wallis Cheung, Isa Gagarin, Azim Al Ghussein, Lauren Hensens, Liang Luscombe, Be Oakley, Greg Piwonka, Cait Porter, Johanna Robinson, Michael Royce, Yu Su, Emily Wardell

Curated by Wendy Vogel

The Elizabeth Foundation for the Arts
EFA Project Space
323 West 39th Street, 2nd floor
New York, NY 10018

June 5–19, 2019
Opening: Wednesday, June 5, 6–8pm
Hours: Wednesday to Sunday, 12–5pm

“Phone Home,” at EFA Project Space, brings together work by recent alumni of Virginia Commonwealth University’s MFA Painting + Printmaking Department. There’s the obvious reading of this exhibition’s theme: artists in graduate school grappling with their identities in their work, often while far from family and comfortable surroundings. “Phone home” is also the signature phrase of E.T., the extra-terrestrial protagonist of the early ‘80s Spielberg film. As an abandoned alien on earth, E.T. forges a psychic connection with a child who shares his experience of otherness. The movie’s themes of misunderstood identity, distrust of ‘foreign’ bodies, government surveillance and redemption through love regain a sense of urgency in our current political landscape. There is yet a third interpretation of the title. As a VCU visiting professor in spring 2018, teaching a graduate seminar for the artists in this exhibition, I assigned Dodie Bellamy’s “Phone Home” from her essay collection When the Sick Rule the World (2015). This text, interweaving Bellamy’s confrontation with her mother’s death and a meditation on E.T., became part of an unexpectedly galvanizing conversation about disability, illness and political agency. For these artists, the inescapability of the body, with its messiness and complexity, grounded them with a sense of common political purpose. The works in this show variously consider forms of resistance, dependency, community, representation and memory — all while connecting to the artists’ ideas of self and home.

Several artworks relate directly to family bonds and networks of chosen kinship. Born in the UAE, Azim Al Ghussein makes handmade soap as a gesture to explore hospitality, heritage and displacement in the Gulf region. Yu Su has created paintings of soap made by Al Ghussein — a close friend — and a text about distributing these bars of soap to other friends in the U.S. As a Chinese citizen, Su narrates the experience of being under suspicion while transporting the soap across the country. Diana Antohe’s installation references her self-described “in-between” identity as a Romanian-born, American-raised artist. She repurposes materials like linens, associated with the homemaking efforts of her female relatives and family friends, to address loss, ritual and migration.

Notions of taste as a cultural construction, open to subversion, are taken up by other artists. Michael Royce’s practice explores queerness by reveling in campy aesthetics, including spiritual motifs and coupling animals, in handmade textiles and painting. Katie Barrie’s abstract paintings playfully nod to the feminized (and marginalized) status of home décor since the age of high modernism, utilizing techniques that mimic interior design treatments and surfaces as stucco.

While not explicitly engaging in self-representation, some of the featured artists plumb the discrepancy between personal memory and collective narrative. In canvases depicting her domestic space, Cait Porter imbues everyday objects with a sense of meditative, emotional weight. She writes that these “normal details hold space for the things that are too difficult to speak aloud,” such as past trauma and the experience of mental illness. Emily Wardell’s practice addresses media narratives of violence and the role of ‘amateur’ documentation. Here, she includes an installation of hundreds of still images from three disturbing videos captured on CCTV. Isa Gagarin shows abstract paintings with vibrant color relationships. Taking her cues from natural phenomena and individual experience, Gagarin creates work that responds to such cyclical events as tides and orbits.

Finally, a number of works reimagine portraiture and collective representations of race, gender and sexual identity. Lauren Hensens, whose work openly addresses the human toll on the environment, presents a large painting of their elongated silhouette casting a shadow on the ground. The work is part of a series based on their experiences hiking the Pacific Crest Trail. Despite its bright patterns and confident brushwork, Greg Piwonka’s canvas of a panting dog channels an exhaustion with performative masculinity and its destructive political effects. Johanna Robinson’s work, by contrast, envisions fantastical collaborations between women, animals and nature — a feminist utopia that deconstructs received forms of knowledge. Wallis Cheung’s video of a headless green-skinned female race, based on Frankenstein’s monster, skewers stereotypes of the Asian “other” in colonized nations like her native Hong Kong. Accompanied by a soundtrack of industrialized noise, Cheung’s manifesto-like text scroll along the screen: “We will rip our own heads off, so you can sink your gaze deep into our flesh.” Likewise addressing the intersection of race, gender and class, Liang Luscombe portrays a trio of librarians in the sitcom-style video She Inches Glass to Break. Her characters debate the merits and political shortcomings of two films — one mainstream, one avant-garde. Be Oakley works as an artist and the founder of GenderFail, a publishing and curatorial platform devoted to representing intersectional queer perspectives. For this exhibition, they present a poster and series of new collage works based on titles produced by GenderFail and the nonprofit Wendy’s Subway. Oakley has also formatted the exhibition title wall vinyl in their font First Gay Americans, based on a hand-lettered protest sign from the National March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights on October 14, 1979.

—Wendy Vogel