Where Did Kim Kardashian Find Her Latex?
In Dialogue with Caroline Mills and the artists from 182 Avenue C’s Spring Exhibit “Half Life”
by Monica Zandi
Nineties camp and sexual abjection intersect at 182 Ave. C’s latest exhibition “Half-Life.” An altar of fake flowers in the entrance invites visitors to a world where Sex & the City is recast by smutty deli meats; communion dresses, rags, and lacy lingerie drop from the ceiling; luscious illustrations of mythical Persian women and horses of war are disrupted by the specter of U.S. drone strikes. In the show’s unintentional selfie-friendly section, a neon Monster Energy sign casts a green pallor on stacks of porn magazines and a pizza- and cigarette-stained rug. Nearby, depictions of the self are obliterated in a series of photos depicting bodies ripped apart and reassembled by flares of electricity.
To achieve this balance of diaristic revelation and razor-edged shock, curator Caroline Mills recruited young artists from a range of subcultures and practices. The show brings together the most recent works of illustrators Mae Cote and SARVNAZ, mixed media poet Alex Patrick Dyck, photographers Dannah Gottlieb and Alyssa Kazew, leather fetish photographer and installation artist Steven Harwick, fashion designer Kailee Heagney, and tattoo artist Jose Loves Life. Each of the artists create work that contextualize historical memory and nostalgia from the vantage of their subcultural values.
Sitting in her storefront gallery in Alphabet City, two days after the exhibit’s opening, Caroline Mills, discussed how she created a dialogical exhibit that seamlessly showcased such seemingly dissimilar artists such as an Iranian-American illustrator SARVNAZ, alongside an Australian tattoo artist (Jose Loves Life). From that conversation emerged insights into the ways in which subcultures not only elicit subaltern exchange but also morph notions of camp and queerness in a way that opens the door to perceiving sociopolitical issues surrounding gender, culture, war, and sexuality.
Caroline: HALF-LIFE was my first independently controlled show as a curator at 182 Ave C. I worked alongside my partner, Miles Pflanz who has mega experience in throwing music and art shows in underground DIY art venues (pioneering DIY artist run space Fitness and participating in Heck, which was recently shut down by cops). As a novice to curating an art show, more or less an 8-person group show, I wanted to create an exhibition/experience combining DIY tactics, artists working in a range of multi mediums that carefully mirror each other throughout the space—a format we have been repeating in each show. I do not see the curator as a creative rival, at a distance when it comes to content and the actual art making. I choose my artist based on social impact and a strong commitment to giving a voice to female and queer communities; I have no interest in how many abstract paintings you will sell or how many followers you have on Instagram. My role as curator is to preserve the heritage of art, to be the selector of new work, to connect to art history, displaying and arranging the art work and most importantly installing the show, hanging works, lighting the work, etc.
HALF LIFE is defined as a period of usefulness or popularity preceding decline or obsolescence. The artists are united through a Dadaist recycling of nostalgia through the lens of an indecisive generation growing up through the expansion of the internet, exploring a range of subcultural vantage points through camp and formalism.
We have 2,000 sq ft of sunlit open space with high ceilings and large white walls, giving us and our artists the opportunity to go big: filling the space with big installations, hanging large-scale sculptural textiles, creating personal interaction with the work and the space—something you cannot get from a phone screen. I wanted to create an interesting and unusual virtual experience for the viewer, something opposite from just walking past a series of 2-D images.
Heagney and Dyck placed large textile fabrications and sculptures looking at modern conceptions of the femmage as feminine, sensual and emotional. The artists perform feminist body politics by exploring the female traditional arts of decoration and handicraft in a contemporary context. To insert and weave histories of women’s experience into a very male cultural space.
One of the biggest downfalls of our digital age is the lack of community and innovation through group experimentation. This has been replaced by social platforms like Instagram where individual stardom is the ultimate goal.
In “[the] Palace of Loneliness Series” SARVNAZ uses crayons—which you would find in a child’s room or classroom—to create a series of illustrations, while Steven, in “Bred in Captivity (2006),” uses items from his own adolescence to create an installation. How do the everyday, mundane materials of youth play a part in your practice?
SARVNAZ: I spent much of my childhood moving, exposed to many different cultures; a lot of time not knowing the dominant language around me. No matter where I lived though, I always had printer paper, crayons and pens. I wanted to convey this story of dual cultural experience with these childlike materials, because that's where my understanding of culture first began.
Steven: Personally, I teeter between being a ‘hoarder’ and being a ‘collector’, which, technically speaking, may be the same thing depending on who you ask and what value you place on the objects around you. As someone who is admittedly fetishistic, I assign much more weight on an object’s meaning than appears at face value. For “Bred in Captivity, 2006,” I had to refer back to both my own teenage bedroom and also those rooms I occupied as a visitor to friends, family, etc. I’ve always been someone to surround themselves with things and find them to be extremely telling in who occupies a space, regardless of how mundane—sometimes, the more mundane the better! I also take pride in curating my personal ‘hoard’ that I live in and am very much aware of the past lives certain objects and pieces of furniture carry with them.
Alex and Kailee’s assemblages are dialogical and feature domestic materials, textiles, and handwritten text that seem to generate sentimental sensibilities How do you both view the function of these elements to achieve that effect?
Kailee: I have used insulation foam as the core sculpting medium for my pedestal. On top sits screen printed text with a papier-mâché egg, where inside overflows an abundance of hand embroidered hearts onto ribbon. I wanted my piece to seem weightless, and so the foam depicts an almost spongy give-and-take aesthetic. By coating the foam in flowers, I hoped the sculpture would present the viewer with the familiar sensibility of everything femme. On the wall adjacent is a torched skirt, open mesh tulle, and a screen printed chain, stretched across an old frame I found in my mother's basement. Each work is meant to supplicate the observation of faultlessness in nature.
Alex: “Crayzee Quilt” is made mostly out of fiber pieces/objects which have been assembled to form a quilt. It’s like an heirloom that memorializes the mythology of self; it is deeply personal in that the objects have been lovingly preserved over the years whether they range from communion dresses to scraps of seeming trash. Hoarding can be a coping mechanism for the unpredictability of life: loss, mortality, death, decay. The form of the quilt is evocative of domesticity—an object of comfort, home—both functional and decorative, and speaks to the feminine in that making such an item has historically been women’s work. My heirlooms, as presented in “Crayzee Quilt” and otherwise, denote sentimentality and tenderness juxtaposed against hardware, chain and leather. It shows their equal value in my archive of collections: moments of love, loss, romance and pain can be interwoven in memory.
Alyssa, Since the invention of the camera, photos have been altered to present fiction as truth. In an era of CGI, what do you think of photography’s relationship to truth? How does this relate to RPG’s that inform your content and method?
Alyssa: I feel like photography (and maybe I’m projecting) is more about one’s own truth, rather than making a factual image. I’ve seen a lot of CGI images where I’m like, “Wait, is this a picture taken with a camera?” But I don’t think it makes a difference, and if anything it’s exciting to question it. It’s more about making an image and less about what tools you used to get to that end result. I feel like the same idea applies to taking a screenshot in a video game, or in Google Maps for that matter, and consequently has been re-informing the way I think about making photos. Which I guess would be making a world and taking a screenshot of it.
Your series features surrealistic depictions of historical Persian women and elements from the hostage crisis and regime change, while Steven your work features a nostalgic time warp to the period when you were living in Jersey. What does the historical arc of Persian femininity mean to you SARVNAZ?
SARVNAZ: As Iranian-Americans, we are constantly challenged with trying to defend our culture while also questioning the aftermaths of the  Revolution. To sum up the imagery would be to sum up too large a span of history. From references to Persian Epic Tale "Shahnameh," Qajar paintings, Miniatures drawings and political imagery I wanted to show a range of historical visuals; images that have culturally identified a part of our history, while trying to create a space for the queer body within this history.
Steven, why is there this caustic, destructive fantasy life in white suburban men that all these industries—like energy drinks—cater to? How is that corrosive energy apparent in just someone’s room?
Steven: In creating this piece, I wanted to construct a straight teenage boy’s room in 2006. When I was a teen in 2006, I was suppressing my sexuality—or was at least confused by it—but knew it didn’t match my friends’ or classmates’. This became increasingly clear in how we curated our spaces. My personal teen bedroom in, say, 2006, was covered in photographs ripped out of fashion magazines, band posters featuring members I thought were attractive, and my own artwork. When I went over to friends’ houses, I saw a different type of room–messier, less curated, with the lens focused on different things. The room I created in my piece was a hyper extended version of this: the epitome of heteronormative suburban living, dirty rugs, porn out in the open, clothes strewn about… There were rooms I absolutely occupied in my youth (and adulthood... [sighs]) that resembled this and I was always fascinated them.
I also remember seeing ads and TV shows and music videos in this era that catered to this type of man, capitalizing on the toxicity in masculinity, leveraging nudity and the idea of becoming a ‘ladies’ man’ to sell their product. I saw it in Monster, AXE… Even Carl Jr’s: “Use this product and hot women will flock to you!” In terms of how this could be seen in people’s bedrooms—the advertising tactic obviously worked! Every boy’s bedroom I saw in my teen years had posters of hot girls, the gym locker rooms at school would erupt in a cloud of AXE body spray when the bell rang. These corporations were and are still targeting the vulnerability of teenagers and their desperation to assimilate and generate social capital.
Aside from creating installation work, you have a zine about leather called Bound Leather. What is it like to create this zine in a time where BDSM and latex fashion is worn by celebrities like Kim Kardashian and are no longer strictly the domain of a subculture?
Steven: My photographic work for the past three years has mainly been focused on creating Bound Leather, which is a self-published zine. My incentive for creating it was mainly to explore my own personal fetish, while also creating work that felt more inclusive and well-rounded than what I had seen on the Internet. It’s true that in recent years, the mainstream exposure to kink and BDSM has definitely heightened; 50 Shades of Grey “bondage kits” are sold at Target and yes, harnesses and latex are worn on the red carpet. That being said, true representations of sexual fetish as lifestyle as opposed to fashion accessory are still narrow. Most pornography that is created is still focused on this ‘ideal and unattainable’ person, be it fit, white, masculine-presenting, etc. For me, it was confusing to know that I was interested in leather and BDSM but not seeing much representation of people who looked like me. I wanted to shoot real people who were interested in fetish as a lifestyle and create a wider cross-section of bodies that are actually involved in this scene that were left in the dark by the mainstream presentation of it.
As an Iranian myself, I know that we are constantly bombarded with stereotypes, Othered, and plagued with false perceptions about what being “Muslim” or “Middle Eastern” entails. How does the hyper-reality of Middle Eastern culture in mainstream Western news affect your artistic identity and production?
SARVNAZ: We live in a time where Western media has completely ‘Othered’ Middle Eastern people and culture. When speaking of Iran, often times the image still circulated is that of the Skeleton Statue of Liberty painted outside the U.S. Embassy in Tehran. I chose to juxtapose this image with different depictions of Iranian art through the centuries to show another side. I believe the only thing we can do to reverse racism, stereotypes and false perceptions is to educate; for me this begins with showing the beauty of my culture that is often masked.
The surrealists struggled with competing impulses to desecrate images and worship them with erotic fascination, but you, Dannah, have transformed this contradiction into a process. Specifically, your series intuitively brings together two aspects of Man Ray’s work that he failed to connect: his focus on BDSM and his experiments with camera-less photography. Do you think the erotic power play of BDSM is similar to that of a photographer and her subject? Do you feel your technique extends that play to the printing process via the destruction and reconstitution of your subjects?
Dannah: They are somewhat similar because they both deal with power and control. As a photographer, you have the power to create something that holds a lot of weight in people’s psyches, whether they know it or not. It definitely extends to my destructive process of making an image. These competing impulses you speak of are something I struggle with and work through. I have always grappled with why I am so attracted to destruction. Being a perfectionist, relinquishing myself from that obsessive compulsive control releases creativity from within me—you learn to welcome the flaws—the tiny notes of dust, the rippled part of the photograph that adds interesting detail to empty space. It is cathartic and transformative. These philosophies of the darkroom chemicals stain your clothes and seep into your skin.
Do you think some of the biographical and surreal aspects of your work, Alex, are misunderstood in terms female consciousness? Authors such as Chris Kraus would argue that it is critical to see vulnerability not from a personal or confessional viewpoint but rather as something more universal and political.
Alex: I often think about how Chris Kraus has spoken about vulnerability and emotionality in art, that "Women have been denied all access to the apersonal...the female ‘I’ can only be narcissistic, confidential, confessional." As if any work that I am making, because I identify as a female, is about my inner world and that it can't be performative or strategic. I think that's exactly what Crazyee Quilt speaks to: a myth, a lie. It's a story about who I could be, my desires, and where they choose to go. Maybe it's of me, of my body, of my life, and that's real AF, but maybe it has a life of its own and it continues on outside of me. It's an heirloom (quilt) to a future generation and they can choose to do what they wish with it. Perhaps it's attractive to the viewer simultaneously because gazing is an act of voyeurism but also because they can use it to mirror themselves however they please. I'm avoiding the assumption of its "femininity" because I'm tired of not being asked about my masculinity.
I’ve had people call my work feminine before. Why does that word embarrass me? Is it because historically femininity denotes docility and weakness? Is it because I don’t want my work to be gendered? Is it because this word serves as a limitation of where I can go and what I can say? I think there's a real underlying anger in some of my work and that's about this gendering and the limitations of it but it's also about our mortality and my struggle to "take it all with me" as our bodies and our earth is dying. I think that's a poetic/political/existential crisis, yes!
The work I have been doing for the last year is heavily focused on the dissolving of the body as a vessel. Unbecoming. Becoming slime. Fluidity and viscosity. The boundaries of where the body can and can’t go and why. How it is named and identified not by the body itself but by some constructed outside authority. Aspects of this are me grappling with the illusory boundaries at battle with the very real tangible boundaries of gender. And ‘un-gendering’ of the body. The Body Without Organs. That's all a mythology of the self too: where are the edges of the body, of the self, of the story?
Jose, you are a tattoo artist with a large following and travel all over the world, yet for the show you exhibited a large painted mural that you created by hand using an iPad. What was the process behind merging technology, digital collaging, and flash tattoo drawings for your mural, “Unlimited Patience”?
Jose: I am always drawn to things in flux, the body and skin are constantly moving, the ink slowly bleeds away, I see dissolved barriers between the digital and physical. The drawings for my tattoos and for my piece are all created with digital platforms, with analogic brushes simulating real world art tools. These in turn are then printed, or tattooed, thus creating a self-sustaining loop.
When we viewed “Sex and the Ciggy” we felt that you were consciously mining the representation of a certain lifestyle that the ladies on the show embodied. Is “Sex and the Ciggy” a comedic parody of the show or a social commentary (or something else) on the diluted use of queerness, or lack of, as a neutered and marginalized stereotype stuck in a world of sparkles, brunch, and camp?
Mae: It is very much a parody of the show—an attempt at my revenge on the show honestly because for one fried reason and another I have found myself watching so much of it over and over the last several years and it really is just so evil.
I wasn’t thinking about a diluted idea of queerness specifically when working on the writing and images for the drawings but I like that that was brought up. In the drawings I am the only explicitly human character, and I think that the choice to have all my girlfriends be more creature-like and just pure imaginary variations rather than human forms in contrast is relevant to that idea because I did want that to be something that was reflective of my feelings of loneliness and isolation and different social scenes and things like that are some of many things that can make me feel those ways. It was important to me that the characters have outlines of not being successful or happy, except for Gorgonzola, who is this ethereal and sultry wad of cheese and it’s sort of unclear what she does, but oh do we know why she is in such a good mood!
Lastly, what is it about the band Korn? The room you installed in the gallery heavily draws on this band aesthetically and psychically.
Steven: As Jonathan Davis says, “You laugh at me because I'm different, I laugh at you because you're all the same.” Nu Metal came together as a sort of amalgamation of so many different genres and really mixed elements of metal, grunge, hip hop, funk, industrial, etc. and it all coalesced in the late 90s and early 2000s. This, for me, was a defining cultural nugget that was born out of this era in particular, specifically thanks to the internet and continued globalization that it brought. More ideas were able to come together more readily from vastly different areas. Also it became this sort of wear-your-freak-on-your-sleeve moment. Not only just in reminiscence, but in real time, it was a time that the outsider and freak was celebrated or indulged—though some were still getting beaten up in the halls of school, it was a semi mainstream representation of freaks! Also, for the record A.D.I.D.A.S. (All Day I Dream About Sex) is genius and Freak On a Leash has one of the best breakdowns ever written.
For more information on the gallery 182 Ave C and future exhibitions, please refer to their IG @182ave.c
Monica Zandi is a writer, educator, and artist by way of Iran. She has written for Sublet Projects, Kaltblut Magazine, and Feminist Wednesdays on a range of topics such as art from the 18th century and collage from local Brooklyn artists. Her current focus is on analyzing the impact of hyper-reality on contemporary Iranian feminist thinking and art.