by Sheila Regan:
In Ni de aqíi, ni de allá/ Neither from here nor from there, which was on view in August and September, 2020, at Hair + Nails Gallery, Moises Salazar juxtaposed Catholic imagery, queer identity, kitschy decor, and homages to childhood in an exploration of growing up queer and Mexicanx.
The work that was on view was often tactile. There were soft, furry pieces that stirred in the viewer a desire to touch, though of course, this being a pandemic, that was not advisable.
In Lost (2020), Salazar places the figure of a child— perhaps a young Salazar— on a soft pink and white rug. They are surrounded by pink flowers, recalling the flowers that adorn Frida Kahlo’s hair in the Mexican artist’s iconic self portraits. The clothing of the child is a bit ruffled— but the child’s stance is steadfast. The piece suggests defiant embrace of the feminine, and offers so much love to the young child portrayed. Salazar has created a loving embrace filled with Mexicanx cultural signifiers for an apparent queer child looking toward the future.
Another pink fur piece that was in the exhibition, I’m Not Upset (2020) features three nude figures standing in a huddle. Penises are visible on two of the figures, and the third, crumpled in the foreground, hands covering their face, wears high heel shoes. These figures read as queer bodies enacting the gestures of the women in the Bible mourning for Christ during his crucifixion. Glittery tears dapple the plush work.
It’s not the only time Salazar draws on Catholic imagery. The titular piece, made of glitter, yarn and acrylic, depicts five dancing, celebratory bodies, penises exposed, with halos glowing over their heads like crowns. Like the child in Lost, these figures take space with their revelrous gestures. Effervescent, Salazar gives these figures a pathway to sainthood. In both Ni de aquí, ni de allá and I’m Not Upset, Salazar’s allusion of Christianity feels rebellious. By queering these images, the artist boldly carves out a place for their own identity within a very religious cultural upbringing.
In a recent Instagram post, Salazar spoke to this intent. “This solo show is a labor of love,” Salazar posted. “It is a dialogue between now and the past. It’s a show about mourning and deliberating. It’s about being disappointed and grateful. This exhibition is for all the queer children that survived. It’s for all the kids that heard puto, faggot and maricón in their household.”
Even more subversive is Salazar’s homage to the Virgin of Guadalupe, Virgin (2020). Made of glitter on canvas within a pink frame, Salazar creates their own version of Mexico’s most iconic cultural symbol.
Indeed, the Virgin of Guadalupe is perhaps more important as an icon of Mexican culture than that of Catholicism. The Virgin’s image was used as an inspirational image both during Mexico’s war of Independence from Spain in 1810 and the Mexican Revolution 100 years later.  (Stars on her huapil, or shawl, were appropriated by revolutionaries to represent 32 states of Mexico.)
In this version, the Virgin is not the young feminine figure of Mary but a glittery nude figure with a penis, hands clasped, and face lifting heavenward. The transgender Virgin is sparkly, surrounded by pink flowers, and held up by a small child figure popping up out of the petals.
Salazar doesn’t seem to be intentionally sacrilegious when they employ these images. After all, the Virgin has roots not only from Spain but possibly from appropriated Aztec traditions as well. The work is a reclaiming of cultural and religious tradition, carving space for those who have been dis-included from those practices because of bigotry.
The other two exhibitions on view in the galleries, Anat Shinar’s re-interpretation of her childhood room, Inherited, Invented, 2020, and Cameron Downey’s Three Things Last Forever, also touch notions of childhood and nostalgia. All three exhibitions, for instance employ plush toys.
Shinar, whose installation populates the small back room at Hair + Nails with vintage board games, stuffed animals, a child-sized bed, and a graphic Smurf wallpaper, summons up feelings of longing. In these pandemic times, isn’t there part of us that wants to feel safe and secure? But there’s also an edge to Shinar’s interpretation. The floor is lined with blue wood chips. Is the bed itself located in a Smurf house? In any case, things aren’t entirely what they seem, and the feeling of childhood security is counteracted with a strong notion that something is a bit off. Being young is a very dangerous thing, after all. So many things can go wrong, even when surrounded by wonderful objects.
In the basement was Cameron Downey’s searing Three Things Last Forever. The centerpiece of this exhibition is a sculpture of stuffed animals and balloons, mounted on a crochet tablecloth covered rotating square. The work recalls the roadside monuments to people killed by motor vehicles. Like the other two artists featured alongside Downey, the notion of memory emanates from the piece.
In Untitled (2020), Downey assembles a visceral concoction of pleather and charcoal, summoning up images of Rorschach ink blots and also kinky sex dungeons. What do you see? Charcoal-filled underwear, about to ignite? Or a soaring bird ready to take flight? The work feels more rooted in abstraction than demanding a specific interpretation, and yet there’s certainly a ritualistic aspect the artist employs, especially when you take into account the candles mounted on each side. What does it mean that I see a sex rite taking place at a warm hearth?
Downey’s other two pieces, Untitled, (2020) and On Praise, (2020) are gelatin prints bordered with slabs of carpet. Cinematic and ghostly, these works are the most narrative of the presented works. Here we actually see a character engaging in a ritualistic act. Taken with the other pieces in the exhibition, the body of work becomes a kind of prayer, an invocation of spirits, of protection.
Taken together, all three artists that were presented in this show, who have varied lived experiences and backgrounds, pondered ways that we remember, reclaim, and find space for ourselves within our communities and the world around us.
- Reyes, Raul A., Our Lady of Guadalupe is a Powerful Symbol of Mexican Identity, NBC News, 9/12/2016., Retrieved 9/27/20 https://www.nbcnews.com/news/latino/our-lady-guadalupe-powerful-symbol-mexican-identity-n694216
- Larkin, Ximena N., How La Virgen de Guadalupe Became an Icon, Vice, 9/12/2017. Retrieved 9/28/2020. https://www.vice.com/en_us/article/ywnwny/how-la-virgen-de-guadalupe-become-an-icon
Sheila Regan is a Minneapolis writer. Her arts writing has appeared in Hyperallergic, Artnet News, ArtForum, The Art Newspaper, First American Art Magazine, C Magazine, Broadly, ArtAsiaPacific, and American Photo. She also writes about dance for the Minneapolis Star Tribune.
by Travis Wilds:
A chair spins in the basement—a little bit Psycho, a little bit Exorcist. No Shaker heirloom, it’s broken out into plushy excrescences, including an Island of Misfit Toys assortment of animals, a Hamburger Helper mitt, plus silk flowers. Grocery store balloons buoy it up, and a doily holds it down. There’s something about its incessant spinning that Bergson would probably find funny.
In “Altar,” from Three Things Last Forever, Cameron Downey stages a monument to childish things. And like the other artists exhibiting with her this month it might not be too much to say she’s torn between leaving her toys out, on the one hand, and putting them away and “becoming a man” (Corinthians), as it were, on the other. Between letting family romance possess you and exorcising it. Becoming Mother, or killing her off.
Similar themes are captured in the titles of her co-exhibitors—Inherited, Invented by Anat Shinar and Ni de aquí, ni de allá/Neither from here nor from there by Moises Salazar. What to do with what you’ve inherited, and how much you’ll have to make up to make a life for yourself. Where you are when you’re caught between family and self-determination, between a family identity defined by particulars of religion, ethnicity, class, etc. and an individual life devoted to the cosmopolitan scene of Art. Each of these shows is intensely personal in both the love it exhibits for childhood and family totems and the symbolic violence it wreaks on them. But each is also almost ritual in the way it performs the break with the family past, reminiscent in that respect of the “impersonal confessions” the writer Annie Ernaux has made about leaving her rural parents behind as she becomes a famous literary figure, city-dwelling and, yes, comfortably middle class. These shows are not just about making art but about making oneself an artist.
For me, the most visceral enactment of that process occurs in the installation by Anat Shinar, a recreation of her childhood bedroom replete with more stuffed animals, toy detritus and the ugliest wallpaper I’ve seen in a long time. Shinar has paved the room’s floor in mulch, hand-dyed blue to match the wallpaper’s Smurf vignettes. The sensation of walking on mulch indoors is a jarring trope for the confusion of interior and exterior, intimate and public. You step gingerly on it, like a tourist in a church, a nice bit of kinesthetic programming from an artist who is also a dancer and choreographer. The power of the room comes from a certain sacred aura retained by the objects, not reproductions or substitutions, but the real, old things. Creating art by exposing the past, stoking the power of intimate totems by sharing them with any and all—the room in some ways feels like it has been assembled on a knife’s edge.
The edge recurs in “Perdóname”, Moises Salazar’s reworking of a family photo. The title word unfurls in gold glitter over a vintage portrait of artist, mother and siblings, done up in formal wear and looking a little dour. Repeating like a prayer, it blots out the figures while entreating forgiveness, maybe for just that—an enactment of the break with family tradition that coming out as queer and as an artist can entail (it’s not always clear which is worse). The title word of Salazar’s “Maricón” similarly repeats in glitter, this time over the artist’s graduation portrait. Emblazoned in gold, the insult is transvalued even as the artist’s face, too, has faded to a glittery blank. In a few other self-portraits, all but the body’s outlines have likewise been effaced. At the same time, the gilt frame of the family portrait has relaxed into soft, floppy crochet. It’s a way of making the feminine crafts of mother or grandmother one’s own, while acknowledging their modesty and, yes, their tackiness. But it also conveys a sense that permeability is key to growth, that leaving the picture field open may invite in other ideas, other materials out of which new features might be drawn.
If Shinar’s messy mulch expresses the way the past sometimes refuses to stay put, Salazar’s accessible juxtapositions of faux fur and glittered cut-outs look as though they’ve got it more contained. But it would be too easy to identify that containment with ironic distance. Instead, here and with the other artists in the show, there is sincerity, lots of it. And melancholy.
Sincerity that comes through in the way each artist uses faux fur, sometimes attached to stuffed animals, sometimes not. It’s a metonym for overstuffed couches and overstuffed living rooms, smells, moods and textures of family homes, all the particles that get caught in the microfibers of the soul. And melancholy in the impulse to monumentalize nostalgia—finding forms not to express or recapture the past but to give the longing for it a home. (The degree to which you long for the past is not always correlated to how much of it you have behind you). For all “Altar’s” antic spinning, the principal offering made there might be to Melancholy. That spirit is certainly afoot in Salazar’s “All I Ever Wanted”, a Baroque trophy composed of stuffed animals, exploding yarn, toy guns and a mini golden soccer ball, a little like the memorials that sprout on telephone poles.
The artists give us adult things, too—Salazar’s gentle yarn creatures, or Downey’s pleather and charcoal wall-hung sling-bikini. But together, they seem most intent on writing a New New Testament verse: “When I became an artist, I let childish things run wild.”
Travis Wilds is a writer and literary scholar living in Minneapolis.