“Perma F(r)ail: Personae Documents” at the Paragraph Gallery explores identity, sexuality and politics through performance art, video, drawings, photography and installations. Curator Jessica Borusky has gathered 18 artists and collectives, creating an exhibition of competing personae and identities. The themes and methods vary among the artists, but what unites them is an emphasis on self-expression. And while the exhibition’s theme might seem broad, maybe even generic, the artworks are much more specific.
In Robert Chamberlin’s photographs “Fill Me Up” and “Tip Study,” the artist lies naked atop a mattress, with sheets crumpled up around and under him. Around the bed, in the otherwise empty room, are dozens of white ceramic vessels that crowd in on the artist like a dream or nightmare.
Chamberlin’s photos play into the cliché of the destitute, starving artist who owns nothing but his artworks, who thinks of nothing but his artworks, even when dreaming. But Chamberlin is self-deprecating. He exaggerates this tragic archetype; posing in provocative and vulnerable positions that comically suggest that his devotion to his artworks might be romantic or even sexual. In this way, he expresses pride in his artworks but also displays anxiety over their value and importance.
As in Chamberlin’s photos, when artists make art about their identities, they invariably make artworks about being an artist. But what is interesting about some of the work in “Perma F(r)ail” is the way being an artist becomes mixed into other personae and identities within a person.
Joanna Tam’s “Pin Drawing Studio Action (That’s How I Deal With It)” is a series of drawings made by poking pinholes into paper. Barely visible, except on close inspection, the pinhole drawings depict a woman smashing and destroying a giant replica of a rubber stamp, the kind used on passports and visas.
Having lived in China and America, Tam set out to create a giant ceramic replica of a passport rubber stamp as a means of symbolizing her dual identities. But when she ordered one of the rubber stamps from a website, her studio was raided by federal agents looking for a criminal counterfeiting operation.
After being harassed, threatened and accused of crimes, Tam finally convinced the agents that she was only an artist. Afterward, Tam destroyed the sculpture with hammers, knives and drills as a means of addressing the negative experience.
Still other works in the exhibition invite viewers to question their identities and even their mental health.
A series of pamphlets by Hisaya Ishii parodies the kinds of tri-fold brochures you might find in a health clinic or counselor’s office. A pamphlet titled “Are You Sad? Or Are You Just Happy?” opens with the following: “The difference between feeling sad and feeling happy can be difficult to distinguish. If you are experiencing this particular difficulty, give yourself a pat on the back. Why? Because you are capable of feeling, which is a 100% natural experience for humans. (If you are unable to feel, talk to a professional health care provider.) Also, you are being critical — questioning your conclusions leads you to Enlightenment TM.”
The pamphlet continues with “You Feel Happy When ”, “Other people are better than you,” “Everything has been done already,” and “There is nothing to do.” Ishii’s pamphlets read like mental health advice from some deranged parallel dimension.
With so many video screens, headphones and projections throughout the gallery, “Perma F(r)ail” offers a daunting amount of artwork to explore, from the over-the-top, glam drag video of Alien Moon Partnerships’ “Goddess Complex” and Judith Levy’s interpretation of the book of Genesis through the application of makeup, to the floral arrangements of Leah Silvieus’ “Installation Pre-Performance.” Luckily, most of the artists have provided further texts to help a viewer understand each artist’s context. If there is any criticism to be leveled against this kind of self-focused artwork, some might say that identity art is too self-obsessed, too narcissistic. Yet in the majority of the artworks in “Perma F(r)ail,” each artist’s endeavor of self-expression allows us to reflect on our culture. In the end, our identities are informed by our culture, just as our culture is a collection of identities.
The artists in “Perma F(r)ail” capture this relationship skillfully.
“Perma-F(r)ail: Personae Documents” continues at the Paragraph Gallery, 23 E. 12th St., through May 16. Hours are noon to 5 p.m. Wednesday, Friday, Saturday and 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Thursday. More information: 816-221-5115 or charlottestreet.org.