Playing dress-up has become common practice among artists who are interested in exploring contemporary conditions through the lens of the past. Beginning in the 1980s, celebrated American artist Cindy Sherman cast herself in a range of archetypal female roles-from housewife to movie star to art history’s iconic saints, and more, inspiring many artists of the new millennium to incorporate the imagery and accouterments of the stage or film into recent investigations of the forces shaping identity today.
Multi-media artist Carlos Gamez de Francisco invokes Sherman’s work in his recent staging of models in wigs and costumes, enacting cinematic mise-en-scenes that reference colonial European culture within both contemporary urban conditions and a pastoral utopia. Shot on location during a 2014 trip to his native Cuba, Gamez de Francisco’s photographs quote both liberally and literally from the art and fashion of the 18th century, evoking nostalgia, desire, and critique. A pietà reimagined with an all-female cast, a pair of angular, adolescent Cupid and Psyche characters, pouting and playful actors in too-bright make up and clothing and wigs slightly askew, the figures emerge from myth and allegory to reveal the artist’s vision of “lo cubano” (“what’s Cuban”) today. “A strong European cultural influence is still prevalent in 21st-century Cuba,” says Gamez de Francisco. Appropriating the wardrobe of the French Bourbon monarchy and the period aesthetics of paintings by Watteau and Fragonard, Gamez de Francisco adapts a historical visual language of frivolity and decadence to articulate a morality tale aligning the decay, decadence, and corruption of the French monarchy in the 18th century with the post-revolutionary Cuban regime. Some of these sensual and enigmatic figures, dressed in lace and silk and canvas gowns—some hand-painted by the artist—pose incongruously among abandoned buildings. “I wanted to play with perfection in imperfect but real settings,” explains the artist, “such that the human figure gets lost amongst solid brick walls that were never fully built, long corridors of Corinthian-style columns decayed by time and oblivion, large accumulations of waste, objects, and useless spaces so common in 21st-century Cuba.”
Over the last five decades in Cuban architecture, the future has indeed decayed alongside the past: buildings constructed or renovated during Fidel Castro’s early years – with infusions of Soviet support – were never finished or dedicated to their original intent; decades later, intention crumbles with infrastructure. Caught in a world where the expected future never arrived, Gamez de Francisco’s characters exist in a mythic time combining past and present that mirrors a real-life aspect of “lo cubano.” The two costumed figures in a video related to this series (showing on 21c’s Art Channel) actually float in a watery limbo filled with fish and fruit that symbolize potential fertility. Filmed in the cramped quarters of a small bathroom, the man and woman are seen from above in a tub, their faces at times submerged underwater; they are side by side, but never touch. Water has been a defining condition of Cuban life, alternately delivering creation and destruction, hope and despair, escape and return, isolation and connection to the island residents and to their friends and family dispersed across the Florida Strait. As diplomatic relations between the US and Cuba resume, and the freedom to travel is restored to Cubans and tourists alike, Gamez de Francisco’s vision of his homeland may become archival, documenting a pivotal moment in the recent past.
Contemporary costume dramas and historical allusions also animate works by Japanese photographer Chito Yoshita and British painter Annie Kevans, on view in the Hive restaurant and lounge. The seductive surfaces of these artworks alternately utilize and disturb the definition and function of beauty.
For the right price, women in Japan can pursue a fantasy of romance for a night at a “host club,” an establishment where men are paid to drink and converse and flatter their female clients. Hundreds of such host clubs exist in a district of Tokyo called Shinjyuku-Kabukicho, along with bars and short-term hotels. Typically the hosts initially approach the women, but for an extra fee, a client can choose her companion: those whose style evokes the 1980s screen persona Tony Montana, of the American film Scarface, are especially popular. Frequency of selection is an important measure of the host’s success, which reinforces a hierarchy among the employees. The newer men clean and maintain the club prior to the clients’ arrival in the evenings, while more seasoned hosts graduate to manage and supervise these nocturnal negotiations. Customers have been known to fall in love, mistaking the scripted charm of a commercial transaction for true affection. The Love for Sale photographs were taken at Club Ai, the most famous host club in Tokyo. Photographed while waiting for their work shift to begin, these would-be charmers evoke more ennui than anticipation, revealing the intersections of reality and illusion that both drive their trade and define a contemporary photographic practice. Shimmering with saturated color and light, with figures and forms carefully composed, Yoshida’s images create a resonant visual fantasy while illuminating the doldrums of desire that is manufactured, marketed, and consumed.
Rendered in soft palettes punctuated by bright red lips, the faces in French painter Annie Kevans’s oil-on-paper portraits appear dreamy, with heads sometimes leaning to the side, and eyes gazing into a undefined distance. All the Presidents’ Girls are not portraits of power or privilege; these are the artist’s envisioning of the women (and a man) who purportedly were the lovers of US heads of state. “My paintings reflect my interests in power, manipulations, and the role of the individual in inherited belief systems,” says Kevans, “It is important for me to examine the duality of truth and falsehood through my work, which I do by creating ‘portraits’ which may or may not be based on real documentation.” Like gossip, Kevans’s portraits combine the known with the imagined, highlighting the manipulation of truth in the recording of history, while excavating, with imagination, those marginalized.