The afternoon began with some new faces, Miles Davis and light snacks over at the DiverseArts Little Gallery. Black and white photos from the gallery’s recent show, Tuskeegee Airmen, were on the walls. The day’s Featured Artists: Senalka McDonald and Lorenzo Herrera y Lozano. I brought these two artists together because, with limited familiarity of their work, I was intuitively convinced that there is a dialogue between their aesthetics and processes.
Senalka’s artistic process is an unconscious, discomforting act that uses the information so readily available in the media to transform two-dimensional spaces into active inquiries of collective memory, bodies and power/powerlessness. She said, upon being asked the question, “where is your body in relation to the work?” that when she works, “It’s like I’m swimming through murkiness, asking questions [with the material and subject] until I get clear, and then once I’m there, I dive back into the murkiness again”.
Senalka began by showing us her earlier photographs of “wet women” – portraits of young women meant to capture their perceptions of themselves. From there, Senalka led us into the series of photographs where she as the artist is making inquiries into her relationship with her father, as well as a study of who her father is – as a man, a black man, a black Panamanian man. These served as primary material for a larger body of work encompassing images of black men, in and of themselves, but also as “every day people” – fathers, workers, and friends. She cites her motivation for these photographs as 1) a desire to understand her father more deeply but also 2) as a conscious attempt to create work that would put black faces on the walls of galleries. This motivation is highly resonant with her photographs of women – and serves as an exploration of the idea of self-perception. It also begs the question of how and where the artist’s own body occupies space in relationship to her subject/object. Where does the subjectivity lie? What’s so moving about her photographs is that they achieve a relative subjectivity. The young women and black men in the photographs speak their own truths, the photographer acting as a mere reflection. This kind of eye is rare and places us – the viewers - in an unspoken, simultaneous conversation with all the bodies in the room.
In a similar fashion, Senalka’s drawings (what she terms as drawings on child molestation) pulled us into a conversation with our own individual experiences, society and collective memory. Drawn from eerie, skewed angles, with slightly or wholly disfigured bodies placed in juxtaposition to each other, these pieces were, for the artist, a deep interrogation into her own sense of powerlessness. Their shapes, she states, are resonant of the works of Egon Schiel and Henry Darger. The pieces arose out of her experience of the media – watching Oprah, watching the news – where stories of child molestation appeared en masse. In this way, her work can be seen as a conversation with collective (pop) culture, and as a universe that runs parallel to the social history created by the media. These pieces are also a dialogue between the idea of innocence and the careful balance between that state and the desecration that seems all too common in post-colonial bodies. Senalka states: “I want people to be confronted with what I’m doing and to have a dialogue about it.”
Lorenzo’s work, which primarily takes the form of writing and more specifically poetry, is also a plunging into currents of media and collective memory. Lorenzo described his own work as being influenced by three major sources: religion, pop culture, and his experience as a bi-national Chicano raised in both the U.S. and Mexico. He states, “My work is really about honoring that which is considered dishonorable.” He read us numerous pieces, among them “San Lorenzo Ramera” (the first poem he wrote in English), “Psalm 69”, “Hairspray and Fideos”, “Deseo Detestado” - a piece from his new collection of bolero inspired poems Promesas y Amenazas.
What’s clear in all of his work is that the body is the primary landscape for enacting desire, and that desire is filtered through the language of religion and political astuteness. He places the queer Chicano body at the center of our landscape, unapologetically, and pushes us to consider our own relationships to desire, shame, guilt, and liberation. Taking inspiration from living artists, as well as artists whose work has outlived them, Lorenzo pieces together a narrative that transcends state and national borders and embeds the Chicano queer, male/female bodies as integral to our collective memory. He is influenced by Audre Lorde, Gloria Anzaldua, Apolinaria Lorenzana, Marvin K White, Sharon Bridgforth, Sandra Cisneros, David Alfaro Siquieros, Chelo Silva, Frida Kahlo (he says, not for what she is glorified now, but for her fierceness in living in the grotesque), Maria Felix, Agustin Lara, Luis Dimitri (Lorenzo states, “He wrote stuff for women to sing, and all addressed to other men. That’s what I’m interested in.”) among others.
In speaking about one of his earliest influences – a porn found in his Baptist parents’ closet featuring Ron Jerry – Lorenzo made it clear to us that what he found so fascinating about Ron Jerry was not his physical appearance, but rather his audacity in being an ugly man who elicited confidence and who was made into a phenomenon because of his audience. This example serves as an example of the honoring of the dishonorable that Lorenzo aims to embody in his work. How is it that the grotesque occupies our imagination, and becomes a central marker of history and culture?
Lorenzo went on to describe his artistic process as “an unhealthy one” – a process which requires his own confrontation with depression, chaos and the night. He states, “As a scribe, how do I process, interpret all of what I’ve been fed about history, religion, and pop culture. [I believe my work lies] at the intersections between the different kinds of information.”
Similarly, Senalka speaks of her work as a diary – an attempt to capture with images what she cannot say with words. Her visual work is a conversation with others, as well as an inquiry into her own emotional state.
Both of these artists reside in the gaps between cultures, societies and nation-states. They both use the information in those gaps to create landscapes of inquiry and self-reflection. The media becomes a primary material for crafting innovative intersectional art that asks us to be subjects in a larger conversation around our own complicity in shifting the way the world works.