Identity construct: Genevieve Gaignard’s alter egos make the personal political

In photographs dense with cultural references, Gaignard asks you to examine what you see in the different roles she plays


Do not try to hold Genevieve Gaignard’s exhibition “In Passing” at the Christian-Green Gallery at arm’s length. Or try as hard as you might — Gaignard won’t let it last for long.

On view through May 4 in the art galleries at Black Studies at the University of Texas, “In Passing” was curated by Ashlyn Davis, Houston Center for Photography executive director and curator, and the show pulls from various series of Gaignard’s practice.

Based in Los Angeles, Gaignard is biracial and uses her body and art to, as she says, “explore race, femininity, class, and their various intersections.” In her photographs and installations, the care in which Gaignard selects each detail is tightly controlled. The viewer is rewarded with dense stories in which to explore the way we all construct our identities and judge those around us.

In one over-sized photograph Gaignard wears iridescent platform shoes, bright yellow pants and a teal top emblazoned with the title of the work: “Hoodrat Thangs.” Urban Dictionary defines hoodrat as a “person who lives and exhibits attitudes of inner-city life. usually [sic] a negative connotation that implies poor upbringing, bad manners, little to no education and low-class behavior.”

Gaignard’s hair is braided, and she stares straight at the camera with her hands on her hips. Behind her is a barred window — a chunk of plaster is missing from the building’s wall, and a large painted image of a pine-scented car air freshener is sprinkled with graffiti. Her use of the quotidian impels us to notice how we may only subconsciously read other people around us. What brands are they wearing, how are their clothes cut, or how do they hold their heads? And from our readings, we guess how much money they may have, what their status is, and how we should approach them.

Seven more portraits march the viewer down the wall. In these Gaignard “puts on” different female characters with elaborate hats, magnificent dresses — each a story to be imagined.

Gaignard uses an entire gallery wall to lay out all the accoutrements of a bathroom. The piece entitled “Be More,” pink flamingo wallpaper defines the space and the shelves are lined with beauty products: Murray’s pomades, GoldFinger acrylic nails, combs, hair caps, foundation, lotions, creams. A cat figurine is mounted to the wall, playfully defying gravity and placed so that it glances at the Carefree package of sanitary pads. In pink lipstick the words “Be more!” are scrawled on the mirror — as if, after all of the primping and molding of the body in this bathroom, more would be even better.

Just to the side of “Be More” is “Drive-By, Side-Eye,” a humorously placed portrait in which Gaignard looks past the viewer in a “thug life” top and sips from a McDonald’s soda cup, to-go bag held away from her body with her opposite hand carelessly grasping the crumpled top. In the background sits a shiny red sports car in front of a wall that has been emblazoned with an American flag.

“Drive-By, Side-Eye” 2016. Chromogenic print, Edition of 3 + 2 AP

Around the wall two church pews, “What Color is God? She is Color (Pink)” and “What Color is God? She is Color (Blue),” create the feel of a room within the nook of the gallery. The pews are painted in a pastoral floral pattern and situated facing a wall of assorted mirrors. As viewers take seats, instead of looking up to idols to worship, they are left to contemplate themselves.

What the viewer sees and assigns in is all at once a test of our knowledge and a questioning of our biases. What does a silhouette in front of a neon cross mean to you? What does it say to us if we see a woman in bright red lipstick, teal eyeshadow and a floral robe — are we busy trying to figure out if that robe is made of silk or polyester?

In the photograph “Holier than Thou” Gaignard, dressed in a one-piece bathing suit, stands in a bubble bath and holds a circular object behind her head — a readymade halo. Two plastic bottles of White Rain shampoo break the grandeur of the scene.

“Holier Than Thou” 2017. Chromogenic print, Edition 1 of 3 + 2 AP

“In Passing” is dense with cultural references which may fly by some viewers. For the details that are caught, Gaignard asks you to examine what you attribute to each as she plays different roles. Like the lipstick, shoes, or shirt you choose in the morning, we construct our identity but we must carefully and carefully allow others to as well.

Thao Votang
Thao Votang
Thao Votang is a writer at work on a novel. Votang previously co-edited the online magazine Conflict of Interest and co-founded the Austin gallery Tiny Park.

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