Miscarriages, Monarchies, and Marginalized Communities

REVIEW: A trio of exhibits in conjunction with FotoFest 2018 smartly tackle tough topics


Art League Houston’s trio of current exhibitions — running in conjunction with the 2018 Fotofest Biennial — all touch upon nuanced and often overlooked cultural issues.

Here’s a critical rundown of each which are on view through May 5.

“Just Relax”

“Just Relax” serves as a nod to the sage advice given to those trying to conceive, and offers a kind of sarcastic license for Houston-based artist Britt Thomas to explore the harsh road to parenthood. The exhibition navigates Thomas’s experience with infertility, loss, and IVF treatments, though she notes that this is just the beginning in a line of work inspired by childlessness.

As Thomas acknowledges in the show description, roughly 1 in 4 pregnancies result in miscarriage or stillbirth, with 10-12% of the population suffering from infertility. Yet routinely, this reality goes without discussion, deemed either too precious or too private to hash out. Those looking to conceive are often disregarded and the trauma that stems from the extremity of the decisions that come into play when trying to create a biological family is viewed as insignificant. (Perhaps because they are decisions, our culture is rendered confused when trying to find empathy versus pity when confronting these circumstances.)

Thomas doesn’t shy away from letting her path towards motherhood be ugly. “Just Relax” employs a selection of media that depict the gory reality of IVF — a stomach bruised and bleeding from “stim” treatments (designed to stimulate the ovaries for optimal egg production); the wide array of used needles, patches, and injections endured over a long IVF round; the self portrait taken during a miscarriage. Thomas brings pain to the forefront in “Just Relax.” As she longs for a family, she fantasizes about the mundane tasks that would have occupied her days as a mother. Some of these scenes are found in vintage illustrations by the artist, frozen in ice, photographed, and printed on aluminum to represent the future plans that still have yet to materialize.

Alongside the gallery’s back wall Thomas places four rocking chairs, painted black, accompanied by audio that tells two stories: one a lullaby for the potential child that Thomas is envisioning at the end of her fertility treatments; the other, an ethereal dirge for a fetus that no longer has a heartbeat.

“Just Relax” is uncomfortable to witness because the work is so intimately personal to the artist. And the exhibit depends on a level of vulnerability that audiences must embrace in order to study the work.

Nevertheless Thomas acutely touches upon a sincere anxiety that permeates our society, no matter what side of parenthood you find yourself on, and begs a distinct question: what is family really worth?

“Makeover Kingdom”

Lodged in the Art League’s transitional gallery (also known as the hallway between classrooms), Houston-based artist Cobra McVey is holding court.

“Makeover Kingdom” depicts a fantastical monarchy in a futuristic realm. McVey constructs a king and his minions, but instead of traditional regalia, these alien entities are comprised of found objects, often from thrift stores, in bright, consumer-friendly colors.

McVey’s sculptures are playful, flirtatious, and eccentric. A flower-studded foam donut wearing a tutu is transformed to play the role of “Princess.” Gold-painted condiment containers with blue gemstones compose the king’s crown. “The Jester” dons a pink afro wig that sits jauntily atop a filing folder.

The sculptures express notes of their royal identity, with manifestations of finery but McVey’s work is as much a rendering of vaulted social status as it is an indictment on our current frivolous materialism. It’s an easily digested, smartly executed vision of a specific future that, for all its humor, provides a sobering perspective on human consumption.

“The Unwaged”

Los Angelos-based artist Rodrigo Valenzuela exposes the inequity in undocumented labor forces in his two video works, “The Unwaged” and “Prole.”

The exhibition’s eponymous piece depicts a loosely organized crowd of workers, edited to appear in the same darkened room. The individuals rock and shake slightly with gazes that never hover much above chin level.

It’s unknown if this was direction offered by Valenzuela or if adopted by the subjects independently but it feels disjointed as the cameras linger and weave to find new focus within the crowd. It’s behavior that would translate more concretely to a performance, when you can feel the body tension ebb and flow, but collectively, it renders a kind of haphazard tick to the group. While Valenzuela dictates time with the subject based on their length of time spent in underpaid positions, we never get a good sense of their individual experiences.

“Prole,” however, presents almost a polar opposite viewing experience. Labor crew members commit to an informal discussion that results in a loose game of soccer while detailing their careers. Some express a kind of retaliation against the stereotypes that have been placed upon them (one comments that he works like a “white man” not like a Mexican), while others voice opinions of equitable capability without representation parity in the leadership roles.

“Prole” illuminates a dynamic brightness of personhood that feels obscured in “The Unwaged.”

Yet together, Valenzuela’s videos nod at the wars we wage actively — on drugs, against immigrants, against the working class — and those that we allow to continue passively: Wars which hold the potential to be even more detrimental in the marginalization and exploitation of many communities.

Caitlin Greenwood
Caitlin Greenwoodhttps://www.marycaitlingreenwood.com/
Caitlin Greenwood is an arts and culture writer who calls Texas home. She currently lives and works in Austin.

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