A new series by Chicago-based artist Liz Flores explores familial roots and community through minimal portraits in a palette of deep, warm colors and neutral tones complemented by blues. In Ni De Aquí, Ni De Allá, which translates to “from neither here nor there,” Flores uses the anonymity and ambiguity of her figures to explore the connections between generations and the human desire to position oneself within an ancestral context. “This work is a direct reaction to the question ‘What are you?’” the artist says. “In the U.S., you don’t always feel like you are American enough. But then at the same time, you may not always feel Latina enough. You live in the in-between.”
Born to a Cuban mother and a Mexican father, Flores describes deepening her understanding of this liminal space during a recent collaboration with The Jaunt, a travel project that sends artists to various locations around the world. She traveled to San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, where she joined her aunt and other family members for the first time without her parents. She explains:
I spent the next few days at their home talking with her about the differences in living in the States vs. Mexico, how the family in the States has changed, and the difficulty in keeping traditions alive. During this conversation, she mentioned how it can feel like you are “ni de aquí, ni de allá” and that became the title and theme of my show. It was a moment that felt like an evolution for me, not just as an artist gaining inspiration but as an adult, making connections with my family members not through my parents but on my own.
That moment followed a trip to Cuba a week earlier to visit her mother’s family when she talked with her cousins about the same feelings of belonging.
These moments culminate in Flores’ solo show, which is on view through the end of the year at Vertical Gallery in Chicago. Fourteen acrylic paintings center on the artist’s signature color-blocked figures, whose bodies bend and join each other in abstract compositions. Elongated limbs and hand gestures imply movement through clean, graceful lines, and puzzle pieces on the threshold of fitting into place reference broader themes of identity and kinship. Works like “Fresca y Atrevida,” for example, are more personal and reflect Flores’ affinities with Cuban culture by finding a blue zunzuncito, the world’s smallest bird that’s native to the island nation, as it prepares to land on the tip of the woman’s finger.
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What does it mean to see? To be seen? Artist Robyn Rich (previously) examines these questions in her practice as she paints realistic eyes that peer out from vintage tins and small vessels. The tiny works harness physical particularities to relay the emotions and idiosyncrasies of the subject, whether through thick brows, wrinkles, or mascaraed lashes that frame the delicate organs. Intimate and unsettling when displayed in large collections, the miniature pieces explore various aspects of the gaze and perspective and ask who is watching whom.
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In ‘It Is What It Is,’ Alfred Conteh Takes a Realistic Approach to Examining Life for Black Southerners
The urgency of Alfred Conteh’s portraits lies in the present. He portrays Black people he meets around Atlanta, creating monumental works that accentuate the material both physically and metaphorically, in their mediums and the critical analysis of current social conditions. “Black folks are not doing well in this country,” Conteh tells Colossal. “We will not do well until we come to terms with how this country was built, and the resulting racial wealth gaps and social decay. Nothing is being done to improve that, first and foremost economically.”
Layered with urethane plastic or steel and bronze dust, the works, which are on view at Kavi Gupta in Chicago as part of Conteh’s solo show It Is What It Is, are distressed with cracked surfaces and blotches of acrylic paint. Some stand ten feet tall, and the magnitude of their scale echoes that of the issues the artist is addressing. Conteh focuses on the gritty, harsh reality of the lives of Black people in the U.S., particularly as it relates to the historical policies and institutions that continue to affect the economic, social, and cultural conditions of those he meets. “Stanton Road Water Boys,” for example, features three young men who were solicited drivers on an Atlanta road. “If there were opportunities for them to work, I doubt they would stand here trying to sell a two dollar bottle of warm water,” Conteh shares.
As the title suggests, the exhibition exposes the overlooked or disregarded truths about life today, centering on current conditions rather than a hopeful view for the future. The myth of meritocracy is widespread, and Conteh rails against willful ignorance of privilege and power especially as it relates to wealth and access to opportunity. He explains:
Aspiration is a viewpoint that someone would have if they had the tools and the undergirding to be able to make an idea real, to make whatever they conceptualize a reality. That has not largely been available to African Americans as a whole, to aspire. Historically, legally, African Americans were enslaved, marginalized, segregated, red lined, ostracized, kept from wealth—the list goes on and on. So how can you honestly say “aspire to be something greater” when the policies and norms and mores of this country say no? It infantilizes people when we say things are gonna be alright.
It Is What It Is is on view through March 4, 2023. Find more from Conteh on Instagram.
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At Jeffrey Deitch in Los Angeles, dozens of spacecraft constructed from skateboards, salvaged plastics, and scrap materials descend from the ceiling in a seeming rescue mission. Awash in blue light, the vehicles hover above the galleries filled with assemblages in a similar vein, from small otherworldly troopers to life-sized characters elaborately outfitted with headdresses of fur and spray-painted crowns.
The immersive, post-apocalyptic collection unveils the idiosyncratic workings of the late artist Rammellzee, whose fantastic creations rose to cult status in the 1980s alongside Jean-Michel Basquiat (previously) and Keith Haring (previously). Rammellzee started tagging along the route of New York City’s A train and continually espoused the subversive powers of graffiti and writing as his career ventured into fine art, music, performance, and philosophy. “The letter is armed to stop all the phony formations, lies, and tricknowlegies placed upon its structure,” the artist once wrote. “You think war is always shooting and beating everybody, but no, we had the letters fight for us.”
These ideas found Rammellzee’s philosophy of Gothic Futurism—author David Tompkins describes this as a manifesto “in which the alphabet revolts against being institutionalized, locked into the system that is magnetized to our fridge doors”—and the exhibition draws its title from this ideology. Spanning decades of the artist’s work, the show is broad and enveloping, transporting viewers into an esoteric, linguistically grounded world with references to metaphysics, medieval history, and philology.
Surrounded by dozens of paintings, Rammellzee’s hefty, extravagant suits, which he often wore when in public and termed Garbage Gods, loom over the space. Some of the intergalactic costumes weigh upwards of 100 pounds, and all reflect the artist’s impulse for armor and fighting against convention. The racers appear to culminate at the elaborate “Gasholeer” piece, for example, which is even complete with a flamethrower.
If you’re in Los Angeles, you can see Gothic Futurism at Jeffrey Deitch through January 14.
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‘China’s Van Goghs’ Documentary Explores the Industrial Scale of Art in the Village that Paints Thousands of Replicas
In the late 1980s, the village of Dafen in Shenzhen, China—home to a few hundred people—was set on an industrial course that would utterly transform the area. Over the past three decades in what is known as the “world’s art factory,” manufacturers have produced thousands of replicas of well-known paintings by Western masters like Vincent Van Gogh, Leonardo Da Vinci, and Edgar Degas. In a full-length documentary from Perspective, filmmakers render an intimate portrait of life in Dafen.
China’s Van Goghs follows painter Zhao Xiaoyong, along with family and friends, through typical days at work. Immense rolls of canvas are unloaded from a truck, a line of people add details to raw canvases tacked to the wall, and rows of paintings line-dry above their heads. “We paint, eat, and sleep—all in this studio,” Zhao says, sharing that before he began painting, he had never heard of Van Gogh. Now, he oversees the production of hundreds of paintings each month, for which photographs or small prints are used as references.
Entrepreneurial trade painter Huang Jiang established the village’s art industry in 1989 after moving his business to the mainland hamlet from his native Hong Kong. Dafen is characterized by an an assembly line process that has historically relied on cheap migrant labor, where local workers were trained to paint in oil. As the manufacture of copies of paintings by Western masters expanded, so did the village. Dafen is now home to more than 10,000 residents and has become a cultural center of Shenzhen, but the relationship between yì shù jiā (artists) and huà jiā (painters or art workers) is uniquely nuanced.
Zhao grapples with the difference between the two, and an opportunity to fly to Amsterdam with his family to visit the Van Gogh Museum and meet a long-time client provides many unexpected revelations, including finding his paintings in a tourist stand and learning that the profit margin is around ten times his compensation to make the works. After a trip to Arles, France, to the hospital where Van Gogh was briefly in residence, and his burial site in Auvers-sur-Oise, Zhao returns home and reflects on the visit with mixed emotions. He and his colleagues discuss feeling a connection to Van Gogh and a profound link with the work.
The documentary plumbs universal, provocative questions of originality and significance. Zhao recounts museum staff asking if he made his own work, and he explains “Do you know how much pressure I felt? I was shocked. I don’t even have a single piece of my own. I’ve just been copying, copying… To change from a painter to an artist, to whatever it is, is very difficult.” A friend posits that labels like “artist” and “worker” aren’t useful, and Zhao continues with a question that many creators will find familiar, “Have I become an artist? Do I have anything that deserves appreciation?”
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In her exquisitely rendered portraits in acrylic, artist Molly Devlin instills an aura of dreamlike mystery. She shapes the likeness of a deer or snail from layers of translucent florals and foliage: stacked leaves splay outward like the fur of a cat’s face, fronds and wispy tendrils billow from the bulbous head of a jellyfish, and mycelium cloaks a small bird in delicate webbing. Through the fantastical, gossamer compositions, Devlin prods the ephemeral nature of existence and explores various facets of the unknown. “I’ve always been fascinated by the mysteries beyond life and death, the unexplainable offers infinite inspiration to me,” she shares.
Devlin, who is based in Sacramento, is currently preparing for an upcoming group exhibition at Corey Helford Gallery, and she also has shows slated for next year at Revolution Gallery and Arch Enemy Arts. Find prints and original paintings in the artist’s shop, and watch her at work on Instagram.
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Editor's Picks: Craft
Highlights below. For the full collection click here.