Caleb Yono’s solo show at Produce Model wears a quiet, meticulous confidence. The work manages to achieve sincerity while avoiding self-deprecation or shallow versions of vulnerability. Painted lavender backgrounds punctuate the gallery, softening the tone of the room and framing drawings, prints and a tabletop sculpture. The title, Sara Femme, acts as a fulcrum for the work, functioning as a character onto which we may project. Femme could be a drag persona, a body to search for, a homophone for the six-winged seraphim or the antidepressant Sarafem. This allusion casts shadows over the work, bringing to mind the beauty and divinity of a burning angel but also ferocity, struggle, metamorphosis and the unknowable. The room is full of layered work arranged to show the depth of the artist’s practice, but it’s Yono’s drawings which are at the forefront. There is a refreshing directness that feels like intimacy in the materials: unframed paper thick with colored pencil, graphite, and collage.
There are many ancestors in the room, Matisse, De Kooning and Rothko among them. While their legacy seems studied, it isn’t regurgitated. The series 12 women under analysis are portraits of queered bodies in formation, each in different states of legibility. The punch of the show is the use of iteration. It feels as if Yono could have 1000 formulations of flirtatious, intimidating, doll-like, other-worldly drawings in the room but that we can better see the nuance of each through the editor. A gallery statement points out the works’ “interior empathy with the dissonance and harmony of the feminine, femme, and hysteric.” The representations in the show make one think about the components of the feminine— ingredients still in flux. “Queer aesthetics, like the sacred feminine come from a chthonic place, an instance of the return of the repressed. I also think this is true of ‘outsider’ and ‘visionary’ work,” Yono suggests.
Despite this connection to all that is unknown nothing is hidden here. The photographs Exo-skeletal Seraphim and Sarafem’s Side Effects feel like history portraits tinged with mythology and melancholy. While drawing dominates the show, these additions give Yono’s world range and create room for a practice that shouldn’t be hemmed by any medium. There is an indulgent amount of detail and idiosyncrasy in each image, but they remain unfixed. The freedom provided by illegibility is embodied in every work. The viewers desire to discern is rewarded and thwarted.
The tabletop sculpture, Swamp of Sara Femme, puts this on display. It’s a soup of make-up, wax, clay fingers, bits of acrylic, and hair, and like the drawings that surround the sculpture, it has many eyes. One can imagine this palette of evocative abstractions coalescing into the subject matter of its sister works. Or, slipping into the world of Sara, that these are still lives from her coffee table, bits of her every day. In the room, full of transforming figures and layers of performance, it’s easy to empathize with the ecstatic, bursting bodies that are either coming together or falling apart. Yono’s work has such a tenderness that you could almost miss its virtuosity.