The bright white cube of Julius Caesar has been slashed in half by giant sheets of foam core — staggered, suspended awkwardly by yellow twine and pink “s” hooks. Underneath this strange white cover hangs a handful of brightly colored posters and paintings that anyone taller than 5’4” will need to crouch down to view.
These works, paired with printed email correspondence on display at the entry to the space, make up Jamaica Sweethearts, Maddie Reyna’s exhibit, which explores the aesthetics and language of power. “I want to learn how people in positions of power talk about oppression and equality,” she explains to visitors of the space.
The writing is documentation of a research project wherein she’s adopted an ambiguously gendered name (Casey Goodman) and written to galleries and museums that have some pretty intense gender (in)equality statistics.
In an email to The Power Station in Dallas, she requests an explanation, asking: “Is [this] the result of a men’s rights type mission? I would be very impressed by the transparency of that agenda. The awareness and yet perpetuation of this situation is very radical, and I would be grateful to hear more about it.”
There’s something different going on here than what the Guerrilla Girls were doing, otherwise the emails would have just been blown up to poster size. Instead, the installation serves as a gut reaction to Reyna’s dialogue with the exhibition coordinators she’s written to.
The works themselves are physically oppressed under this cold, white, blanket-less blanket fort. From the shadows peek the powdery pink, orange, and violet works, bursting with butterflies, flowers, bubble letters and dazzling digital sparkles. They have the bittersweet, naive aesthetic of a heartbroken teenie bopper. One particularly girly poster features a bouquet of wilting daisies, framed by a clumsily drawn heart and the word “FANSTASIE” in varsity lettering. It reads as some sort of tongue in cheek cutting off the nose to spite the face, as in “this is what you’ve reduced me to.” It’s bizarre the way that marginalized cultures tend to embrace whatever stereotypes got them into their unfortunate positions in the first place, and this installation seems to embrace that. Don’t want to exhibit a female artist because women make sentimental art? How’s this for sentimental?
There is nothing graceful about Jamaica Sweethearts. And there shouldn’t be. Despite the abundance of flowers, it’s not pretty, and nothing looks very labored. There are no epiphanies, no breakthroughs, no solutions offered. The interest here is in the aggressive, almost masochistic undercurrent that’s been conjured up through the apparent frustration of the female artist. It’s expressive, but there are no paint splatters; no drips, rips, stabs or slashes. Only pink swirls and sad white flowers.
Maddie Reyna: Jamaica Sweethearts was on view at Julius Caesar Gallery, 3311 W. Carroll Ave. Chicago IL 60624, May 11th–June 8th, 2014. www.juliuscaesarchicago.org