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Historicizing Fantasy: iona ROZEAL brown at Salon 94 Freemans and Edward Tyler Nahem

iona ROZEAL brown’s stylized painting emerges from a studied transmutation of African-American and Japanese cultural tradition. Brown has developed a strong narrative lineage essential to reading her coded (albeit straightforward) illustrative paintings of Afro-Japanese courtesans, voguing stars, and fantasy creatures of mythic royalty. Brown’s concurrent exhibitions at Salon 94 Freemans and Edward Tyler Nahem seek to extend and perpetuate this narrative in a new elaboration on her earlier themes.

Live !, 2013. Acrylic, ink, and gold leaf on wooden panel. 72 x 60 in. Image courtesy of the artist and Salon 94 Freemans.

Brown works out of the personal tradition of a repetitive attempt to merge a fetishization of Japanese and African-American culture, thereby cultivating a mixture of projective fantasy and recollective myth. introducing. . . THE HOUSE OF BANDO, on view through April 25 at Salon 94 Freemans, presents a series of portraits of Benny and Javier Ninja and Monstah Black; these legendary voguing performers collaborated on Brown’s critically acclaimed dance epic the battle of yestermore. . . at Performa 11. no one’s ever gonna love you, so don’t wonder, which ran through March 29 at Edward Tyler Nahem, featured Brown’s repurposed examination of shunga, the specifically erotic form of the Japanese woodblock painting tradition of ukiyo-e. These modern shunga feature a series of heterosexual couplings of Japanese courtesans and royalty sporting a variety of signifiers of an African-American aesthetic, along with blackface makeup deliberately painted over bluish skin.

Brown’s work pays great attention to style. The installation at Salon 94 is symmetrically arranged according to the color of the dancers’ outfits, and each line, painted or drawn directly onto wood, is clean and deliberate. The artist’s commitment to a specificity of technique often associated with the deft, graphic movements of graffiti and street art corresponds to the Kabuki sense of deliberate aesthetic gesture in what seems to be a very tactical simile.

As the artist’s gallery page notes, Brown frequently draws parallels between the intercultural juxtaposition of her paintings and her “artistry as a DJ,” and her artistic practice involves a process of “self-sampling and remixing. . . [creating] endless permutations of representations and meanings.” [i] Brown’s work claims to be a subversion of the original traditions that it mines for its stylistic quality. But remixing is not necessarily subversion—and subversion cannot simply be read as a 180-degree flip of the original. The permutations of Brown’s subjects do not seem endless, but rather quite specific and even finite. Remixing is a postmodern construction that requires a new subject to emerge from the constituents of previously present elements. But as this “newness” is, in fact, merely a re-constructed product of the old, such mixing risks translating as didactic and over-produced.

Pod 222: The Reunion (Song of Solomon 5:10-11), 2013. Acrylic, marker, ink, krink, and graphite on wood panel. Diptych 60 x 48 in. each. Image courtesy of the artist and Edward Tyler Nahem.

Brown seeks to articulate contemporary concerns regarding the economy of fetish, dissecting the commerce and resistance of the black aesthetic image in popular culture. But I am interested in what it means to transpose blackness as a fetish onto mythical, ancient subjects. The subjects of Brown’s investigation into Japanese culture are rarely contemporary; instead, the artist uses established and ancient Japanese tradition in order to elevate black popular culture to the language of myth. In the development of these myths, Japan itself is relegated to an idea, to a stylization. Brown has spent time in Asia and as a guest artist in Japan studying Kabuki drama technique. She does endeavor to discuss a more current Japanese trend, ganguro (literally translated as “blackface”), in which Japanese youth adopt the slang, dress, music style and, even, skin tone, of black culture. However, this examination is an undercurrent that is not yet fully visible on the surface of her work. In investigating how blackness is globally fetishized, we must ask what Brown seeks to accomplish through her admittedly self-conscious cultural appropriation.

Brown’s blackface constructions examine race as a performative gesture versus as an inherent and precious tenet of identity. Implicit in the language of the statement, “no one’s ever gonna love you, so don’t wonder,” lies an allusion to the storied economy of revulsion and praise towards the black image via its different cultural contexts. Brown’s endeavor to construct new myths, to elevate and love the Self by re-constructing it in another/an Other, may thus be read as a fervent and essential practice. Both exhibitions feature idols and couplings made totally unreal—and this unattainability affords Brown’s subjects power. The search for this power is the motivation behind Brown’s ritualized chopping and screwing of her own original material. This work yearns to be a part of a certain canon, to fabricate its own canon, and to thereby insert itself back into a fantasy pocket of history.

introducing… THE HOUSE OF BANDO is on view through April 25 at Salon 94 Freemans, 1 Freeman Alley, New York, NY 10002

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