MY WORDS... ABOUT THINGS
i used to think that when I grew up, i’d be a butcher.
i had no interest in running a store nor providing any kind practical service, but i liked that food as a raw material, when turned into a prepared meal, could be transformed into almost anything.
i would prepare meals with my mother, the jobs that my sister thought too gross to touch.
working together, I learned how to remove a turkey gizzard, how to prepare liver, how to clean a squid, about shrimp paste and fish sauce.
this stuff is honest even in its pieces.
these pieces, even when dissected from the whole, connote something too important to be politely omitted.
From the catalogue for Fictions, a group exhibition at the Studio Museum of Harlem
curated by Connie H. Choi and Hallie Ringle
“WHAT ARE YOU?”
AN INTERVIEW WITH STEPHANIE J. WILLIAMS
Yasmine Espert, 2017
Stephanie J. Williams (b. 1981) is an interdisciplinary artist living in the northeast quadrant of Washington, DC. Her three-dimensional sculpture and stop-motion animations investigate our relationship to food culture. In particular, her visual emphasis on food consumption explores the complex narratives that humans struggle to digest, and often leave out of polite conversation. The following text is an excerpt of my interview with Williams, conducted in the summer of 2017. It demonstrates her attentiveness to material culture and its ability to create a theater of familiarity through a time-based medium. Whether producing soft-sculpture installations on the scale of Claes Oldenburg or meditative animation work that recalls videos by Simone Leigh (b. 1967) and Steffani Jemison (b. 1981), Williams creates pieces that require prolonged visual engagement.
Yasmine Espert: Let’s begin with the allegorical use of the balut, a boiled fertilized egg considered a delicacy in the Philippines, in your stop-motion puppet animation PINOY/PLOY(2016). This piece comments specifically on your Filipino and African-American upbringing. What beliefs about food did you have in mind when making PINOY/PLOY?
Stephanie J. Williams: When I’m making a sculpture, I think about making a meal with my mom. She taught me how to fully break down certain types of animals. Our relationship to food was to not waste things, to make use of the parts that might be considered throwaway, fringe, or disgusting. Although those words, “disgusting” or “fringe,” didn’t really enter my understanding of food until much later, when I came to understand what mainstream food was in relationship to what we ate and perceived. And so when I was making PINOY/PLOY, I aimed to make things that are specifically “disgusting” – that complicated [the] relationship between disenfranchised or throwaway people and throwaway pieces.
YE: At the center of PINOY/PLOYis the character Pinoy, a duck embryo who wears a white ruff collar, similar to what we might see in a painting by Frans Hals (1582/83-1666) or Rembrandt (1606-1669). Its sex is ambiguous. Its eyes are still shut. And the skin is shades of pink; there are no feathers. It’s body still in formation. What’s your relationship to the term “Pinoy” and the embryonic character Pinoy?
SW: I think that [Pinoy] was this indecipherable thing, this kind of vague thing, this unplaceable thing. This thing that seemed to be in between states. It’s in gestation but also unplaceable because a lot of people don’t recognize what a balut is as a food. And then, giving it a position of power…having a collar, this kind of very colonialist-hero European collar. I don’t know, it was a nice way of mixing up that narrative that I learned.
YE: Visually, how did you decide on its elements? It’s something that people might describe as…
YE and SW: …gross.
YE: To people who may not be used to eating balut, for example.
SW: True…I aimed at making it stereotypically gross. Something that was very visceral. Something that would get a physical reaction. And I like that as a way of pushing the boundaries of what is considered tasteful. Because it’s something that I would eat, most readily, and I didn’t think anything of it. As I got older, I came to recognize [it] as something that is disgusting. It’s not the be-all and end-all of my experience as a Filipino American, but it is a part of my upbringing. To see that as something disgusting – I wanted to explore [that] in the textures that I was playing around with as a materials person, something that is purposefully gross.
YE: Speaking of these commercial objects that you’re putting in your work, PINOY/PLOY opens on a still life of items in a dimly lit kitchen. Unhatched eggs used for balut and all-white angel statues from the Precious Moments company literally come to life in a sea of Uncle Ben’s Rice. [Laughter] Why did you choose to animate these commercial objects in particular?
SW: When you start thinking about what Uncle Ben’s Rice is, and what Aunt Jemima is…these are American icons that leave everybody stained. I picked them because they’re infamous for being problematic in how they have portrayed any kind of power structure. I picked them because when I was growing up I wasn’t allowed to consume these foods. My parents were very didactic in their way of teaching us about who we were in relationship to the mainstream. And they didn’t want us to be complicit in that conversation. So Uncle Ben’s was not allowed in our house. Aunt Jemima was not allowed in our house. I picked those specifically because they were very loaded.
YE: Did you understand as a child why they were loaded, or why your parents, for example, perceived them to be loaded? Were you able to articulate it?
SW: Probably not as I should have. My parents were very good at saying “You look different” [laughs] to the greater world. The world will never see you as being fully black, the world will never see you as fully Asian, you are this other thing. People might treat you differently because of that.” So, when you’re five or six you probably don’t understand what that actually means. I didn’t really understand that my parents were different races until I was much older. I could see them, but it really didn’t mean anything. I have this laundry list of things that became dogma in our house: I have to understand that racism is a thing: it’s something that I’ll experience. And when my parents tell me their stories of racism, I understand that the mood changes. They’re more serious. Perhaps more somber. They concentrate a bit harder on the words that they say when they talk to me about these sorts of things. But without the experience to back that up I didn’t quite understand what that meant until much later.
YE: Are you trying to make declarative statements about who you are, as someone that people may not understand? What is it that stop-motion animation allows you to say?
SW: It’s very much about the questions. When a conversation about race and culture comes up, usually, infamously, the whole “What are you?” question [comes up]. When somebody wants to play this guessing game: “Let me guess what race you are, what ethnicity you are!” I see it as an opportunity. Instead of “I’m going to explain to you.” “This is who I am,” I’m interested in further complicating, further nuancing, a situation that is already in flux.
by Stephanie Williams
a solo exhibition by john ros
@the DC Arts Center
__lineation__ slowed me down.
Initially entitled as ten typed underscores, __________, then creeping into a slippery space that combines the pronounceable lineation with an unpronounceable visual pause of two underscores situated prior to, and also following, the word. __lineation__ is an intervention that in its simplicity and directness encourages contemplation. The underscores provide visual pause, an interruption that holds space around the word. It disrupts the fluidity expected when reading, by stopping the eye with a quiet space. The word lineation is a noun with active trajectory, more suggestive of how a verb might function but steadfast as a subject. It links line making with the accumulation of line’s associations.
Thinking tangentially about line, then, it is a designation of space, an interior that stands apart from an exterior, a possessive space that exposes the confines of what is ours and not theirs. It is a border, a potential wall that designates access to territory. While lineation describes traces through time, a collection of stories, it expands our understanding of place as one that is historical and therefore expansive. Our spaces were once inhabited by others and there are traces of their existence still present. __lineation__ is a catalyst that weaves together these themes through the act of contemplative mark making so that these traces are more aptly felt. Through this work, Ros asks that we become more aware, stating “what i love about the notion of awareness is that it goes beyond politics and class and social-strata. it elevates all willing to engage with it, no matter where they stand. therefore, the idea of awareness brings us ever closer to understanding and perhaps a more permanent solution, to issues that affect our day-to-day. awareness of ourselves and our surrounds will open up the possibility of being a more engaged citizen. a more empathetic human.”
In order to tie this conversation more specifically to the site, Ros has exposed the 1989 architectural layout of the two apartments that existed prior to the construction of the DC Arts Center and created a series of typed underscore prints. These prints, executed on a typewriter, perform a physical and unmediated immediacy that further abstracts the notion of line as archive. Gordon Matta-Clark in his anarchitecture subverted the commodification of art by documenting through video and photography as he sawed through and carved out architecture. These ephemeral works pushed the power of line as something disruptive, present, and actionable. Ros’ work, while tonally quieter, holds its power in its restraint and slow consideration. It is not a spectacle but a curated archive of this space and the stories experienced here.
__lineation__ uses both space and form in order to echo an ethos of awareness. Ros’ aesthetic, both clean and deliberate, exposes a need to make visible that which is easily overlooked, a philosophy that extends towards the margins of the American politic. His installations are, at their base, a gift, a rare slowing down, traces of a process of true attention, and an act that rebels against a contemporary climate of fast paced convenience, exploitive consumption, and waste.
A REVIEW FOR JON, Spring 2015
By Stephanie Williams
A chilly Monday evening, it turns out, is a good time to gather.
I arrived precisely at the suggested time atop the 5-story parking garage to see a “performance”. I sat in my car, convinced that I had been duped; a playful ploy involving the promise of an experience just to see if I would show up to earn my rightfully earned title of obnoxious gawker. I peered around. I saw no one, just a handful of parked cars still awaiting their owners’ acknowledgment that the day had come to an end.
Then, out of the corner of my eye, I spotted a masked figure, dipping their head up and down behind the wall of the fifth floor’s back lot, snapping shots of the sky, accompanied by only empty cars and…me. Was it Pan or perhaps Loki that this masked figure reminded me of? I, apprehensively, walked up to the back lot where I found 15 or so other viewers that Jon had texted earlier that day confirming his event:
6:30pm ish start time. End by 7pm.
See the sunset atop the 5th floor parking deck.
Glitter. Latin. Accordions. Flower Garlands. Nipple Clamps.”
I stood and mingled for a few minutes, watching the scurry of perhaps performers/perhaps viewers in preparation. The back lot was spacious for the small group that gathered, but small enough to be intimate. In front of me lay a 12’ x 12’ piece of wrinkled Astroturf, ceremoniously adorned with seemingly miscellaneous accoutrement.
I spotted Jon, seated in the driver’s side of an old sedan, faced painted in Devine-esque tribute, nipples exposed through circular 5” cutouts in his Hanes undershirt and jeans. It was cold out and I felt sympathy for his nipples in such a harsh environs as he exited the car. He seemed excitedly nervous, aware of his viewership, but not breaking a fourth wall.
I was distracted not to notice the true “beginning” of the piece (perhaps the mingling and witnessing of the prep was a part of it), but I did start to pay attention as Jon and another performer, similar in dress and makeup, walked up to the Astroturf set. Their nipples were now joined by a craft store purchased 5’ plastic garland that my mother would appreciate, each end of the garlands ducktaped to their nipples. I lamented the lack of nipple clamps and immediately thought, “cop-out”.
As the two approached the set, I noticed a small choir had formed singing in Gregorian chant to a surprisingly encompassing instrumental accompaniment from the sedan's car speakers. The performers then sat, Jon leaning back, both legs stretched forward while he leaned back on his palms. His partner sat cross-legged, hunched uncomfortably forward. Between them sat a 3’ plexi tube, a small bowl and six-pack of Budweiser bottles, contents unknown. They each placed a tube end in their mouth and Jon opened the first Budwieser bottle. He gathered the liquid into his mouth and passed it slowly into the tube as Loki awkwardly danced back and forth with their camera, the evening’s documentarian.
The performers then took turns, taking small gulps of glitter-strewn liquid to pass back and forth through the tube by alternating acts of sucking and blowing. The tube had been punctured in a few places to aid their breathing and spewed small geysers onto the astroturf like a whale's blowhole if it were adorned with a bit of glitter. I hoped for more air as the two struggled not to choke eachother, one sucking, the other blowing just out-of-sync. This discomfort echoed as I watched the calm yet determined faces of the performers. I couldn’t help but play “Lover’s Spit” in my head watching this scene. Mucous, saliva, tears, perhaps a small amount of vomit, leaked slowly from their faces. Nose, mouth, eyes all seemed to share the same goal, to stick to the task at hand. I stood relieved as they finished the last swallow of the first bottle, only to realize that 5 bottles remained in the box. I impatiently waited.
Between breaths, slurps, burps, and leaks each performer took turns emptying their mouth’s collected surplus of glitter liquid into the bowl, now a spittoon that was still seated between them. A confused onlooker approached his car while the rest of us sat, undisturbed by his presence, even as he hurriedly accelerated out of the garage deck. I scanned the audience and despite the spectacle, it felt similar to church, somewhat sacred, perhaps a little boring, but this was a space meant for focus. The performers eventually developed a rhythm, uncomfortable and sloppy, but a rhythm nonetheless that seemed to calm us. Some members sat, knelt, leaned in as the performance calmed to an end.
The performers then stood, the choir silenced and a masked accordion player appeared and serenaded their exodus. The performers each entered their own sedan and drove off, seemingly into the sunset, but stopped suddenly at the end of the 5th floor parking deck.
As for my opinion of the piece, I’m not sure. I’m a sucker for accordions and a beautiful sunset, even some well-loved astroturf is exciting on its own. I can’t shake that feeling that something not original, but authentic at heart, was distractingly covered up. There was so much ornamentation that felt insincere. I haven’t talked to Jon about the piece and I know better than to assume too much, but I feel like I know this moment pictured here. I remember it as the first time I snuck out to end up in the back seat of a car, new, horribly messy, but desperately familiar.
EMERGING FROM THE CURIOUS: Commonplace Anomalies, 2012
Interview with Arin Greenwood, Huffington Post
HuffPost DC: What are "common place anomalies"? What does that phrase mean?
Stephanie Williams: My work is very much about the odd stories that people often tell themselves in order to understand the world around them -- accurate or not. For example, "Skin Patch" is a piece that pays homage to all the missing skin detail of the toys I grew up playing with. I would wonder why I have arm hair and He-Man does not. My nose has pores where Barbie does not, etc. I feel that's where rich mythology comes from -- one person's interpretation of a reality. Or sometimes, and more interestingly, intentionally seeing things inaccurately.
I often take stories that I hear from friends, stories about my misunderstandings from childhood, etc and turn them into these amalgams with hair, appendages, crevices, etc. Because these "anomalies" are inspired by misunderstandings from the everyday I feel it's important to place an emphasis on the commonality of the occurrence.
HuffPost DC: It seems like you're really inspired by human organs. Is that right? If so, what do you find compelling about them?
Williams: Not just organs but by bodies. Maybe this has something to do with growing up in a Roman Catholic household, where the implications of body are so deeply ingrained. Catholicism is all about the body; body and blood, stigmata, hair shirts, fasting.
When doing research I found letters of saints describing their enlightenment through sensuality, and bodily consequence. It only seemed appropriate to look to visceral things. If you sit and really think about your experience in your own body, it can actually be kind of disgusting, seemingly silly because we all digest, excrete, flake, consume, etc. The things I'm trying to figure out and give portraiture too end up quite literally have flesh and ingrown hairs.
HuffPost DC: You fill in your knowledge about nature with myths that you make up. Can you tell me about some of those myths? How do they play out in your artwork?
Williams: The wax slides (wax mount on glass) idea started by hearing one of my friends describe floaters (in the eye). When they were little they would look up to the sky and see these seemingly autonomous beings crawling around on the surface of eye. The anomaly paintings are illustrations of different close-up views of the body and creating a characters from that view be it a hairy knee or knuckle, a close inspection of the tongue, underneath a nail-bed, etc. "Inert Space" is a painting about how bacteria was once explained to me when I was little and I imagined a whole city of beings living inside my bellybutton.
DC Arts Center (2438 18th St. NW) hosts the opening reception for "Emerging from the Curious: Common Place Anomalies" on Feb. 10 from 7-9 p.m. The show runs until March 18.