A few Fridays ago I went to the opening of We Have the Future, a show by Andrew Perez, Katie Kaplan, and Josh Graupera, organized at the 40th St. Residency in West Philadelphia by artist and curator Petra Floyd. All have roots in Philadelphia’s Fabric Workshop and Museum, and each artist values nuance, detail, and repetition. It’s hard not to immediately notice the confluence of those tendencies in a collaborative wallpaper piece set within a nook in the back of the gallery. Screen printed and patterned along jog lines, there’s plain visibility of process in small imperfections of misaligned registrations and raised ridges where papers meet like tectonics. Central to the entire exhibition is such an insistence on pattern, on committing and pushing through the trials and hiccups, and on an ecology of togetherness where bodies jut into each other and mingle in queer exploration and revelation — uncomfortably, sometimes, but always for the better.
Katie Kaplan’s work is a flurry of continuously morphing combinations of screen prints, gouache paintings, and textiles. The pieces, often hung as heraldic banners, range in complexity from sewn patchworks of two or three fabrics — fabric that is in some way treated by the artist — to large-scale installation. On the right from the entrance to the gallery is a grand assemblage of pastel textiles, screen printed intricacies, and a cut fleece blanket printed from the artists’ own gouache painting. Constructed like the condensed canopy of a fairytale bed, it’s one of the knock-out pieces of the show, entrancing and inviting viewers into a space for entry and introspection, where they can look and look through unending detail and shifting textures to their hearts’ content. Various other banners make use of the same aesthetic and drawing virtuosity, hanging around the room like flags for the claim on a territory or the emblems of noble families in a royal court or dining hall. A full-scale embrace of the “princess aesthetic” might feel ironic in less adroit hands, but Kaplan’s facility with design, love of material, and rich lexicon of symbol endows the work with sincerity and loveliness. Her art making embraces that pattern of femininity while giving it back its teeth and spinning it into endless possibilities of narrative interpretation.
Where Kaplan layers us off the walls into something like relief-work, Graupera brings print and fabric full-scale into the round. His soft sculptures hang from the ceiling in the shape of rain or tears or whatever other kinds of drops the mind could conjure. On their surfaces, more pattern. Tiny blue plus signs screen printed to the fabric hint at an anxiety of disease or reproduction, and circular soft-form open cylinders, tightening and loosening, signify bodily orifices. On the largest of these, masked figures dance in something like a möbius strip, accompanied by snowflaking houses drawn through that configuration we all learn in elementary school, a square with a criss-cross and a triangle on top, done without lifting the pencil or overlapping lines. There’s something to it — a childlike obsession with secrecy, with formula, a sense of homesickness, all woven in with concerns of sex and the body. This finds its answer in Graupera’s large painting dominating an entire wall of the gallery space which declares that “this is a space for us” — a reclamation of home for those artists, black, brown, queer, who live on the margins.
Mingling in the upper space with Graupera’s suspended soft sculpture, Andrew Perez’s paper mâchés take on a more animal form — maybe avian, maybe aquatic, suggesting a fluidity of movement through shifting environments. A larger piece resting on a podium with four legs, wings or fins, and paper-scaled skin grounds us, and grimaces through clay-sculpted teeth. This grimace makes other appearances, notably in Perez’s small and extremely detailed color pencil drawings, where it emerges from a field of pattern and color like the mouth of Lucha libre wrestler through his mask. On one hand, it’s a nod towards Lucha libre’s contradictions of flamboyance and over-the-top masculinity, perhaps the grimace that comes of reconciling the inner workings of the individual with the broader culture. But on the other, it speaks to an act of concealing that, like drag, enhances, energizes, and realigns the identity of the concealed, a mask that gives the wearer more power, as masks are traditionally want to do. The major difference between a mask and drag — which I bring up because Perez is an avid fan, and because the artistry of drag makeup finds a mirror in Perez’s impeccable drawings — is that the mask is a far more permissible, less derided trope. And while a man in a mask is necessarily under the threat of specific and performative violence, a man in drag knows a violence that’s random and hateful. All of this to say nothing of the violence done to trans people who have shifted more permanently through identities, refusing to wear masks any longer. Maybe there’s the reason to grimace. But for all of the grim politics, there’s once again that love of pattern, mixing and matching, clashing and harmonizing. It’s hard not to get almost-too-close and smile at the artist’s intense dedication and intrepid playfulness.
That’s the lovely thing about We Have the Future. Yes, it’s in part a response to dire circumstances, brinks-of-war, fundamentalist isolationism. But all the work hanging from the ceiling and adorning the walls feels like party decorations. The center of the room is left clear, an invitation to dance, ornaments hanging slightly overhead, remote-controlled lights shifting through the spectrum. It conjures up the curiosities of human nature, the things that break pattern but also the things that pull us into a pattern that’s stronger — the pattern of history that tells us that hate and ignorance are loudest in their moments of vulnerability, and that the world can and will be a place for the femme, the queer, the black and brown. The show is nothing short of a permit to celebrate.
– Todd Stong