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Is the body beautiful? Jaklin Romine’s “Solo Exhibition” at PSLA, Los Angeles

In how many instances do we find ugliness in art? Not a metaphorical ugliness, like, say, the ugliness of violence or discrimination—or, in a more grandiose sense, the ugliness of the human condition. No; what I mean is, art that takes as its strategy of representation something unpretty; an art that says “look away” more than it says “look within.” While prettiness is, of course, subjective, only an audience blinded by the rhetoric of beauty as the ultimate artistic outcome could possibly walk into Jaklin Romine: Solo Exhibition and think “beautiful.” In Jaklin’s work, there is an ugliness yearning so badly to be acknowledged that it literally hangs from the rafters, wrinkled and drooping like so many makeshift curtains, or flags, or shrouds. 

In the grouping of works titled “Why bring me flowers when I’m dead? When you had the time to do it when I was alive,” (individual works are not titled), sheer fabrics printed with images of fresh-looking bouquets drape in various articulations throughout the gallery: pinned wide and loose against the wall; haunted-house style between the ceiling rafters; and laid out on the floor, draped over some kind of lumpy resin object not quite the size or shape of a body. The huge, airy gallery, an open, light-filled, almost barn-like structure, is the perfect assist for the monumentality of all this fabric, which references something theatrical and spectacular while remaining ethereal and ghostly. At the right time of day, the pigment from each flower arrangement diffuses the gallery with its faint colorant: the pink of tightly-curled roses; the orangy-pink and white of what may be chrysanthemums or dahlias, fattened up with handfuls of greenery. There are yellow-bellied wild-looking daisies, and slender purple line-flowers that may be salvia. The longer I look at each arrangement, the more elaborate and difficult to name they become; I suppose I don’t know as much about flowers as I’d like. But I do know that flower-arranging is a discipline of its own that is adjacent to, but separate from, art—though it of course finds itself entrenched in art through the tradition of the still life. 

It’s strange to think of the ways we all insert ourselves into various traditions, knowingly or not. Like historical still lifes, which often traded in moralistic allegory and symbolism (a burning candle, a skull, decayed fruit), Jaklin has taken the ubiquitous still life, as comfortable in oils at the Getty as it is in acrylic at a drink-and-draw, and performed her own transmutation, with its own touch of allegorical moralism (just look at the title!). Here, the backstory is that these works are photographic (albeit on fabric) representations of the flowers Jaklin buys fresh for her grandmother every week—and the title (again!) of this group of works, “Why bring me flowers when I’m dead? When you had the time to do it when I was alive,” tells us why. While there is a lot to like about this title (it brings narrative! Narrative!), and I will always advocate for titles that help me understand an artwork, as opposed to further entrenching its meaninglessness, this title sets up a false logic. It seems to say, “these are the images of the flowers I give my grandmother as a gesture of appreciation for her.” But look closely—there is something dark in the wording of it—something angry, bitter, accusatory, demanding: Why? Why do it when I’m dead, when you had the chance to do it when I was alive? 

Installation view of “Living with SCI/Body Work” (left) and “Why bring me flowers when I’m dead? When you had the time to do it when I was alive” (right) (PSLA)

There are many answers to the question this title asks (if an artwork is an answer to a question, which it almost always is, and here takes the task quite literally)—the most labor-intensive of which is to actually bring the asker flowers, made even more labor-intensive by the unique, time-consuming choice of traversing the flower district every morning and selecting (I imagine) only the best, only the freshest flowers, and then arranging and hand-delivering them. Furthermore, there’s the thing that brings me here in the first place; the choice to make a monumental artwork out of the gesture of collecting and delivering those flowers. Jaklin’s art-production interpretation catapults her already involved gesture from a space of familial intimacy and love into something performative, overwhelming, with a tinge of that allegorical moralism. You wanted flowers? You got em’. Another answer, perhaps a non-art answer, is that the flowers we bring for the dead are, of course, really for the living—that flowers, like people, live and die—that they are beautiful and then wither—the nature of their ephemerality is at the very least an unconscious comfort to the living: quite dumbly, they represent the cycle of life. The care of replenishment for this delicate, ephemeral bunch of nature allows us to transpose the care the dead no longer require. Jaklin’s dormant, printed bouquets strip away the opportunity for care—standing instead as a permanent representation of loss—grief, suspended. After all, you had the time; you don’t have it.

But getting back to that thing about ugliness—what about the other side of the gallery—the opaque, corporeal, grotesque “Living with SCI/Body work,” titled literally to address living with a spinal cord injury (SCI)? Far from rooted in a demure and well-selling tradition à la still life, Jaklin has scaled-up the kinds of images that aren’t “fit to print”—that we almost never see. Monstrous and oversized, they perform their own kind of terror; close-ups of bloodied knees—raw, heart-shaped wounds which look soft and wet—open, vulnerable, unhealed—nearly the color of a perfect pink rose; a bandaged pelvis wafting beneath a belly button tubed to a catheter—the hands with the talon-like nails—all made monstrous in size, not performing ugliness through artifice or materiality, but revealing it, feeding it. While one side of the gallery purports a kind of ethereal, ordered beauty (mea culpa!)—the romantic gesture of the oversized, permanent, undying bouquet—the other side borrows that form but twists its content: the flowers may be unblemished, but Jaklin is not. If we want an art show of lilacs and roses and daisies, we can have it—if we want to be inspired to think about how we can treat each other the right way while we’re alive, we can have that, too, with a bow wrapped around it—but don’t take Jaklin for granted, either—perhaps it’s her we should be bringing flowers to, after all. 

Some of the constructs of the show were confusing, a little bit frustrating—things like calling the show “solo exhibition” instead of titling it by the two bodies of work it contained, or creating a new title entirely—and things like not having individual titles of works or a materials list, which are fine choices, but make the show difficult to describe. While I was at first confused and mildly concerned about the choice to install each series of works as completely separate, as in, on separate sides of the gallery, this choice provided a crucial bifurcation between each series, which allowed me to see them as a conspicuous mirroring; a “dark mirror” if you will. I’m thinking particularly of the installation at the gallery entrance, where a “Why bring me flowers when I’m dead? When you had the time to do it when I was alive” piece is hung catty-corner to a “Living with SCI/ body work” piece, the latter of which is a giant truncated Jaklin head with a stretched-down lower-lip revealing the tattoo “sinner.” Installing these works in opposition to eachother was the right kind of move; it was brutal, emphasizing the way the flowers of the “Why bring me flowers when I’m dead? When you had the time to do it when I was alive” piece fold over themselves to become alien, orifice-like, and bizarrely similar in composition to Jaklin’s nearby “sinner” face, transforming the bouquet into a faceless flower-mouth dentata that might sooner chew us up than permit us to inhale its delicate floral perfume. In another iteration of this show, I can picture those two works as the only works, hung across from each other—perhaps twice the size. As for the draped lumps on the gallery floor—I don’t need them; the potency of the work is most noticeable when I am faced with images of Jaklin’s damaged body in opposition to her bouquets of fresh, unblemished flowers; they are so fundamentally, poetically at odds—they create an awesome, perplexing, upsetting “third thing.”

Installation view of “Why bring me flowers when I’m dead? When you had the time to do it when I was alive” (left) and “Living with SCI/Body Work” (right) (PSLA)
Installation view of “Living with SCI/Body Work” (PSLA)

Lastly, I want to say something about scale, again—the significance of the size of things, how they’re hung from the ceiling—I want to acknowledge that for Jaklin—an artist in a wheelchair with a spinal cord injury that prevents her from operating a screw-gun let alone climbing a ladder—whose ongoing artwork “Access Denied,” where she photographs herself in art spaces she’s excluded from because they aren’t accessible, has had a profound and positive impact on the Los Angeles art scene—the huge scale of Jaklin’s works cannot be interpreted in the same way as we would some Joe Schmo making ever bigger, grander, pricier paintings. The scale of this show is two-fold, or at least manifold; to see oneself larger than life is a kind of power—I would be remiss if I didn’t say I could feel the power and control in the decision to show these images. But I also know that they make me feel small; and I imagine they must make Jaklin feel small, too. Here, Jaklin has created an installation in which she can move in between positions of smallness and hugeness—of power and vulnerability—perhaps in a way that defies her physical limitations at this moment in time. To be able to transcend—to use art as a tool for traversing and exposing places we could only traverse in our minds—this is what art, at its best, can do—especially when we move past our investment in technical or aesthetic feats, and surrender to the more mushy, conceptual ones. 

I began with ugliness, and I’m not sure it was the right word for any of this; other words that come to mind are pain, suffering, humiliation, frustration, loss. I chose the word “ugly” because I think it strikes a harsh chord in the context of art; because I wanted Jaklin to see that I could see she was not trying to aestheticize (“to make lovely,” as Leslie has called it) her pain through drapery and foam and other still-life, arty tricks; I wanted her to know that I was capable of acknowledging what was right in front of my eyes—inspired by her bravery, I too would be brave enough to see it, and not pretend it was beautiful. When Jaklin and I met at the gallery, she seemed to be able to finish my sentences. I said, “do you feel comfortable being”—“a thorn in everyone’s side?” she said. Some artists (and writers, I’ll admit) find motivation—even solace—in the challenges they face; some artists simply cannot live passively. Jaklin, you’re not a thorn, you’re hot-blooded; keep it fiery. 

-Georgia


“Jaklin Romine: Solo Exhibition” was on view at PSLA from May 10-26, 2019. For more information on Jaklin, please visit http://jaklinromine.info/

Georgia is a writer in Los Angeles. She is a co-founder of and lead contributor to UNPUBLISHED, a contributor to X-TRA Contemporary Art Quarterly, and is currently  the Review Coordinator and Writer for the School of Art at CalArts. Georgia also directs the UNPUBLISHED STUDIO, a need-based workspace and mentorship program for artists in Los Angeles.

Click here to read her recently published review of Matthew Lax’s Brunt Drama at Los Angeles Contemporary Archive.

Click here to subscribe to UNPUBLISHED essays and events, like our open studio for current UNPUBLISHED STUDIO resident Davide Aguirre.

 

 

 

 

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