For its second exhibition, the new-to-Chicago Mariane Ibrahim Gallery has been transformed into something like a chapel. The paintings don’t just hang, they’ve been set into ornate, decorative moldings evenly spaced around the walls. Each prominently features a single heroic figure who appears to be undergoing some kind of trial or spiritual journey that’s somewhere between the adventures of Supergirl and the life of the Buddha. The powerful contours and gestures of the full-bodied heroine suggest that she is more than human, but she is like no deity or superhero you have ever seen before. As exhibition literature proclaims, these paintings query, “How do we connect to our inner essence, while disconnecting from stories and religions we have been taught?”
As the artist explains her working process, she begins with a title, then does a photo shoot of herself, then reconfigures the images as a digital collage and finally applies media to paper. The thirteen pieces appear to tell a story of broken romance. “Possibility” begins the cycle with an open-armed, upward-facing gesture of acceptance. “For the Time Being” shares a brief moment of tenderness and contentment as two lovers embrace. “Before the Conflict” delivers an expression of defiance. ‘‘But I have to” shows the couple splitting apart. “The Weight of Rejection” presents the solitary despair that follows. “The End of the story” features one figure staring down at the disembodied head of the other.
Countless popular songs tell a similar story. What’s different here, however, is that the two lovers appear to be one and the same person. To use a recently coined phrase—the heroine in this romantic tale has been “self-partnered.” Is this progressive and enlightened—or is it just narcissistic?
Since the figures began with a photograph, the viewer looks down at the feet and up at the chin, while the character and disposition of the parts suggest a real body rather than an idealized construction. The space within those contour lines, however, has been filled with a marbled wash of earth tones that resembles the turbulent bottom of a pond. Only the eyes and sometimes the mouth are discernible. These are figures that can always see, and occasionally, might speak as well. The hardness of the edges, the solid volumes and the sedimentary beauty of the surfaces make them feel like glazed ceramics. They do not feel ironic or comic. They are more like the votive statuary found in the ruins of ancient tombs or temples.
But might they actually represent some kind of serious spiritual practice? Gallery text mentions “the artists’ study of our divine spirit”—though that sounds like the aromatic spirituality merchandised in gift shops. There are no priestesses or adepts involved here other than the artist herself, and the chapel that displays her work will be dismantled at the end of this exhibition. Though the glittery blue eyes of the figures are wide open and often directed at the viewer, they extend a cold and distant stare. The figures project strength and admiration for the amazing natural forces that flow within us. But now that this heroic woman has had a romantic fling with herself, will she be looking outward and onto something more important? I’m not sure.
It is probably essential that these self-loving, heavy bodies belong to a young black woman instead of an old white man. Currently, national politics is driven by a presidential self-infatuation that is rather destructive and quite far from enlightened. And the politics of race is a trending theme in gallery art.
The figures disrupt rather than settle into the space around them. Like movie posters, they are better at grabbing attention than satisfying it. Like most contemporary art, they offer provocation rather than resolution. But they also seem to reflect a way of living more than a way of thinking. Perhaps you could call this post-conceptual art. It began with ideas—but no explanation is necessary to make these pieces fascinating to view. (Chris Miller)
“Florine Démosthène: Between Possibility and Actuality” is on view at Mariane Ibrahim Gallery, 437 North Paulina, through December 21.