didn't mean to turn you on: a work in Lillian Mulero's
exhibit Mouth Open.
Forms of ID
Felix: Alter I
Lillian Mulero: Mouth Open
Street Gallery, through March 20
If gender/identity topics in art are not your thing, you may
want to skip this review. Then again, they’re not my thing—at
all—yet I quite enjoyed the time I spent examining and contemplating
the aptly paired shows by Ray Felix of Troy and Lillian Mulero
of Albany at Fulton Street Gallery. And, though related in
theme, they are clearly conceived and presented as two shows,
in separate spaces, rather than as a two-person show.
Felix is the discovery here, in that he is a young photographer
who has not shown much before, and his multi-part installation
(or multiple installations) fully occupies the long, large
front gallery at Fulton Street; meanwhile Mulero—a seasoned
area artist with many shows to her credit all over the country—fills
the tiny back gallery with a spare presentation of nine small
pieces representing an ongoing body of work.
This is neither to equate quantity with quality nor to dismiss
Mulero’s very potent art; rather, it is meant to portray the
significance of Felix’s accomplishment in what seems to be
his solo debut, an understandable hint of greenness notwithstanding.
I is an obvious pun and is actually a series of altars,
each evoking a bathroom situation. Felix has assembled a nice
collection of medicine cabinets and altered them (he also
has three installations that are not medicine cabinets: one
with a toilet seat—kind of a cross between Marcel Duchamp
and Farrell Bros. Plumbing—one with a sink and one with a
mirror and vanity table). His photography appears as self-portraits
printed directly on the mirrors, so we confront each scene
as if we were Felix seeing himself in the glass.
A variety of getups define the Felix we encounter, all of
which present a young, apparently gay man exploring aspects
of his identity through appearance. There’s the earnest fellow
in glasses and necktie, the Village person with a leather
biker cap, a guy putting on lipstick and so on. Inside each
cabinet are accoutrements and oddities, some arranged fairly
chaotically, as in a normal bathroom, some with a more highly
ritualized appearance and content.
A major element of these creations is the transgressive nature
of the viewer’s participation—after all, by looking, we are
prying—yet our curiosity insists that we look. And Felix encourages
this invasion by rewarding it with the intriguing selection
and arrangement of the cabinets’ contents. The fact that we
have all at one time or another peeked into a friend’s or
even a stranger’s medicine cabinet adds to the universal appeal
of Felix’s pieces.
Felix’s skill in creating these vignettes is well-honed, but
his overall presentation is somewhat wan. The black-and-white
color scheme harks back to the techno ’80s, with floor tiles,
metal piping and plastic shower curtains added as decor. It
is not entirely clear to me if this is simply a style he likes
or an intentional reach for a certain form of nostalgia (perhaps
to a pre-AIDS gay culture).
Purely in terms of style, the greatest strength of the show
is Felix’s photography, which makes the most of the silveriness
of the mirrors and works quite well as self-portraiture of
the playing dress-up (or undress-up) variety. And the collections
he arranges for our voyeuristic pleasure are irresistible.
Mulero also has a particular color scheme to her show but
it is more up-to-date. The seven drawings and two paintings
she presents, even the walls they hang on, are all bright
orange and white. They each depict a woman in some state of
nudity, most of them bordering on or actually crossing the
border into soft pornography. But the subjects cover a fairly
wide range of age, race and physical type, which collectively
forms a presence like that of a series of portraits, rather
than pictures made individually to turn on the prurient viewer.
Mulero has a deft hand with a pencil and a great feel for
portrait, expression and gesture. Compositionally, she adds
a bit of intrigue to several of the pictures by including
other works of art at their fringes. The titles are women’s
names that feel made up, like those of strippers: Cindy, Solange,
Carmela, China, Scarlet. After wondering if they were just
the subjects’ names, I noticed that one drawing and one painting
had the same subject and composition but unmatched names (Cora
and Amber), so decided they were in fact titles, not names.
I also couldn’t say for sure whether these images are drawn
from life, from photos (perhaps out of porno mags) or elsewise.
While it is unnecessary to know the answer, it is important
to understand that the work raises these kinds of questions.
Are they a comment on stripper and porn culture? Are they
honest depictions of women comfortable with their very imperfect
bodies? Are they indeed meant to turn us on?
It is impossible for me to speak from the artist’s point of
view for this work. She is a heterosexual woman of Puerto
Rican descent, past 50, who is known to grapple with themes
of feminism and cultural identity. So, I take these pictures
as somehow feminist, empowering to women—yet, were these same
drawings and paintings made by a hetero male, my interpretation
would definitely be different, probably leaning toward a critique
of their cheesy and exploitative characteristics.
And this is just fine. Clearly, different viewers will have
very different responses to this work, and Mulero knows it.
I suspect for her that’s part of the fun—and part of the point.