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Many of Cheyenne Julien’s paintings at Smart Objects operate in a similar vein of kitsch and pathos— eyes and lips ballooning and rueful, set in spare, intimate, often claustrophobic interior scenes. Julien works in a color palette equal parts gaudy and traumatic—her figures in Summer Camp, Monica, and Bath Time (all works 2017) often have skin that appears bruised or irritated. The grinning, disoriented-looking central figure in Waterfalling might be passed out, dead, or simply dead drunk.
Back Ache invokes the same compositional foreshortening and achy swoon of Andrea Mantegna’s The Lamentation of Christ (c. 1480). Julien’s painting replaces the supine Christ with a disfigured cartoon. Long, thick tendrils of black hair splay out over the figure’s shoulders; two hands at the edge of the frame hold a few melting ice cubes. The same space in Mantegna’s painting is occupied with the faces and hands of tearful mourners. Julien’s hands suggest the action of care taking, narrativizing a dignity afforded one in pain, even as it is grotesque.
Summer Camp pictures a young woman in a staged, “casual” portrait pose. She looks over her shoulder and out beyond the frame with a furrowed brow, somewhere between weary and wandering. Her shirt, bright orange, reveals her nipples, and her lips are large and ice blue. The painting hangs on a section of wall that has been replaced with vertically arranged gray bricks, their institutional façade swallowing up the splash of nature— a few green pine trees— that we see in the painting over the figure’s shoulder.
Everywhere throughout the exhibition is this tension between sparse, harsh environs and vibrant, garishly colored figures— the spirit splashed amongst a dryly inert environment. In the press release, Julien writes about environmental racism and the experience of growing up in the Bronx in one of the Brutalist high-rise apartment complexes so common in mid-century housing projects. In the absence of great or even moderate swaths of nature, young Julien was left with sidewalks, city streets, and the minimal interiors that lived experience revealed to be more prison-like than the architect and planner cared to anticipate.
Julien’s longing for the organic finds a recurrent motif in flowers, whether the spindly, scrappy few in Picking Flowers and Monica, or the fake Glass Flowers sitting starkly at a window sill. Water is another repeated theme, connecting Back Ache’s melting ice cubes to Bath Time and Waterfalling’s liquidity. Each motif underscores a persistent pathos to the exhibition—flowers as both everyday beauty and funereal comfort, water as a teary-eyed dam about to burst. Julien’s figures seem caught in the thin film separating dreamy innocence from primary pain.
The exhibition’s odd man out is A Place to Dream, a sculpture consisting of a black horse kiddie ride painted with yet more ruefully wide eyes, and a handful of black-eyed-Susans around the base. Innocence here is both cloying and precious, to a fault. While Julien’s paintings eke out the more ambiguous spaces of memory and environmental trauma, A Place to Dream collapses the narrative solely into one of corrupted childhood.
Julien works from a tender space within the looming glower of environmental racism. In the press release, she states that “[b]eing pushed into a particular space does not allow us to see what is outside of us,” which is perhaps not strictly true. Prohibition, or in this case the socio-spatial racism of urban planning, creates longing by enshrining lack. Where Margaret Keane’s desultory toddlers suggest moments in a tragic, but obscure, narrative, Julien’s is a quiet kitsch, intermingling world weariness and wonder towards bits and pieces of nature that, somehow, wormed their way in.
This review was originally published in Carla issue 10.