It’s October 25th and I’m making the trip to Selenas Mountain in Ridgewood, Queens, for the opening of Tamara Santibañez’s Rebel Irreverence. I arrive shortly after the start, expecting the least amount of traffic for the day. However, I’m met at the front door by Olivia Swider (gallery co-founder and curator with partner Michael Fleming), who asks me to wait outside, others had made appointments, and, as a safety precaution, gallery occupancy is limited. I happily oblige and am relieved at the consideration. Visiting the occasional “extended hours” evenings in the Lower East Side, some spaces seemed less concerned, pointing to a sign of suggestion for a mask and personal space. Otherwise, they’re providing ice buckets of drinks and extended hours of 6 to 8pm, trying to retain some sort of normalcy, or a plea back to being comforted by what we understood of the way things are.
Olivia is welcoming and emphatic on their excitement and concern to opening a new exhibit right now, making conversation on how a small space like theirs has functioned through quarantine/pandemic. Here, after an industry-wide halt in programming, and moving this show from March, they offered Tamara the space to further develop this body of work. Around this time a small group of masked people leave, I’m led to the elevator and given directions to the gallery upstairs. I walk in to only one other visitor in the space, outside of Michael and Tamara.
Directly ahead when entering is That rainbow that is also a bridge, an oil painting acting as a conceptual centerpiece, introducing us to Santibañez’s iconography and symbolism, a juxtaposition vital to their intention. An arch of calla lilies extend over a landscape of piled leather, mountainous, thrown across the canvas. The otherwise vacant space of the painting, behind the amount of care put into replicating these materials, emphasizes their individual importance as well as the relationship to be found between them. The lilies recall Diego Rivera, his calla lily paintings, often a portrait of faceless bodies, a statement in their own time of the value of labor and working people against the tyranny of the upper class. The leather, a material now synonymous with fetish and counterculture, is visibly worn. Punk and fetish – as general terms to reference infinitely complex and specific alternative subgenres, lifestyles, and ideologies – exist as direct responses to and against hegemony. Contemporary Art, as an industry catering to the upper class, often remains tense in the idea of new and critical work against the worship of a specific Art History or lineage, supporting an obsessed blend of traditional, classical, and referential as legitimization. Art is so often dragged down by process and comfort familiarity, admiration of perceived achievements and the presumed objective beauty of past productions. We end up looking too fondly at emulation and decoration, and forget that art at its best is a reaction to the time in which it exists.
Throughout the exhibition, Tamara blends traditional art practices with forms of craft found often in statement-making and subculture (leather work, apparel alteration/disruption, etc.), clashing with their own ornamentation as a cohesive gesture to expand our perception of “fine” art – a term often used in hierarchical fabrication of value in specific types of art and culture. Mostly used within systems of power to increase their own value of ownership. Contemporary art, particularly when American, on a larger stage has shown itself to be increasingly capitalist and apolitical, or cartoonishly left yet progressively non-contributing. Meanwhile, a bulk of the labor producing the masterpieces of the 21st Century is still done by underpaid, undervalued and uncredited workers, sometimes including the artist themselves. Concurrently Rebel Irreverence is compelling commentary on the momentum behind tradition with the necessity of its generational antagonism. Below the rainbow lay a sequence of ceramic lilies. Read narratively, a pair starts as two separate floral circles refusing their Venn diagram, opening to crawl, and ending with the stem of one calla lily knotting around the stiffness of the other, intrinsically binding them. This show develops a marriage of aesthetic ideas and actions as a reactive bloom forward, toward a more modernized and relatable vision of Art History.
We see this application throughout the work, replications of clothing and studs used to embellish alternative uniforms, adorned in traditional Mexican motif and/or impressed with metal and punk references or band logos. There’s an assortment of black plants, growing spikes and studs in place of needles and leaves. A totem stands as an accumulation of patches or clothes cut into lilies and blossoming flowers, small insights into the messages they carried still present. If we were to dig deeper in the catalog of some of the bands and artists represented here, we could find rebellious voices of which, by now, are more conservative or misinformed. However, the vitality of their spirit and non-conformity are intestines Tamara has provided in reflection of the gut-punch of oppression actively plaguing America. I hope and imagine visitors of Rebel Irreverence leave encouraged to investigate the cultures and histories of artists referenced and memorialized here. To listen to Filth, East Bay crust punks embossed and emboldened on brown leather Quilt, we can layer further these histories and intentions:
People who decided it wasn’t for them, did they really make that decision? Conditioning runs deep in the USA… What other life is there besides a life of freedom? Never give in, never give up.
– Filth, “The List”. 1990.
Eventually all things devolve to nostalgia with time, wrapped in the aesthetic fear of superficiality, what we gain from their retrieval is how we adapt its ethos to what is important to us now. To dissect the previous and choose which seeds of its being we water and carry with us in progress. Nothing is wholly one thing, and Tamara fits us in a leather jacket that is a mirror, looking at where we’ve come from, where we stand, and the courage to stud and spike ourselves for the march toward a universal freedom of being, for ourselves, our friends, and our communities.
Rebel Irreverence is viewable by appointment at Selenas Mountain through November 29, 2020.
Tamara Santibañez (b. 1987) is a multimedia artist living and working in Brooklyn. Their work is rooted in subcultural semiotics, exploring the meanings we assign to materials and accessories. Enlisting inanimate objects as stand-ins for human figures and relationships, Santibañez emphasizes the undulating exchange between power and vulnerability, otherness and assimilation, generational expectations and individual capability.
In 2019 Santibañez was awarded the Van Lier Fellowship at the Museum of Arts and Design in New York City and was a recipient of the Ruth and Harold Chenven Foundation Grant. Their work has been exhibited at JTT Gallery, Andrew Edlin Gallery, the Leather Archives and Museum in Chicago, and in performance at MoMA PS1, among others. They are the founding editor of New York-based independent publishing house Discipline Press and editor of the 2018 anthology Sexiness: Rituals, Revisions, and Reconstructions (Sang Bleu/Discipline Press).
They bring their experience in community organizing to their creative and tattooing work, visualizing tattooing as a transformative practice, a space for healing, and as a vehicle for resistance to mechanisms of oppression.
Selenas Mountain is a contemporary art gallery in Ridgewood, NY. The program presents a diversity of voices and mediums, with a focus on thematic group exhibitions and original solo exhibitions by emerging contemporary artists. Beyond the exhibition program, the gallery also hosts readings, film screenings, off-site curated exhibitions, and other events. The gallery is a hybrid of two previous Bushwick galleries Selena (2016-2018) and MOUNTAIN (2016-2018).
*images and bios provided by Selenas Mountain