In her most recent series, Genevieve Gaignard explores her self-concept,perceptions of her identity, public presentation and loss at large. In a time fractured by social divisions and politics, she helps us imagine a future of unity.
Genevieve Gaignard, a photographer and an installation artist, has a strong history of creating complex images that interrogate our perceptions of race, class, and the female body through self-portraiture. Costumed as an array of characters from her life and imagination, which source from trips to thrift stores and family members’ closets, she distills our social climate through the lens of a black woman with skin fair enough to pass for white.
Her latest body of work shifts from the sole focus on perceptions of her identity to an exploration of loss and darkness in the world—a theme that feels especially relevant at the moment. In this series of images, which debuted at the California African American Museum in Los Angeles, we see the loss of dreams, the loss of youth and the loss of those we love. This new series shows us how we respond to and process loss and it gives form to a feeling that is otherwise a nebulous, yet achingly present piece of our reality. The darkness of these themes aside, the beauty, the humor and the compositional quality of the works add a layer of intrigue to the already potent content in a way that invites the viewer to question the larger story behind each character she becomes.
I think illusion is a good description of what’s happening here. I also think of it as time standing still, especially as I look at that cat clock with the tail standing still when it should be moving. I’m a magician, goddammit!
Watermelon shows us the loss of a dream, many imagine at some point in their lives; that of idyllic married life. With shoulder-length hair and a blasé stare that suggests a certain overwhelmed submission to a life she did not choose, a character we can assume to be a working-class mother stands in front of the display window of a wedding dress store offering two lace frocks half her size. The glass, and its accompanying repellent reflection, separates the woman from the signifiers of happily ever after and presents the matrimonial illusion as something purely of the past in contrast with her current reality. The loss of the fantasy life we might imagine in our youth finds form in this image and speaks to the challenging realisations and lived experiences of scarcity and adulthood.
I’m happy when the viewer allows himself or herself to get lost in it so it becomes their world too.
This image is an access point to the larger narrative Genevieve creates in which she interrogates our perceptual fantasies surrounding femininity, class and race, while revealing the realities of the people this character represents. Basic Cable and Chill, an allusion to the popular euphemism, “Netflix and Chill,” introduces the “hood vixen” as another character of American life. This piece shows us the spartan existence of a black female of limited means who projects her sexuality through a provocative stance and a revealing outfit that displays tan lines and a disregard for traditional beauty standards. The charged body politics in the image questions the notions of what makes a woman desireable in our culture and invokes feminist notions of living beyond female objecthood and the parameters of a white, western, male-defined aesthetic. Genevieve destroys this paradigm by showing us that women with glasses, full-figured, black bodies and afros are as entitled to their sexual subjectivity as a frail white model in Beverly Hills might be. The character glorifies the average woman overlooked by the heteropatriarchal gaze because of her race, class and body type. Infused with agency, this character reveals a certain beauty, sensuality and intrigue present in the woman society chooses not to see.
First it’s me and then it’s you and then it’s me again and then it’s us.
Beyond the exploration of loss and identity politics at the intersection of race relations and public perceptions, Genevieve’s recent work is also about the ambiguity of our understanding of difference, an exploration of what it means to be an American today, and a step towards a larger unity. When one body can be both black and white, ratchet and redneck, and matronly and vulgar, a space opens where race, class, gender and comportment constructs begin to fail, leading to another type of loss—the loss of the divisive forces of our world. With these notions in mind, who then is the other? The average, middle-class, black woman, or the woman some might refer to as “white trash”? Are they then equal? Could they be one day? Are they even very different?
The questions these images demand make Genevieve’s work a critical and crucial exploration of contemporary consciousness and, visual culture at large. The work stands as both a distillation of present social constructs and their accompanying stereotypes, while allowing for the consideration of a future where these ideas no longer exist. The images create space for a larger reflection on humanity and the contemporary human condition beyond the rigid structures that govern the past and the present, which allows us to imagine a society where people are just people defined by their experiences, individual identity and nature. Her work is beyond contemporary; it imagines a unified future of human subjectivity and social freedom we can all hope to experience.
Genevieve Gaignard will have a solo show at Shulamit Nazarian Gallery in Los Angeles opening in April of 2017.
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Writer ALEX ANDERSON
Photography GENEVIEVE GAIGNARD