In Efrem Zelony-Mindell’s latest curatorial project, n e w f l e s h, they revise dialogues about queerness while simultaneously championing new visual discourses. Three years ago, the first iteration of n e w f l e s h debuted as a 15-artist show at the Rubber Factory in New York. The project has since grown to a roster of 22 artists its current exhibition at The Light Factory in Charlotte, NC, and includes a total of 68 artists in the stunning book produced by Gnomic Book, which includes an Afterword by Ashley McNelis, a letter to Efrem from Charlotte Cotton, and an introductory manifesto by Efrem, who opens the book with an immediately provocative claim: “Photography has a sexual prowess.”
n e w f l e s h demands a considered reading. The works of the project don’t address queerness directly, and often weren’t even meant to by their makers themselves. The immediate legibility of the curator’s vision masks a much deeper and profound statement, first speaking to the strangeness of form photographs have been given license to take amid current photography’s ceaseless progressivism, secondly considering the picture as a marker, first and foremost, of artistic and personal individuality, and then considering individualism itself as the highest pinnacle of values found in both artistic and LGBTQ communities.
In n e w f l e s h, pictures are bodies, their surfaces, the skin, and the pulsating energies of formal and metaphorical play pump blood of thought and aggressive assertion of the ego-self. Zelony-Mindell’s vision is to reconsider queerness, not as a trait of a community, but a condition writ-large among all populous (and here in the photographic community as a point of extrapolation). The project is the ultimate inclusive gesture. The word “queer”, used now to identify particular communities, is presented as a word which, with all hope, will cease even to be relevant. It’s a word that simply requests that we be our strange selves with Efrem declaring we should do so with pride. The following exchange took place via email throughout August.
Gregory Eddi Jones. So Efrem, tell me about the origins of n e w f l e s h.
Efrem Zelony-Mindell. As I’m writing this sentence we’re three years, one month, and three days away from the anniversary of the opening for the first n e w f l e s h at New York’s Rubber Factory which included the work of 15 artists, and the launch of the 23rd issue of DEAR DAVE magazine that featured a portfolio of 9 artists from n e w f l e s h and my original words. To clarify, the magazine was confirmed first, the Rubber Factory show was confirmed shortly after. This all happened in 2016. But the beginning rewinds a bit further back.
In late 2015 I wrote about a significant photographer for a pretty identifiable online publication. I deemed it a decent thing to share with the Editor-In-Chief of DEAR DAVE Mr. Stephen Frailey. I did, and the next day I happened to be outside his office. He gestured for me to come in. I sat down. He looked at me, in that loving and excited way Stephen does, and he asked, “Efrem, when are you going to write for the magazine?” The rest, as they say, is history.
I asked Stephen what should, or could, I write about. What he said equated to carte blanche for me. I stepped out of his office with the only directions of: make it now, make it know. I just needed to figure that out. A trigger arrived in an unlikely place. I found myself days after that meeting at a show opening at an institution that I’ve generally kept quiet about, for a show I tend not to identify too specifically. The work was mostly of nude men, in bed, together, poised in coitus, shrouded in little gestures with hands and holds that seemed intimate enough. All with their perfect bodies and huge erections. You know—art. I came to a photo that I didn’t recognize at the time, but years later have come to realize was taken by one of my favorite photographers Ren Hang.
It was his photo Untitled 2012 that sort of set me off. Hang’s photo made me realize I had no idea what this show could possibly be about. I was going to have to read the statement. Your typical copy and paste is what I found, “These artists look to further gender studies,” ” formulating constructs of identity,” “queerness and visibility.” For a room of works that felt, and even now feel, pretty standardized and expected, it disturbed me that this finite way of viewing queerness may be parading as the only way to view queerness. I wrote the first sentence there at the show, “The body gets in the way.” I became obsessed, and have come to realize I’ve always been preoccupied, with the idea of what queerness means, looks like, and is capable of. When people remove the body what holds as queer? The body is a given. I proposed then, as I still do now, how does a person become themselves? The slips and slits and stitches of a thing and a person read deeper than that outside flesh.
GJ. Would you then consider n e w f l e s h as an explicit commentary on queerness, or does it extend beyond and into identity exploration as a whole? It’s interesting to think back to all the queer-concerned artworks in my own memory bank and to take note of how many use the body as a representation and medium of expression. If you might entertain this question: it seems that the body itself is the “old flesh” in your project’s scenario?
EZ-M. Hmmm, two interesting questions with a lot of subtle layers in here I think. My knee jerk reaction is, I hope n e w f l e s h is a bull at a china-shop and takes lots of conversations on and with it as it goes by. All these things look so pretty, SMASH!
I do want to make an explicit commentary on queerness, and I definitely mean for that commentary to extend beyond into identity exploration as a whole. We’re not in a cul-de-sac, not anymore. The human body is a spectrum, not only because it literally is, but because our minds are capable of allowing it to achieve that. Being able to express our truths and desires openly with people who we trust, and those who we don’t, is most important. We don’t need the confines of society to dictate what our expectations have to be. Societies can transform. I’m not sure the body is “old flesh” as much as its historical presumptions have, in many ways, pigeonholed it. The sentiment of becoming “new flesh” isn’t nearly as physical or literal as it’s about realizing and embracing the spirit and the mind behind the physical flesh. The truth is the ability to comprehend different forms of psychological possibilities and existential implications of what the body is and how we form our identity, it’s something people have been doing forever. I’d like to start seeing and asking what else and what’s next because the physical is informed by something else. In the words of John Waters, “Gay is not enough anymore. It’s a good start but…”
GJ. The collection of work you’ve compiled for this project is quite eclectic and non-traditional. You highlight many of the more progressive strands of photographic practice, the ones that sort of defy the old rules of what photography was supposed to do. I’m curious about how you went about making your selections here. It’s notable that many of the artists in the show and book are not queer. Physical identity of the author becomes disembodied when manifested through their chosen media, and the body’s relationship to desire exits the conversation in your selection. I quite like that there seems to be an overriding statement that pushes away from segregating voices based on sexual orientation. You speak to queer identity, but there’s a larger conversation of identity, like an argument for more pure inclusivity of voices (with the caveat that they must be artistically refined). Am I getting close to the heart of it here or am I missing the target?
EZ-M. The individual queer-identifying isn’t the qualifier. The philosophical implication and application of the execution of the work being queer is the qualifier. Queer being strange and unusual. If we start with the work and zoom out to the bigger picture to understand the artists, each will have a contribution to queer conversations. When I’m looking for images I wouldn’t say I’m so staunch, at first. There’s a lot of looking that happens and gut feelings too. I can tell you more often than not I trip across a photo that ends up in n e w f l e s h. Like falling in love. I also want to be slightly unnerved, uncomfortable, maybe even unsure from the works. Those feelings need to be pushed at so as to understand myself. I think you are definitely on the money here. Queer is inclusive. Everyone one of us is strange and unusual, let’s be honest. Our bizarreness is what makes us uniquely who we are. That freak show needs to be seized and celebrated.
GJ. What I note about most of the work in the project is that they are double-take type pictures that trick the eye, subvert easy readings of their subjects, and play games that defy the expected. They are introverted photographs designed to look at their own perceptual limitations and potentials. So how I read the project is one that explores how expanding grammars of photography share relationships with broadening attention toward the notion that individual identity is something that’s less fixed, more fluid, and defiant of conventional definition. Conversations through photography and about identity are moving toward less stabilized spaces of understanding. I think what I really appreciate this project is that it looks for a way to bring photography, the kind that speaks about itself, out into a more externalized framework of consideration.
EZ-M. The most exciting thing to me is being able to hear what people are thinking and have to say about n e w f l e s h. I’m truly lucky and humbled to have this project seen how you’ve just described. And whether out of some ego or not, it’s incredibly meaningful and affirming to hear that what I see in the works isn’t just some crazy hallucination.
GJ. It might sound strange, but I’m obsessed with “figuring out” photographs, and I approach it almost like a logic problem. I think all photographs have inherent logics within them, like an equation to be solved. I get shaky when I come across an image that I can’t decipher, and so I work at it like a math problem until I think I can. And I think understanding the author’s motivations for their work is key because all photographs are more about their authors than the subjects they depict.
Photographs are all autobiographical, and when a curator brings different pictures together, especially in a solo effort like what you’re doing with n e w f l e s h, I think a curatorial project becomes autobiographical as well. You’re gathering material, Efrem, to express yourself and all that you understand. The project is an artistic act, and a beautiful one at that. I know that when I conceived of Another Day in Paradise I was very much thinking about my relationship to the world through photographs. The open call was really about my own obsession with trying to not buy into the promises that photographer’s offer, and to not trust the allure of pictures so as to find something deeper in them.
But the discourse is vital, and as you’re also a writer and occasional interviewer, you would agree, no? I’ve done many dozens of interviews with artists and I’ve learned more through them than I could ever learn elsewhere. And it’s probably the same in life in general, where if you’re open to other perspectives, you let yourself learn new ways of thinking and seeing, and not let the concrete wall of ego stand between you and new ideas, there’s just an enormous growth factor you open yourself to.
So I guess it’d be appropriate to ask how you might find yourself in this project you’ve created? What do you hope your audiences see in your curation that perhaps you hope to have seen in yourself? (and sorry if that’s a question you might cringe at!)
EZ-M. Smile. Though your heart is aching. Smile. Even though it’s breaking.
When you start by identifying very simple things in a piece of art the conclusions you draw from your own feelings and experiences allow for complex readings to happen. Art can be intricate, embellished, even esoteric. But the joy is starting small and letting it build. Individuals engage this potential. A question is like putting a set of building blocks down in front of someone. I’m curious to see how they interact with those blocks. I’m frankly not always so interested in the specific answer that a person gives, because watching how they interact and interpret a question tells me more about how the individual is thinking and problem-solving. Those concepts and psychology tell something much deeper about how the person is making decisions, which I believe is far more indicative of how their art gets made. I’d say a fairly decent percentage of artists, and people, seem to think that words fail them. And I think the failure is the systems and rules that most assume about language. In our society, language and writing is perpetuated as needing to tell someone something, rather than show someone something. Especially writing about art. I don’t want to tell anyone anything. I want to show people something so they can draw their own conclusions.
Thank you for asking me this question Greg. It makes me nervous. I’ve always found myself most comfortable when I’m on the spot. It frees a lot of burdens. The first thing that popped into my mind after reading this question is a poem by Robert Frost. It reads, “We dance round in a ring and suppose, / But the Secret sits in the middle and knows.” n e w f l e s h is my secret. n e w f l e s h makes me feel normal, and I don’t immediately know how to identify what I mean by that. It makes me feel like I can walk down the street holding someone’s hand, or just by myself, and not have to feel less than. The unusual nature of the works make my heartbeat steady, it makes me feel like dancing or flying. It fills me with the security and joy to know that I’m not alone in wondering what is unknowable. I think that without saying it n e w f l e s h is about an acceptance of death, a desire to embrace the unknown and the unusual. Things along the way worth valuing will fill us up.
Madness is like gravity. All it needs is a little push!
GJ. Thanks for sharing that, Efrem. I think that when so many discussions of this photo world revolve around things like career trajectories, press accolades, and intellectual/philosophical jousting, we can forget how the fruit of art is it’s potential to help us simply connect, share, and assert our feelings and vulnerabilities in this short speck of nothing we call our lives.
What else have you got on your horizon once the n e w f l e s h exhibition comes to a close?
EZ-M. Even before October 11th when The Light Factory show closes there are quite a few things on my plate. Most immediately is a two-person show that I’m curating that opens eight days, September 19th, after I return to New York from North Carolina. Then September 20th I’ll be at the New York Art Book Fair to launch the book officially.
Beyond that, I already see a future for more gallery iterations of n e w f l e s h as well as two other possible book projects. There’s a lot to look forward to!
GJ. Thanks for the great conversation, Efrem.
n e w f l e s h is currently on view at The Light Factory, August 29 – October 11, 2019.
Efrem Zelony-Mindell is a curator, writer, and artist. Their curatorial endeavors include shows in New York City: n e w f l e s h, Are You Loathsome, Familiar Strange, and This Is Not Here. They write about art for FOAM, Unseen, DEAR DAVE, VICE, Musée Magazine, SPOT, and essays for artists’ monographs. Their first book n e w f l e s h, published by New York’s Gnomic Book, will be available late August of 2019. They received Their BFA from the School of Visual Arts.
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