The Mythical, Mystical, and Heretical at SPRING/BREAK 2021

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Last year’s SPRING/BREAK Art Show was one of the last big art events before COVID shut the world down. So it’s hard not to think of this not-quite-Springtime comeback edition as a bookend to a really weird, really terrible era. The show, now in its tenth year, doesn’t actually look that different from past iterations. The curator-centric show still favors colorful, crafty, and playful work that transforms its banal context—two vacant floors of a Manhattan office building. But this year, I can’t help but think how much the usual plethora of craft and process-centric pieces have totally eclipsed high production values and tech as a reflection of the pandemic’s impact on artists’ access to studios, supply chains, and outsourcing. 

Almost all of the artworks here proudly look handmade and homemade. Seeing them in the context of vacant cubicles is a strangely validating and optimistic experience. If we’re to believe the Zoom-and-gloom “Death of the City” headlines that proliferated as COVID made office spaces some combination of verboten and subsequently obsolete, there will be plenty of these large floorplate spaces with labyrinthian layouts sitting empty in the middle of our cities for some time to come. SPRING/BREAK serves as a long-running model for creative, joyful reuse of these seemingly soulless spaces. 

SPRING/BREAK, with its emphasis on curators or artists-as-curators, easily remains one of my top favorite art-fair-adjacent events. I can’t say I like absolutely all the art here, but I can’t bring myself to actively dislike any of it, which is a pretty big accomplishment. This year, dozens of curators were invited to organize exhibitions around the theme HEARSAY:HERESY—a timely prompt in this age of fake news and ever raging culture wars, yet one that often manifested in decidedly Medieval aesthetics. But perhaps the Dark Ages are making a comeback! Between plagues, the return of Sharia law, and rollbacks of reproductive rights, everything a millennium old is new again! 

Below, just a few of the notable projects that caught my eye at the preview: 


Chiara No curated by Kristen Racaniello and Jacob Rhodes

Former Baltimorean and current resident of Vermont Chiara No’s solo exhibition on the 10th floor encapsulates a lot of SPRING/BREAK’s hallmarks: craft, mixed media, nods to the occult or ritualistic, and ambitious transformations of space. It feels a bit like a witchy Stations of the Cross, with the labor-intensive-looking tufted rug in the middle like a sacrifice on an altar. 


Chiara No and Kyle Kogut

On the other side of the floor, Chira No also curated herself into a two-person show with MICA alum Kyle Kogut. Their collaboration plays off the Satanic Panic of the 1980s and the Christian Right’s obsession with signs of the occult in pop culture. I fell in love with this booth before knowing who the artists were, and by happy coincidence Kogut happened to walk in and introduce himself. It turns out I had curated him into his first show out of school years ago back in Baltimore but we had never before met in person! Small world. 


Phil Buehler: "Book of Ours" curated by Sarah S. Celentano

A few doors down, Phil Buehler’s solo presentation also used the gothic arch motif to great effect. His animations (one of the very few screen-dependent artworks this year) depict various people reading smartphones or tablets, in the style of stained glass windows. Printed below are blocks of text sourced from Q-Anon conspiracy theories online. 


Mike Chattem, Alicia Little, and Debbi Kenote, curated by Mat Gasparek and Debbi Kenote

Not all presentations explicitly seem to be “on brand” with the overall curatorial theme, and that’s fine. This group show of textural, lumpy, and overall loveable pastel abstraction has only the subtlest nods to the gothic (note the green skeleton hands gripping Mike Chattem’s painting). 


Nafis M. White curated by Cade Tompkins Projects

No photos do justice to Cade Tompkins Projects’ show, which features tapestries made from hair weave by Nafis M. White and large, almost religious-looking paintings by Bob Dilworth. The booth is very theatrically staged, positioning the hair weavings as a near-religious ritual. I spoke to the curator briefly, who was informed by the recent interest in untold/forgotten stories of African people in medieval and renaissance Europe. There’s apparently a fascinating story about an African silk weaver who ended up settling in rural England during the Black Death after the plague ravaged his city. 


Hair tapestries by Nafis M. White and Bob Dilworth
Chambliss Giobbi curated by David Behringer

These insanely detailed miniature reproductions of iconic Hieronymus Bosch works are made from melted down Crayola crayons. 


Samantha Joy Groff curated by Kapow & Gaboo

Kapow & Gaboo is showing some ambiguously sapphic paintings by Samantha Joy Groff, who grew up in a Mennonite community outside Lancaster, PA. I love the inclusion of everyone’s favorite sexual-innuendo produce in the foreground. 


Moises Salazar curated by Gabrielle Aruta of Filo Sofi Arts

Next door, one half of the curatorial duo behind Kapow & Gaboo, Gabrielle Aruta, has a complementary solo project by Moises Salazar. It features gender-ambiguous fitness icons in a glittery and kinda-ickily fuzzy gym. It’s endearing, but a little repulsive at the same time—just imagine your sweaty back against that bench while lifting weights—like so much of the best queer art. 


Moises Salazar curated by Gabrielle Aruta of Filo Sofi Arts
Pranav Sood curated by Ekaterina Ovodova
Jack Moore and Noah Trimble, curated by Hannah Antalek and Jack Moore
A Greedy Peasant's Royal Wedding Workshop curated by Buzz Slutzky

I’m not sure how to explain the weirdness that is A Greedy Peasant (Tyler Gunther) and their Royal Wedding Workshop—a gesamtkunstwerk of video, fiber pieces, illustrations, and mise-en-scene installation. The double-wide cubicle space loosely alludes to a narrative of a medieval wedding planner. You can wander the space and see how processions and seating arrangements might be laid out on tapestries like so many battle plans, as well as peruse racks of garments for the occasion. 


Claire Lachow curated by Ambre + Andrew

Claire Lachow’s inflatable sculpture alternates between an erect headstand, which could be a rune or pagan totem, and then collapses into a prone pose evocative of someone praying the Salat towards Mecca. It also looks like one of those wacky inflatable car dealership guys doing not-quite-elegant yoga, which is hilarious. 


Claire Lachow curated by Ambre + Andrew
Daniel Morowitz curated by Nicole Basilone

This presentation is based on a myth that the three artists in the booth would each draw a tarot card and produce work based on the card. But apparently they didn’t actually do a “tarot drawing”—they just each picked their favorite. And so their “heresy” was picking one based on aesthetic, rather than mystic, properties. 


Yvette Molina and Alexandria Deters in Witches Get Stitches curated by Katrina Majkut

The Witches Get Stitches group show is a response to cross-stitching’s little-recognized historical association with misogynistic “propaganda” (according to the curators). Alexandria Deters updates the medium with embroidered portraits of vintage pin-up models from the ‘70s-’90s, while Katrina Majkut lovingly stitches recreations of contraceptive products, from birth control pills to female condoms. This show feels simultaneously super relevant and like it could’ve happened in the late ‘70s . . . which is a sad commentary on the “one step forward, five steps back” (to quote LeTigre) nature of the culture wars and reproductive rights. 


Alexandria Deters (L) and Katrina Majkut
Daisy Patton

Daisy Patton’s oil and embroidery portraits of women who died attempting to procure abortions while it was illegal. This is unfortunately one of the most timely pieces in the show.


Kris Rac in The Closet: America's Dressing Room curated by Jac Lahav, Jodie Lyn-Kee-Chow, and Tali Hinkis
Jac Lahav in The Closet: America's Dressing Room curated by Jac Lahav, Jodie Lyn-Kee-Chow, and Tali Hinkis
Hilliary Gabryel curated by Ambre + Andrew

Featured image: Jen Catron and Paul Outlaw "Slicing Ham" presented by Magda Sawon. All photos by Michael Farley

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