In celebration of our online exhibition, Remembering the Suffragists, 100 Years of Women Voting in the United States, we take a step back to one of our previous exhibitions expressing a similar theme of female identity. Deborah Kostianovsky reports on John Y. Wind’s The Women:
In November, 2019, InLiquid was pleased to present The Women, a solo exhibition by artist John Y. Wind. The show comprised 17 life-size assemblages and vignettes that reveal identity as represented through our material possessions. Wind’s work is in the permanent collection of several museums including the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, Musée des Arts Decoratifs, Paris, and the Philadelphia Museum of Art. He studied at the Slade School of Fine Arts, London, and the University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, PA. His unique portraits embrace the field of Material Culture, which seeks to study culture through an examination of physical and material objects created by that culture. Unlike traditional portraiture, which reveals facets of identity through painting, collage, or sculpture, these assemblages provide a more nuanced narrative of identity by depicting the interests, loves, outward appearance, and the inner essence of this large group of women based on an amalgam of precious personal items. Wind’s exhibit captures a spirit of excavation of what makes us tick, what makes us human, and how these complicated, sometimes disparate notions of self can congeal together to create a stunning visual representation of identity.
These portraits are a collaborative project with the women in Wind’s life: his family, friends, or colleagues. As a whole they are timely, powerful expressions of female empowerment. This sentiment is imperative given current heightened attention to women’s rights. Each work begins with private conversations with each woman, where visual representations of various areas of their lives are discussed. In a further collaborative effort, the final materials include those provided by the women themselves, as well as materials purchased or created by the artist to complete the work. The artist utilizes books, photographs, unique personal objects, fashion and jewelry items, music, along with other material objects, to create a unique vision of character and identity. As noted by the artist, some assemblages are comprehensive outpourings of personal material, whereas others are sparser and more self-contained: “Some portraits are encyclopedic…the resulting pieces are exuberant and maximal, with the viewer putting together clues and building an impression as if assembling a jigsaw puzzle. Others focus more narrowly, telling a specific story that stands in for the whole- a more minimal approach to storytelling, more poem, less novel.” These differences allow for the artist’s vision, the different personalities of the subjects, and the evolution of the work during a span of six years.
The exploration of female identity through artwork stems from Wind’s own experiences and his particular relationships with the women. As a jewelry designer, creating ‘modern vintage jewelry’ featuring an assortment of antique and contemporary components through his company Maximal Art, he notes being squarely situated in a largely female world. As a gay artist surrounded by this feminine energy, he felt a need to explore masculinity in a 2013 show entitled The Making of a Modern Man. Subsequently, Wind realized that “my life was calling out for a celebration of the women in it.” And there are many important women in Wind’s life portrayed here, from his mother to close friends and fellow artists. In fact, when approaching this exhibit filled with these multifaceted portraits, it feels like walking into a crowded, noisy, raucous party filled with interesting women. We glimpse their lives as if they are all collected in the room at a social gathering (and they were present for a luncheon which included almost all of the women at InLiquid in November, 2019.) Each assemblage is merely titled with the woman’s first name and last initial, adding a sense of mystery and anonymity.
This exhibit, filled with so many vibrant, saturated colors and a multitude of disparate objects, overwhelms the senses. Several pieces stand out and deserve commenting. The artist’s own self-portrait is situated near the show entrance. Entitled simply JYW, it welcomes the viewer into the space as if it was an avatar and gives glimpses of the artist’s own identity. Like all of the other works, we are only allowed a glimpse of the complexity and richness of the people who these works represent. This self-portrait consists of an antique black neoclassical bust draped with mementos spanning three generations of family and intriguing personal effects such as an old microphone. As Wind notes: it’s a “blend of past, present, and fantasy.” Portrait of Laura B. comes replete with an enormous map, indicating the five cities in which she has lived, a mannequin dog that resembles her own beloved Brownie, her high school boyfriend’s varsity jacket, an ebullient bust that captures her outgoing personality, and other fragments of an intriguing life.
Other works similarly capture the spirit, energy, and passion of this diverse group. Portrait of Lauren M., which takes a more minimalist approach, showcases a desk with objects on it including a bulletin board and a computer open to her Pinterest page. A mannequin dog sits nearby on a pillow. The laptop screen showcases a few dozen Pinterest boards displaying Lauren M’s interests, from hobbies and travel fantasies, to personal style, work, and wedding plans. All are conveyed online, allowing the computer to add another layer of materiality and to represent a younger, more digitally-focused subject. This is a 21st century take on an excavation of societal objects in line with the field of Material Culture. Portrait of Joan S., taking a more Maximal approach of a woman known for her avant garde fashion store in Philadelphia, is dressed accordingly with multiple sets of vibrant eye glasses in celebration of the New Year. She is surrounded by books, magazines, candles, and even a license plate. As a close friend of Wind’s, who owned the first store which sold Wind’s Maximal jewelry in 1984, the portrait reveals both public and private aspects of her personality.
The assemblage of the artist’s late mother, entitled Portrait of Dina W, powerfully speaks to the productivity and richness of her life, as well as the close relationship with her son. The piece is assembled around a steel locker, where as an artist herself she stored her welding gear, and has become, per John Wind, an altar of sorts, replete with a gold halo over her head. They collaborated over the portrait together for the last six months of her life. It contains playbills, books, clothing, shoes, scarves, flowers, sculpture and sits open with three panels like a triptych, allowing us to marvel at the energy and spirit revealed by her personal effects. As Wind states; “I packed in her love of family, of the United States and of Israel where we are from, of fashion and style, travel, history, politics, civic engagement, tennis, and, of course, every kind of art.” We feel like we know her, but like the other works, we only have a tantalizing glimpse, a revealing peek into the lives of these women.
There are so many personal stories throughout this exhibit, and we as viewers only have an inkling of the deeper meaning of these items, leading to some poignant, if rhetorical questions. Can the complexity of public and private identity truly be made visible and tangible? By excavating our own possessions, or that of our closest friends, can we arrive at portraiture that defines the essence of our existence, embellished by the hands of a talented artist? And what is the role of consumerism and materialism in our lives? Does it truly define us, or does an exploration of our “things” paint broad brushstrokes of our sense of self, leaving more to be filled in by the truly non-visual and intangible? And there is a sense of voyeurism, of glimpsing the secret lives of multidimensional women through their personal objects. Does this harken back to the art historical notion of the male gaze? While not gazing at a female nude, we do gaze at the private, interior lives of these women, their true naked essence. Yet there is a sense here of female empowerment as the artist deftly shows the intelligence and rich lives of this group of women.
These works entice us to think about our own lives, how we would visualize our own identity and what aspects of ourselves we would highlight. And we do get the unique opportunity to fashion our own self-portrait through Wind’s ‘charm bar,’ an extension of his work as a jewelry designer. The bar includes a collection of some of his distinctive pendants, earrings, necklaces, and jewelry pieces. This eclectic, affordable mix of jewelry pieces, which can be combined through choices of charms and chains, allows each woman to assemble a piece of jewelry that reflects her personal identity, creating a self-portrait in the process.
This exhibit allows us to examine multiple facets of identity as if viewing shards of glass through a kaleidoscope. Each piece has its own sparkle and beauty, yet it’s the combination of multicolored glass pieces, their overlapping colors and patterns, the way the patterns change as light and angle varies, that make it such a visual treasure. And like the shards of glass, it’s the personal history, the present and future dreams, made visible by a trail of relationships, effects on the world and unique personal items, arranged in a complex pattern, and sprinkled with color, light and unique point of views, that ultimately allows us to define a person. And Wind seems to have that pixie-dust, that artistic magic, that enables him to bring together these disparate ingredients to showcase identity. As such, this exhibit reaches to illuminate the most important question of all: what is it that makes us human?
About the artist:
John Wind is a Philadelphia-based artist and accessory designer. He has shown his identity themed collages, sculptures and installations in London, Philadelphia, New York, and Miami. He has had solo shows at InLiquid (The Women, 2019), James Oliver Gallery, Philadelphia (The Making of a Modern Man, 2013), Select Fair, Miami (The John Y Wind Portrait Gallery, 2013), and ArtFronts, Philadelphia (I Shop Therefore I Am, 2012). He has designed and marketed modern vintage fashion jewelry and gifts through his company Maximal Art, selling to thousands of boutiques, gift shops, and large corporations (including Anthropologie, Disney, and QVC). He lives in Philadelphia, PA.