By Jamee Crusan March 13, 2018
New Takes (formerly Fan Mail on Daily Serving) is a column that spotlights emerging artists from every region on this planet. Art Practical welcomes all artists to submit their work to be reviewed. Every year, a writer is nominated and selected from a pool of recent graduates of California College of the Arts to write for the New Takes column.
The Brooklyn-based interdisciplinary artist Adrienne Tarver’s seductive jungle landscapes blur the lines between looking and voyeurism, pulling viewers in and out at her command. In her latest work, Botanica Magica (2017), featured at Pelican Bomb Gallery X in New Orleans, Louisiana, Tarver explores the jungle landscape by using a rich color palette of ink on durable yupo watercolor paper. Viewing Tarver’s 8-feet-high, 34-feet-long painting is a full-body experience. The tropical trees tower over viewers, and the span of the painting, which reaches across three walls of the gallery, further envelopes the audience in the tropical paradise. Tarver transports viewers into a beautifully painted jungle full of green, blue, brown, and yellow hues. However, a closer look reveals the hidden curves of bodies—hips, thighs, and breasts—immersed in the foliage. Tarver provides viewers access to these hidden figures but only if they are willing to look long enough, hard enough, to see these abstract figures.
Tarver told me that to create the Black and Brown female bodies for her “land of women,” she pulled inspiration from classic archetypal figures including nymphs, muses, and sirens, calling them “seductive, dangerous, and elusive.”1 Through her skillful blending of lush and vibrant inks, Tarver creates a visual conundrum for viewers, asking them to oscillate between two roles of looking: that of the onlooker and that of the voyeur.
Where is the line drawn between the two? Voyeurism is defined by the Merriam-Webster dictionary as gaining sexual pleasure through looking,2 whereas simply looking speaks less to pleasure but still connotes a power dynamic. Tarver further implicates viewers by compelling them to interact with the highly sexualized Black and Brown bodies, always already exoticized, in a fertile, precarious, and alluring environment; the idea of the jungle, too, is loaded with connotations of conquest, primitivism, and colonial rule. These concepts of the exotic are simultaneously transferred between landscape and bodies.
Tarver posed the question to me, “At what point do we decide somebody deserves respect and to not give into our own curiosity but respect someone’s personal boundaries?” There is play within the visibility of the multicolored bodies that are shrouded in the landscape, rendering some figures invisible unless the watercolor image is carefully studied. This act of examining the bodies of Black and Brown women elicits the voyeuristic history of the colonial gaze, and as a viewer, I found myself suspended in this exacting tension Tarver ignites in her work.
When I looked at Botanica Magica, I noticed a meticulous thin white line that traced around bodies and leaves, a detail that confused my eyes in an already stimulating scene. Just as I started to think there was consistency in the placement of the white lines, I soon noticed that was not the case. I was led from tree to tree by the white lines, yet when I followed them, I couldn’t see the woman’s body directly in front of my face. It's here, in the spaces between lines and boundaries, where Tarver’s blurring—of sight, and of my role as viewer—occurred. Standing back, I observed how some bodies appeared to be engaged in private, intimate acts while appearing to be in ecstasy or even bathing in a river. I realized that the strong trunk of a tree was in fact a thigh, and what I first believed was a leaf transformed into an arm. Tarver blends and hides these eroticized bodies, thereby luring viewers deeper into the landscape, compelling them to keep looking. I continued staring into the jungle while allowing myself to be enticed by the danger of the siren’s song or a forbidden landscape.
Tarver continually returns to the tropical jungle landscape and the power of the gaze in her work. In Veil (2014), she again creates an overwhelming environment that elicits sensorial confusion while actively engaging and confronting the viewer. Hanging from the ceiling, a large mesh screen covered in white acrylic caulking depicts a jungle scene. Measuring 8 feet high and 4 feet wide, the acrylic surface also serves as a site that receives the projected video footage of jungle foliage. Against the gallery’s dark atmosphere, the projected imagery of bright, vivid greens generates an immersive environment that produces visual disorientation. As an onlooker, I felt drawn into the seemingly haunted tropical landscape, and then felt surprised as I caught sight of a figure standing in the shadows. Eventually I realized the body was camouflaged into the physical acrylic painting; in the shadows, she blended in with the foliage around her—a figure almost invisible, since she was created by the white caulking. In Veil, viewers are trapped in-between looking at the projections of light, the overlapping jungle-scapes, and shadows. It’s hard to stay grounded between light and dark, and Tarver plays with this. She has created an environment in which two spaces converge into each other, and the woman’s body resides in both. I continually oscillated in between the two worlds, hovering in sustained uncertainty.
There is power in the gaze, and as many scholars—bell hooks, Edward Said, Kobena Mercer, and Frantz Fanon—argue, the gaze is already voyeuristic since it is rooted in a hegemonic perspective, more often than not specifically white and male. The jungle landscapes are continually exchanged with the Black and Brown women’s bodies, an act by Tarver that allows the cultural projections of the jungle’s exotic, dangerous, and wildly untamed nature to be associated with or projected onto the bodies. In this exchange, Tarver mediates exposure in her jungle-scapes while simultaneously, unabashedly implicating the colonizer’s gaze. Tarver commands and controls the way in which the viewer sees the bodies of the women, and even how they are accessed. The women are exposed with naked bodies, as seen in Botanica Magica, and with stark white light creating the shadowy figure as seen in Veil. Tarver gives the viewer very little information about the women she shows and also hides, which allows viewers to project any story or idea onto the figure. By controlling how the bodies are seen and recognized as the exposure of these women’s identities, Tarver creates an invitation for viewers to consider, wondrously or voyeuristically, who these women are, but she reminds us there are some things we don’t get to know.