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At SPRING/BREAK, Smartphones Become Sacred and Free Weights Grow Fur

Few art events are as grassroots as SPRING/BREAK. Spread across two floors in a Midtown East office building, artist- and curator-assembled exhibitions bloom in otherwise unused office space replete with empty cubicles and a dated checkerboard linoleum floor. Within this space (and any space SPRING/BREAK occupies), magic happens. In the case of this year’s SPRING/BREAK, themed Hearsay:Heresy, magic-making is taken seriously. Exhibitors were encouraged to “tackle the neo-medieval” (per exhibition material), and accordingly, stained glass, arches, icons, and references to all things Middle Ages abounded.

Highlights from this exhibition are the sections that hewed closely to the theme. Immersive installations like Phil Buehler’s Book of Ours (curated by Sarah S. Celentano) combine a medieval aesthetic with contemporary issues. Under a blue-light vaulted arch, Buehler’s faux stained-glass windows depict smartphone users absorbed in their devices. The windows draw a parallel between the immersive capabilities (and luxury status) of smartphones and books of hours (manuscripts containing sets of prayers popular in the Middle Ages). The flip side to the world-opening capacity of the smartphone, however, is its ability to offer access to the dark side of the internet, alluded to in the writing beneath the stained glass. In black and red text evocative of fonts used in medieval manuscripts, Buehler strings together an alternative scripture composed of selected posts from QAnon threads. A fictive chapel with blue-light arches (the electronic glow that makes it so hard to sleep), this exhibition creates a space that evokes contemplation about where we went wrong.

Phil Buehler, Book of Ours, curated by Sarah S. Celentano. Image by Samuel Morgan Photography

Moises Salazar Tlatenchi, presented by the Filo Sofi Arts Gallery in an exhibition titled Let’s Get Physical (curated by Gabrielle Aruta), transforms the medieval icon into a modern emblem with their glitter self-portraits. Haloed and set in arched spaces, several portraits are reminiscent of the glittering gold-leafed figures in illuminated manuscripts or the shimmering faces in Byzantine mosaics. Instead of medieval torture devices, centered in this room are a treadmill and weight bench painted pink and decorated with faux fur. Salazar Tlatenchi utilizes these pieces of equipment to build an “aggressively queer space of self-affirmation through ritual pain.” Accordingly, instead of featuring figures engaged in confession or repentance, the figures in the works in the room appear powerful and self-assured.

Moises Salazar Tlatenchi, Let’s Get Physical, curated by Gabrielle Aruta, Filo Sofi Arts Gallery. Photo courtesy Gabrielle Aruta.

Qinza Najm’s #PleasureReClaimed (curated by Rebecca Goyette) is emblematic of erotic heresy. On painted tapestries scattered about the room (the originals acquired from Najm’s grandmother’s home), individuals show their naras, a trouser cord “considered profane to expose” and “a sacred symbol of piety” on women— when revealed, it becomes a sort of metonym for genitals and sex. Najm paints Twitter’s icon flying toward the subjects of some paintings, referring to the app’s use as a contemporary public square for shaming individuals engaged in taboo activities. The exhibit is designed to recreate the artist’s quarantine bedroom, the bed replete with a canopy of touchable torn hijabs and naras and immersed in a soundscape of the artist’s moans. It’s an installation that, per the exhibition’s press release, would make the artist “the subject of shame and ridicule from her community and immediate family in Pakistan.” The mixture of the sacred and the forbidden, combined with the knowledge that this exhibit carries extreme cultural taboos, make this room particularly powerful.

Qinza Najm, #PleaseReClaimed, curated by Rebecca Goyette. Photo courtesy of Rebecca Goyette.

Many rooms, however, strayed far from any mention of the theme. In casual conversations with curators and artists, some drew tenuous connections between the works on show and hearsay, heresy, and medievalism. Not explicitly related to the central theme of the exhibition, but captivating nonetheless, is a series by Daisy Patton titled “Would you be lonely without me?,” shown in the Witches get Stitches exhibition curated by Katrina Majkut (another wonderful artist). Patton combines portraits of women with their names embroidered below their smiling faces with their stories— the text below the portraits explains how each woman died as a result of her illegal abortion. These works, created before the regressive Texas Senate Bill 8 was enacted on September 1st (banning abortion after six weeks from conception with no exceptions for rape or incest), strike the contemporary viewer as painfully relevant in an age where illegal abortions may be forced to flourish for those without access to resources to leave that state.

Daisy Patton, Would you be lonely without me?, 2018-2021, Oil and embroidery on Arches paper, 30 x 20 inches each. Photograph by the author.

SPRING/BREAK serves an important function in the contemporary art landscape, providing emerging artists and curators an opportunity to show work to a wide audience, make sales, and have some fun. The show’s physical buildout— artist-collectives and galleries adorning (and keeping the character of) old office space and not developing white-cube build-outs— makes the exploration of SPRING/BREAK feel more like an adventure than an art fair visit, making many of the individual exhibitions feel like a magical discovery.

The 10th edition of SPRING/BREAK lives on online, at https://springbreakartfair.com/.

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