Loie Hollowell, Jesse Mockrin, Xiuching Tsay, and Naotaka Hiro, whose work is featured in a Kohn Gallery group exhibition, on the shifting foundations of identity

How does an artist shape and portray their identity? Curator Joshua Friedman explores the question in myselves, a group exhibition at Kohn Gallery in Los Angeles until October 31. The group show features work from 25 contemporary artists, including Amoako Boafo, Heidi Hahn, Bruce Conner, Loie Hollowell, Jesse Mockrin, Xiuching Tsay, and Naotaka Hiro. The work, which is as diverse as the artists Friedman selected, ranges from a portrait of a Black woman against a yellow background by Boafo to an abstract pastel piece by Hollowell filled with round forms that allude to the body before pregnancy. Document selected a group of artists who interpret the body through abstraction—Hollowell, Mockrin, Tsay, and Hiro—to ask how the events that have plagued 2020 have affected the way they perceive and ultimately portray their own identities and bodies.

Loie Hollowell, Prenatal Plumb Line in red-orange, green and purple, 2020, soft pastel and graphite on paper, 34 x 26 inches

Loie Hollowell

Ann Binlot: How have the events of this past year affected the way you perceive your body?

Loie Hollowell: My body has gone through many changes the past couple of years. I gave birth to my first child, Linden, in late 2018 and became pregnant again shortly thereafter. I welcomed my daughter, Juniper in the Spring of 2020, and between those two births, my body has transformed immensely, and then some. So much of my work is about not only perceiving, but also understanding my body through these great changes.

This past year has been full of incredible growth internally, but also acceptance of the chaos externally. With the pandemic and back to back pregnancies taking up most of my year, it’s hard to say what my body is anymore. These days, it feels more like a vessel, a source of life and a broken pile, to be put together and put to use, to keep my family nourished. I’m sure that will change in time and my bodily relationship will become more rooted and permanent, but for now, it’s different every day.

Ann: How has pregnancy changed the way you depict shapes and forms in abstraction?

Loie: Through both my pregnancies and births, I’ve found myself more interested in elemental distillations as of late. Breaking down my body and its parts to fundamental abstract forms and giving space to experiment more heavily with color, my work has shifted to focus less on form and shape and more on color and composition.

I’m less concerned with variation and rigid structures these days; most of my work has slackened to more organic, round globular forms. I want to show the curves of my stomach, the droops of my breasts, and the almond-ness of my vagina. Through these simplistic, color-forward works, I’m able to play more and express myself more clearly.

Ann: How has this past year impacted your portrayal of the body in your work?

Loie: Being that my body is in a constant state of flux, my work has changed quite a bit since the creation of my drawing for the Kohn show. I have moved into a series of works that focus more on the organicness of my body and the dark fleshy tones that follow. The drawing I created for myselves​ is in stark contrast to my most recent work. ‘Prenatal Plumb Line in red-0range, green and purple’ is bright and fiery, swinging with pendulous energy in an almost hypnotic-like composition. I had just given birth to my son during its creation so I felt almost supercharged, which you can see in the work. Things have changed quite a bit since then, but it’s fun to look back and see how autobiographical my work truly is at times.

Jesse Mockrin, Before Battle, oil on cotton, each panel 62 x 43 inches, overall 79 1/2 x 87 inches

Jesse Mockrin

Ann: How have the events of this past year affected the way you perceive your body?

Jesse Mockrin: The pandemic has changed how I exercise, in that I now do so. Before, I was so busy with work, children, and family that I didn’t make time for physical activity. But after a few weeks of quarantine, I began to feel like I would burst out of my skin if I didn’t do something. I started running and, although I am by no means fast, I am faster and I appreciate the physicality of my body more, perhaps even more so under the constant threat of illness.

In a more metaphysical way, I have been thinking about how much the body is at the mercy of the state. The bodies in my paintings are often vulnerable to anonymous interventions coming from outside the frame. I have young children at home, to whom I am teaching that their bodies are private and that other people’s bodies are private, but the reality is that though these rules are very important, the sense of bodily autonomy I’m fostering is illusory. The incompetence of our government’s response to Covid-19 and the ongoing epidemic of police violence have reiterated just how vulnerable the body is to the rule of the state and the injustice that some bodies are still more vulnerable than others.

Ann: In the diptych ‘Before Battle,’ you show hands about to cut off the braid of an anonymous figure. To what is it alluding?

Jesse: For my painting ‘Before Battle’ in the myselves exhibition, I used source material from four different historical European paintings depicting Hypsicratea, a Queen from Ancient Rome who was described as androgynous and who cut off her braid to assume a male appearance to follow her husband into battle. In my painting, fragments from the four different source paintings are woven together across disjointed panels, becoming a reflection of time repeating cyclically and of the figure fractured into multiple identities. They could be six different people, or the same person at four (or six) different moments in time, or any combination. The wall space activated by the misalignment of the panels allows the viewer to extend the image further in the mind.

Ann: Is ‘After’ the next work in the series? Why is hair being pulled?

Jesse: ‘After’ takes elements from two Baroque paintings of Judith with the head of Holofernes, one by Simon Vouet and one by Peter Paul Rubens. The diptych format unites two different representations of Judith made one year apart, in two different countries, almost exactly 400 hundred years ago, into a new painterly space. I have been interested in how representations of female characters from history are coded in terms of perceived gender characteristics of the time. In my paintings, the signifiers of gender are cropped along with the edges of the figure, creating androgynous fragments that are suspended in space, separated from their original context. Thus images depicting Judith and her maid with the severed head of the general they slayed become two interwoven images of hair being pulled in gestures that could be violent, or erotic, or playful. The face of one bleeds into the sleeve of another, as the integrity and identity of the body become fluid.

Ann: How has this past year impacted your portrayal of the body in your work?

Jesse: As deadlines were pushed back due to the pandemic, I found more time to experiment with the portrayal of the body in my work, in terms of color and scale and its alignment (or misalignment). I have been thinking about representation and visibility and the depiction of skin color in my work. I have been thinking about the violence of the state and the violence of categorization, bodies that remain whole, and bodies that are fragmented. I am working on a new group of paintings that mine historical imagery, examining the ways in which we choose to have our bodies interact with one another, whether that is with tenderness or with violence, and the difficulty in telling the difference without context.

Xiuching Tsay, A lost child picked flowers from a starry field, 2020, oil and pastel on canvas, 19 3/4 x 15 3/4 inches

Xiuching Tsay

Ann: How have the events of this past year affected the way you perceive your body?

Xiuching: In the beginning of the pandemic, I admit that I had been checking my body every day. Irrationally, I rubbed my ribs to check if my lungs were ok, and I noticed that the right one is slightly bigger than the left one and it made me paranoid. Then, I asked my mother and she told me that “it is natural to have asymmetrical bodies, you just had been ignoring your body for a very long time.” I had an X-ray and it was normal. So, subconsciously, I might imagine that the change of body is an imperfection that links to death. I might forget I was born imperfect. Actually, perfection is only the limit of imagination that creates fears. Now I am being more realistic to my body.

Ann: What was going through your mind when you painted ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest?’ Who are the figures?

Xiuching: The painting was made during the quarantine, while I was sitting on a small balcony outside my apartment in Bangkok. There was a bird who came by, landed on the balcony railing. So, it brought back memories about my pre-Covid lifestyle. I loved wandering, walking through random arcades, and looking through windows of those small shops from outside, just like the bird whose freedom was defeated by desirable things from inside. Whatever is inside the house can alienate the wanderers. I think it gives a weird feeling about the home where you do not belong to. So, the figures in the painting represent every being: human, myself, or birds because we may share this similar nature. I titled it after the film and book written by Ken Kesey.

Ann: Why is the lost child, picking flowers in the starry field?

Xiu: I named the painting after I finished it and interpreted its narrative from the whole process of painting. In the beginning, I wanted to explore the growth of a shy and lonely child. So, the first layer started with the main figure that represents the young me, sitting on the empty ground as if she got lost. Next layer, there was a bunch of flowers behind and when they were together, they would sparkle. But it also created a far distance between the child and the flowers. Then, I transformed the body of that child into a bird-like figure. She then has wings to fly over to pick the flowers. But once the flowers were picked, they were no longer vibrant because they had to stay as a group to be sparkling.

Naotaka Hiro, Untitled (Inn), 2020, acrylic, graphite, grease pencil, crayon on wood, 58 x 42 inches, Untitled (parallelogram), 2020, acrylic, graphite, grease pencil, crayon on wood, 58 x 42 inches.

Naotaka Hiro

Ann: How physical is your process?

Naotaka: The foundation of my work, in general, stems out of an idea of the unknown—the world of my body parts, which I am unable to see and thus unable to confirm. The dilemma of the unknowability of my body serves as a creative point of departure, a place (unknown, blindness, awe) from which my imagination may create. It usually starts with the body parts, which I am essentially blind: the subject of an unknown world. The depressing, yet unavoidable fact is that my body is only understandable to myself when considered through a mediated form, such as a camera or a mirror. My works thus are connected through an imagination resulting from my encounter and engagement with the unknown.

I work with various media and every piece I work has a life-size relationship. To me, art-making is about to encounter, figure out, react, and document. Artwork is proof of the process, which represents the residue of my body, the placement, and movement. For my recent wood painting series, after years of working on soft materials (paper and canvas), I wanted to try a hard surface. I fabricated a ½-inch-thick plywood panel and sturdy frames wedged into the board. I wanted to make them as sturdy as possible because I placed it horizontally, raised about a foot from the floor. This allowed me to stand, move, and sit on the board to draw, paint, and incise. At the same time, I could crawl under the panel and face up to the surface of the wood panel to paint. If the paper or canvas functions like a 360-degree body scanner, the wood panel table is a ‘flatbed’ scanner. I drew in the face-up position for an hour (1st session) and flipped the panel over and worked again from the above, sitting and standing up on the board (2nd session). Then, I repeat the sessions six to seven times. In fact, I employ this two-part step repeated for my drawing and painting, too. The characters of the two-part step process distinctively contrasted [with] each other. The first step is subjective, instinctive, and organic, mostly in drawing with graphite. In contrast, the second step is objective and sober, akin to editing and painting. I go back and forth the steps of the two personas (like Actor-Director, Subconscious-Conscious, Filming-Editing, Interior-Exterior, POV-Tripod, See-Be seen), constantly agreeing and conflicting with each other during the entire painting process.

For the new wood painting series, I tried to physically separate the two-step procedure. Again, I crawled underneath the wood panel and laid flat with a face-up position. With the physical limitation, I have to keep my body quite close to the surface. I drew, often with both hands, reflecting my body parts, positions, and movement. I flipped the board over, stood, and sat on it to analize, edit and paint colors in. I repeated until the distinctions and binary system got blur and abstract, merging the two personal worlds.

Ann: How have the events of this past year affected the way you perceive your body?

Naotaka: I always thought I had a very close and personal relationship with my work physically and mentally. Around mid-March, I was terribly sick and had Covid-19 in retrospect as I tested that I had the antibody. Until then, I have never been so conscious about my body, especially internally. I went back to the studio after several weeks of suffering, I imagined and scanned my body, and visualized what and how my body was doing while I worked. In doing so, I felt that I could overcome my fear and anxiety. I became sensitive even more to bodily pains and aching, temperature, movements, sounds of breathing and etc.