It’s Hallowe’en and I am in Miami. Eating sushi on Lincoln road I am served by a cat, a giant whoopee cushion and a surgeon. Halloween costumes are a serious business in Miami and the bizarre combination of costume, Art Deco and sunshine put me in the mood for some performance art.
I head to the Miami Art Centre to meet Antonia Wright one of the artists in residence. I am interested to see what she is up to in preparation for one of the biggest art events in the US. Art Basel Miami Beach takes place on 2-5 December 2010.
Antonia Wright is a Miami-born, Cuban-America artist. Her newest project explores Quinceañera the Latin American tradition of celebrating a girl's fifteenth birthday. Miami has one of largest concentrations of quinceanera photographic studios in the world and families take their 15-year-old daughters to have portraits taken to commemorate their coming of age. These are no ordinary portraits but have a very specific aesthetic.
Antonia has visited a number of these studios to have her own photo taken as a quinceanera and the resulting photos are forming a collection which she uses to comment on Cuban society. Antonia views visiting the studios as a type of performance both for her and the girls. She is drawn to the fantasy, the vanity and the expense of these images. From her point of view she wants to make the experience as real as possible and when questioned by the studios as to why she is there she tells them she is commemorating a double 15. She gleefully explains ‘they airbrush me both before and after, I am not normally that colour!’
I see the first two pieces of the series as it is, still a work in progress. I am drawn to the concept more than the photographs themselves. I like the way Antonia is marking the bizarre rituals of life which at the same time really are not that unique. The surreal becomes normal in this work which is a theme I feel strongly across much of Antonia’s work. In each picture Antonia looks different. In one she is a fairy in another regal. The photographs remind me of the court portrait paintings I have seen at Kenwood House in London. You only have to look at Kitty Fisher as Cleopatra by Reynolds (1723) to see this idea of fantasy, vanity and portraiture coming together throughout history. Considering all these concepts within Antonia Wright’s work I am intrigued to see the full effect of the Quinceanera work when it is finished.
Antonia enjoys taking her work into public spaces and allowing an important part of the work to be about the public’s reactions. Antonia tells me she likes performance art as ‘it’s a way to enter into her art’ and offers the opportunity to portray ideas through the body. She cites as one of her influences Janine Antoni the contemporary artist who focuses on process, carrying out everyday activities using her body parts.
Public reaction or lack of it plays an important part in the work ‘I bet I don’t become famous when you die’. This photograph is part of a series of work that explores nature and the city and the beauty of the urban environment. Again in this work the surreal becomes normal. The images document the public’s reactions to Antonio in various poses with grass or flowers on the streets of New York. To start with the images are beautiful, clear and crisp. However they are also witty and make you look twice perhaps in the same way passersby did.
Antonia has also been working on a collaborative performance piece called ‘Job creation in a bad economy’. Her studio currently contains numerous boxes of books organised by colour. Her and her collaborator stack up the books and then throw themselves through the wall of books they have created. The books are then left where they fall in the gallery space. The performance is documented in video pieces.
I personally don’t like the title of this work. I am not drawn to the concept of making a statement about lack of funding for libraries in a failing economy. But this is just me. What I do like is the idea of creating and changing the space as they build up the books, the colours, the movement and the fun when the artist smashes it down again. I love the still photographs taken from the performance. The movement is fantastic and these images are among my favourites.
Antonia has an M.F.A. in poetry from the New School New York. Her background as a poet shows through in the conceptual and lyrical way she puts together her work. However what is most striking for me are her slick and beautiful images. Antonia trained at the International Center of Photography and has worked for noted photographers Clyde Butcher and Patrick Demarchelier, and shot images for trend-setting Vice Magazine before focusing seriously on performance art.
I believe this photographic training allows her to document her performances in images that are well-shot, beautiful and with an underlying wit. I think this is what makes Antonia stand out. It allows her to perform her concept but retain a beautiful record of it. This may be her greatest weapon as Antonia combines interesting conceptual ideas and commercially accessible and beautiful images.
You can see Antonia Wright’s work at the Spinello gallery from15 November until 5 December. www.spinellogallery.com