Yes to the Dress!
I’m trying to refer back to some writing John-Elio sent me, so I type j-o-h-n into the Gmail search bar and it suggests the wrong John. But it somehow seems right that the app gets it wrong, as if to reassure me of its limits. It’s been years since John-Elio and I lived in the same city, so I usually see and hear about their work through a phone. And more besides: videos of a cute booty shake in a new skirt or toast with an odd topping, as if they’re still figuring out what one does with this thing called a body. What one does with this thing called a party, a rela- tionship, a friend. The thing is strong; it propels this momentary connection between our smartphones far more than the satellite network that makes it possible. The thing is flexible; it can squeeze through a network like an octopus through a drainage hole. This is fascinating precisely because the network seems so uncompromising, with its search bars and accounts and providers and devices and contracts and tuitions and—geez, I guess I’m on a roll here—its fashions and binaries and hierarchies and epistemes and fucking world systems. The thing squeezes through all that even if it sometimes has to take on funny shapes because of the pressure.
The thing underlies this text, too, and my understanding of the art that I have been invited to write about. I see my friend in the work, and I believe this intimacy has been curated deliberately. I believe that John-Elio is offering this intimacy to the viewer even if it’s their first meeting, even through six degrees of separation. But I recognize that this intimacy is also an invitation to contemplate the monstrous. We all know how odd it is to look into ourselves, whether that introspection is mediated by X-Ray, therapy, a dirty kleenex, or a conveniently-placed mirror. What do we expect others will see when they look into us? It’s probably a mess. We try to open up, but then everything gets misplaced: our kidneys are where our elbows should be and our testes hang near our ears. We try to expose ourselves but our trench coats are cut out of metal. It’s not that John-Elio is letting the viewer in on some personal secret, but rather giving the viewer insight into their way of considering the secret.
Try on this vascular cardigan. Walk a mile in my myelin. I’m projecting myself into John-Elio’s head, even if such strategies are supposedly outmoded. I would be small in their head, cruising the sinus highways like in the Magic School Bus. It’s an apt association, for like John-Elio, Ms. Frizzle combines fashion, queerness, and science into a fabulous and fantastical package (and they both have curly hair). There’s a sort of recursive signaling in John-Elio’s art similar to the way the prints on Frizzle’s dresses mirror each episode’s themes. Issues become icons, reduced to the recognizable, but then strangely transformed through a swish and a flourish. The didactic aspect is at the service of wonder. John-Elio’s artworks take on the clarity of diagrams but the message remains mysterious. They require interpretation, like Tarot cards, or further investigation, like the little squares that demarcate anomalies on full-body airport security scanners.
It seems John-Elio is less interested in that underlying mystery than in pointing out the strange techniques we have for conceptualizing it, all the systems and signs developed to rein in the threat of the unknown. The cruel irony is that attempts to mitigate the threat of the unknown are often threatening in themselves. We see it in the unblink- ing eye of the CCTV camera, the furrowed brow that contemplates power, the cold sweat or embarrassed blush elicited by a prying comment, the digestive problems caused by monogenic crops. We feel it all in different ways and in different spots. One cries, one loses their balance, one suffers back pain, one vomits, one joins a union, one gets married, one learns to DJ. I see in John-Elio’s art a willingness to take all banalities seriously as potential symptoms of something momentous without assuming in advance what that thing might be. This openness does not treat everything the same; on the contrary, it makes space for the singular. The problem is that when that thing comes, it might be the end of it all. Or it might be a video of toast. But you have to pay attention or it will just slip away anyway.