- Artist as Alchemist:A Review of Cassils's Monumental
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Cassils, a Canadian-born Los Angeles-based transmasculine performance artist (who uses the singular name and both "he/him" and "they/them" pronouns), creates politically and socially conscious, feminist, body-based artworks that present physical, social violence against—and resilience of—gender-nonconforming and queer people. Cassils performs their body politic primarily through rigorous, physically intense performances that require high-level training and conditioning of the body, which often reverently (and at times playfully) engage art history through queered, feminist lenses. Grounded in body-based performance art, Cassils's practice also includes photography, film and video, sculpture, drawing, sound, and participatory public artworks. Cassils is the recent recipient of a 2018 United States Artist Fellowship, the prestigious 2017 Guggenheim Fellowship, a 2016 Alpert Visiting Artist Fellowship at Syracuse University (during which the author cotaught a course with Cassils), a 2015 Creative Capital Award, among other accolades.
Cassils's recent solo exhibition Monumental, at Ronald Feldman Gallery in New York City from September 16 through December 9, 2017, presents the work of an alchemist: an artist asking viewers to see, listen, and feel the visceral and embodied impact of earth, water, fire, and air upon a feminist, transmascu-line body. There is power in these elements, both as evidenced through physical and emotional force, and through a rich art–historical lineage in which Cassils frames his image, object, performance, and body-based practice. Within this exhibition, Cassils grounds viewers in the present through a reckoning of art history, political urgency, and a carefully crafted invitation for empathy and listening.
The exhibition consists of three large gallery rooms, each featuring alchemical elements: earth, water, fire, and air. First, earth as objects, images, and performance emergent from Cassils's Becoming an Image (2012–ongoing). Second, liquid—water and urine—as performance, sculpture, and relic centered around Cassils's Pissed (2017). Finally, fire and air as performance, object, and video grounded in Cassils's Inextinguishable Fire (2007–15).
Upon entering the exhibition, viewers first encounter a lenticular photograph presenting the "before" and "after" of the object at the center of Cassils's ongoing performance work Becoming an Image. Before/After (2014) documents a specific 2014 performance performed in Toronto, Ontario, as part of the Thirty-Fifth Rhubarb Festival hosted by Toronto's Buddies in Bad Times Theatre. By shifting their position, viewers see a monumental one-tonne obelisk of modeling clay transform into a beaten lump, a mushroomed blob. Becoming an Image is a live performance in which Cassils pummels the clay obelisk blob in pitch-black darkness, with the performance illuminated only by the flash of a photographer's strobe. The resulting images are burned into the retina of audience [End Page 118] members, creating a difficult-to-describe experience in which audience members experience sound, touch, and smell in real time, while visual time slows to an occasional holographic still image of the artist and blob obelisk in motion and transition. Photographs from Cassils's December 2, 2016 performance at the Philadelphia Academy of Fine Arts (PAFA)—presented as part Melt/Carve/Forge, Cassils's first solo museum show in the United States on view at PAFA from November 19, 2016 through March 5, 2017—line the walls of the first of three large spaces within Feldman's SoHo Gallery. The photographs capture Cassils's naked body pummeling the clay, surrounded by audience members and monumentally scaled versions of classical male sculptures lining the walls of PAFA's great hall. At times, Cassils's expressive athletic gestures model those of the sculptures, their forms mirroring one another in the flattened space of the photograph.
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At the center of this...