Cameron Clayborn centers his practice around the sewing machine, a vital source of production and context for the corporeal sculptures he produces out of leather and shimmering vinyl. A form of making that’s been historically coded feminine, he calls on an essential artistic lineage of queer history, from drag shows to protest banners, Clayborn zips his materials through this mechanical lens with fastidious skill. The clique of these works gathered together creates a fluid energy of possibility, as Clayborn searches for liberation of a self in contest with the world.
This tactile fantasy includes leather like chocolate, a hint of blue denim to whisper a slight butchness, and sleek silver apparatuses to bring tension, both holding weight but also producing fear, with their sharp points warning of a familiar pain. The softest pink makes a brief appearance, but only in a hazardous form: building insulation, trapped within clear vinyl. The danger of heat between these two materials calls forth the body’s pink lips pressed tight, the tender inside of an upturned palm, or the inner intestines, sealed within a living form. The popcorn ceiling paint, trapped behind plexi in both inandout (Frame 2) and (Frame 3) are cut vertically with a sharp point. These steel insertions allude to the artist’s interest in n’kinsi/n’khondi sculpture, West African spirit objects whose power is activated by the owner puncturing the idol with a sharp object, such as a nail. Their name and use have been altered through the lens of Portuguese colonization by describing them as “fetish” objects. As non-Christian religious figures, contemporary culture allows this reading to linger still with sexual undertones. Viewers can grasp familiar sensations in the ripple of the tile, tossed with glitter, and contrasted with the cool edge of steel, but a hard boundary has been set around black fetishization, that can no longer go unchecked.
“I imagine literally absolving into the space itself, as to not attract violence to my body” when Clayborn finds himself the singular black person in the room, which can often be the case in a white-centric art world. Abstracting this experience into cushiancontainerbag becomes a solution to the problem, if only one could peel off their skin, and transform into a collectable luxury object, with a strap for easy on the go access. Both inherently pleasurable and meant to be treasured, it also at once could be tossed, and lost forever. These disembodied sacks that derive their forms via measurements taken off the bodies of the artist and his father—an abstraction of self and lineage into a collection of handsomely constructed objects highlight the intersections he stands in as gay black man raised in the American south. Inherently sexual and playful but also deeply serious, Clayborn’s works taunt the rigid dichotomies of male/female, gay/straight, human/inhuman, and valued/undervalued.
There are no safe spaces for a black body in America, but Clayborn has explored what it might feel like to construct a home for himself out of a multi-faceted practice that recalls cherished memories of a powerful matriarchy. This home is thoughtfully constructed by writing, sound, designed objects, sculpture, performance, power, secrecy, sensitivity, and shared community. The lived reality is a space in which Clayborn has flourished by worshipping and valuing parts of his femininity that have been degraded by society and his family. Like the colonizers who disregarded how n’kinsi/n’khondi functioned, and applied their own language, Through the Wrong Tongue collapses this relationship, asking the viewer to relate to the shared insides of our body. He invites you in, to peruse, as he has assembled to share, and to experience shared vulnerability.
-Written by Ariel Gentalen.