Three tall black garbage bags at the entrance of the Cheim & Read gallery are full of dying plants, their once lush, green stems withered and dried to a crisp, their once blooming yellow flowers now brown and crunchy like old potato chips. I can’t help but notice the resemblance they bear to the drawings, collages, and multimedia installations on view—brown, scratchy lines etched into clean white backdrops, watercolors purposely limp after bleeding dry with time, found objects and photographs blending each other into a new state of disrepair. Together they form the images of sexualized, deconstructed and reconstructed prison life that make up Bianca Casady’s somewhat darkly titled “Daisy Chain” exhibition, on view until September 8.
The artist, who is also one half of the neo-folk duo CocoRosie, was inspired by “common wild flowers and weeds, things that bloom out of brokenness, un-nurtured, unwanted, looked down upon, villainized,” she said in an email. “The book Our Lady of the Flowers by Jean Genet provided a vocabulary for this work, a highly sexualized, utopic depiction of prison life.”
A tribal tattoo turns the torso of a black man wearing a do-rag into a body of thorns, a blue-green watercolor rose covering his heart, its helplessly fallen petals covering his pelvis.
One young black man in a do-rag masturbates under a bright yet dripping and mournful watercolor rainbow while one more man prepares to enter another, a scene somehow made darker by the addition of glittery butterfly and flower stickers.
A dissembled dresser, its drawers repurposed into display tables with new, foreign legs, display the broken leavings of characters we will never meet—belonging to an abused Cinderella are a broken mirror, a distended yellow braid, a rotted and corpselike shoe; the dirty wreckage of a red rubber nose, a graying and disintegrated pair of men’s briefs, and a bone crudely etched with the word ‘NAPSACK’ belonging to a decomposing clown.
Watercolored and collaged men stand with their hands poised in self-pleasure, only to have their fists instead full of florals, withered and weed-like, or lush and blooming. Some of them are drawn with long, blonde braids or lipstick, or outfitted with photographs of burqas and corsets, purposely affixed with crude glues and tapes that magnify their absurd yet unsettling nature. “I use collage mainly as a tool to recontextualize characters,” Casady said, “making innocent the criminal, and deviant the saint.”
“Mostly I was transforming images,” she continues. “Transforming gender, race, replacing phallus with flower. Also there was a continuous reprocessing and destroying of certain images which I reworked throughout the last year, certain faces which play a large narrative role underwent major surgeries and morphed all along the way, also passing from one medium to the next, as well as one era to the next.”
Part of this transformation is Casady’s repeated theme of ‘Harmless Monsters,’ the idea that we’ve actually created our own ‘monsters.’ “Some monsters have been molded for thousands of years and they become invisible and you can’t even address the problem without using some kind of subversive persuasion,” she says. With “Daisy Chain,” though, Casady draws our attention to the mess our societal neglect has made in “some terrible struggle for power,” as she says, not just within the prison system but within race and gender.
“Daisy Chain” is Casady’s first New York exhibition in five years. She has also exhibited at galleries and festivals in Milan, Tokyo, and Marrakech, as well as Art Basel. Of her work with CocoRosie, Casady says “it’s all the same stuff. Our new songs embody the same ideas. The two worlds, though not separate, feed each other.” This is especially evident with CocoRosie’s song “Jesus Loves Me”, from 2004’s La Maison de Mon Rêve, a commentary on hopelessness which is done in the style of old spirituals, accent and all. Similarly, in “Daisy Chain,” the following lyrics appear, etched on browned paper toward the beginning of the exhibition: “We’re all in line/4 the daisy chain/Jingle jangle/We’re all doin’ time/On the inside of our minds.” The hopelessness carries over; we still have no solution.