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When Beauty is a Beast: Carolina Mayorga Invades the Capitol Hill Arts Workshop

Artist Carolina Mayorga at work installing her site-specific work at the Capitol Hill Arts Workshop. Photo for East City Art by Eric Hope.

Artist Carolina Mayorga at work installing her site-specific drawing at the Capitol Hill Arts Workshop.
Photo for East City Art by Eric Hope.

It is often said that beauty is in the eye of the beholder.   The giant fly currently buzzing across the Capitol Hill Arts Workshop’s main gallery space certainly puts a new spin on that adage.  Completed with oil pastels, artist Carolina Mayorga’s gargantuan (10 by 12 feet) insect takes a visitor by surprise not only with its sheer volume, but also its neon-pink wings, legs and compound eyes.  Where we might shrink away in disgust, Mayorga sees allure; our repulsion is an entry point for the artist’s direct questioning of societal values concerning beauty and gender within popular culture.

When CHAW invited Mayorga to take over the space for its inaugural gallery residency, little did they know a figurative infestation would be the result.  Mayorga has used the residency to create the third installment of Pink:  The Art of Infatuation and Embellishment, an ongoing investigation that the artist states delves into, “the role that aesthetics and beauty play in popular culture.”  While the majority of the gallery walls are covered with drawings depicting moments in the life-cycle of the common house fly, the larger-than-life drawing of the fly captures center stage.  The resulting work—using the gallery’s wall as a canvas backdrop—will be painted over in thirty days’ time, matching the lifespan of the common house fly.

A suite of smaller-scale drawings suggests the life stages of the fly. Photo for East City Art by Eric Hope.

A suite of smaller-scale drawings suggests the life stages of the fly.
Photo for East City Art by Eric Hope.

While this iteration, which Mayorga has titled Pink Cycle: The Life of a Fly, is fairly straightforward in design, there is much to unpack within the individual components.  On the surface, literally, there is all that pink.  The color pink is a focal point as much as the subject matter.  It comes in a variety of visual textures thanks to the different mediums the artist uses, including colored pencil, ink, watercolor, and pastel.  While the textures differ, the hue is consistent across platforms.  Rather than candy-colored, this pink is loaded with down with magenta tones that suggest blood-enriched flesh.  It is an aggressive–almost assaultive– color choice that certainly aligns with Mayorga’s desire to challenge both our definition of beauty and our biases towards assigning those ideals of beauty toward one gender in particular.  Mayorga has an affinity for pink, noting how it can “magically turn [that which is unseemly] into something beautiful.”

Beautiful is certainly not an adjective we normally apply to the common housefly.  Mayorga has more apt adjectives, such as “dirty”, “unclean” and “undesirable”, acknowledging that for the vast majority of us “they are an unwanted insect.”  That disgust intrigues Mayorga, who seems to question how these negative affirmations developed in the first place.  What are the societal “rules” that proscribe affinity and revulsion, and how are those rules delineated and enforced?   In this context, the pink tones serve two overlapping purposes:  to create the form of the insect and, more tellingly, to install a veneer of attractiveness upon the skeleton of that form.

An untitled work displays Mayorga's attention to detail. Photo for East City Art by Eric Hope.

An untitled work displays Mayorga’s attention to detail.
Photo for East City Art by Eric Hope.

In another artist’s hands, this heavy reliance on the color pink might cause the entire project to lapse into the slapstick or the cartoonish; Mayorga approaches her subject matter through the eyes of Dr. Salk rather than Dr. Seuss.  This is readily apparent in her various untitled small-scale drawings that hang opposite the site-specific component. These works, completed in her studio, reference biological drawings in their depictions of wings, legs and other body parts.  A second set of drawings, featuring anatomically complete depictions of flies, creates an arcing storyline that suggests the entire lifecycle of the species.  This suite of drawings in particular hints at the biological mechanisms that drive the interaction between individual insects.

That interaction subtly delves into the political meat of Mayorga’s analysis of our social structures, as these small bugs are anthropomorphized stand-ins that mimic several facets of our human interactions.  The artist notes that, “they [bugs] always have connections with humans,” and though this particular chapter of Pink may not be as overtly political as prior works featuring insects (her 2013 installation Infestation at the Artisphere used ants to directly comment on immigration), her continued focus on the insect realm seems to suggest that the foundational structures that support our concept of humanity and differentiate us from the animal kingdom are merely thin veneers.  With this installation, Mayorga posits that the way we define beauty is situational rather than intrinsic, subject to both caprice and bias.

Carolina Mayorga's Untitled site-specific drawing in its finished state. Photo courtesy of the artist.

Carolina Mayorga’s Untitled site-specific drawing in its finished state.
Photo courtesy of the artist.

One aim of the CHAW residency program is to provide insight into the artist’s working process, and in this instance it moves Mayorga’s solitary drawing into a public experience.  While this should not be considered a performance piece (as defined by the artist’s intent), it does share aspects of performance.  Watching the artist work, I cannot help but notice how the spontaneity of her thought process is challenged by the precision of her mark-making; it appears that both facets of her artistic process seek to balance each other out.  The installation is also both time-based and ephemeral, given the fact that the giant fly will “die” when the exhibition ends, never to be seen again.  “I enjoy the pieces that don’t last,” Mayorga tells me, noting that she is “not that attached to the art itself,” but more so to the ideas that inform the final result.   It seems counterintuitive to state that this exhibition is a subtler delineation of her political views than previous chapters of the Pink saga, given the way the shades of pink assault the eye.  But in this case, that subtly is warranted—perhaps even necessary—in that it forces the viewer to consider their own biases towards beauty rather than accepting Mayorga’s viewpoint verbatim.  Who knew the color of cotton candy had so much to teach us!


 

Pink: Life of a Fly runs through September 24th at the Capitol Hill Arts Workshop.  A public reception to debut the site-specific work will take place on Saturday, September 10th from 5-7pm.  For more information, visit their website here.

Editor’s note:  The article has been updated to include an image of the Mayorga’s completed installation.

Eric Hope
Authored by: Eric Hope

Eric Hope is a curator and writer based in Brookland. He moved to Washington DC in 1997 and a twist of fate found him a volunteer marketing job at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden. In 2009, after ten years of marketing work at large museums in DC he moved into the realm of curating, staging a variety of solo, duo and small-group shows for the Evolve Urban Arts Project. He currently freelances as a curator and writes about local artists and the DC arts scene for a variety of online publications. Originally from Missouri, Hope holds degrees in International Relations and Public Service Administration from DePaul University in Chicago.