exploring identity, sexuality, and censorship with nyc’s most exciting young artists
Czech photographer Marie Tomanova brings together friends and collaborators including Alexandra Marzella, India Salvor Menuez, Michael Bailey-Gates, and Grace Miceli, for the powerful group show "Youth Explosion: The New Bohemia."
performance by india menuez, alexandra marzella, and claire christerson (photo by olimpia dior)
The Upper East Side's Czech Center seems a strange location for a convergence of NYC's most exciting young artists, most of whom fall into what still gets called the "downtown arts scene." But the city's new wave of creative innovators can hardly be boxed into one section of the grid anyway, rather existing as an overlapping, ever-expanding circle of friends and collaborators taking over venues from Connecticut's Peace Barn Sanctuary to D.I.Y. galleries in Brooklyn to the Midtown MoMA. Tonight the Czech Center will throw open its doors for a show bringing together disparate works from these established and emerging artists, designers, performers, and musicians — including Michael Bailey-Gates, Claire Christerson, Maya Fuhr, Ethan James Green, Alexandra Marzella, Grace Miceli, and India Salvor Menuez.
The show — titled Youth Explosion: The New Bohemia — is curated by Marie Tomanova, a Czech photographer who ditched the patriarchal art world of her hometown five years ago to start a new creative life in New York. Decamping to the most populous city in the United States inspired her to shift mediums from fine art to self-portrait photography, which she uses to explore identity and challenge censorship of the female body. Youth Explosion is a collection of Tomanova's friends and collaborators, all of whom seem to take an equally fluid approach to different artistic mediums. On opening night, for example, the show also will feature a pop-up store by Alt Space, performances by Legacy Fatale, Go!Push Pops, and RAFiA, and a "Czech Out" rooftop party hosted by new-gen club kid Nicky Ottav. i-D spoke to Tomanova about self, sexuality, and the youthful energy of NYC's art scene.
What does contemporary youth culture mean to you in the United States compared to in Czech Republic?
The art scene in the Czech Republic is much smaller but still quite active. It is very male dominated, which I do not like, but I think — hope — that it is slowly changing. What I like about the art scene and youth culture in the U.S. is that it is way more diverse and playful. It feels more open, at least in NYC. But that is, of course, because NYC itself is a much more colorful and diverse place than cities in the Czech Republic.
I love that young people here are not afraid to experiment with all sorts of media and are active on many levels, such as performance, video, installation, painting, sculpture, or photography. And they feel free to move from one medium to another. This openness to be who you are and work how you want to work inspires me. I do not feel like I have to fit into some box. Youth culture in NYC means safe creative space for me. It means freedom. I can be me. And I can show you me honestly. I do not have to hide.
Why did you decide to move to the United States?
I did not know what to do after I finished my MFA at school. My professor for Master studies did not respect female artists very much and told me for three years that my paintings were shit. It was very sexist environment. I asked him if I could continue discussing my art with him after I graduated, and he said, "Yes, if you sleep with me." So I decided that was enough and I did not want to paint anymore or try to pursue a career as an artist in Czech. I left to America and slowly found my way into photography and realized that it is what I was looking for.
What inspires you about being a young artist living and working in New York City in 2016?
The fact that I am living and surviving as an artist in NYC — that is the biggest inspiration. The city itself and the people in it are a huge part of that. That it is possible, that if you go for it, it can happen! Even though that one month's rent here is about five month's rent in Czech, the opportunities here are huge, and the people and friends that I get to meet are inspiring. It is all worth the struggle! New York City is still a very dynamic place to be an artist.
Are you friends with the artists in the show? How did you meet?
Yes! I had met most of the artists before I started to plan this show. I got lucky that through one of my first artist friends, who I met in NYC, I got introduced to Posture magazine. I took over my friend's position as a photographer after she moved to California to finish her documentary movie, Makoshika. I shot for Posture the first photos that were not self-portraits. I still remember how freaked out and scared I was when I went to photograph my first features. My second shoot that I did was for Go!Push Pops' performance at the Brooklyn Museum, and I instantly fell in love! And through them, I met other feminist artists, was part of a group show and panel at A.I.R. Gallery, and that slowly grew into a much wider art circle. At the end, the art scene in NYC is not very big either. We are all friends!
Gender, sexuality, and identity are big themes in your work — how are these addressed in Youth Explosion?
They are addressed without censorship. Youth Explosion is all about youth energy powerfully challenging notions of self, identity, sexuality, nature, and state of being. My own works in this show are introspective and naked. I explore body as a form, its relationship to nature, and the power of revealing, hiding, or being in between.
You also deal a lot with censorship of the female body. How do you address this on Instagram compared with in a gallery space?
I am so glad that there is no censorship in galleries! But I did think twice, or even three times, about a photo, Inside (2016), that I printed for this show. And that just shows how bad this censorship mentality is. If not constantly challenged, it can begin to affect the way I see myself. And I do not think I am alone in this. Why should I feel bad about showing my body the way it is? It is ridiculous. I have lots of new work that I will have to show in galleries because it makes no sense to post it on Instagram and have most of it covered in emojis. Today we are very much connected to social media, and I find compelling Cindy Sherman's work that suggests identity is at least partially shaped, or powerfully affected, by media.
Do you have a favorite piece in the show?
It is so hard to tell! The first people who installed were India [Salvor Menuez] and Claire [Christerson] because they had to leave for a residency in Connecticut, and I right away knew that their installation was my favorite piece. But then Mike [Bailey-Gates] and Grace [Miceli] came to install and their work was my new favorite. Then I installed with Sessa [Englund] and — loved it! And when I put up Ethan [James Green]'s, Maya [Fuhr]'s, Ally [Marzella]'s, and Thomas [Whiteside]'s photographs and I knew that this whole show is my favorite. It has been so beautiful to watch it grow. And when Nicky Ottav brought his painting, I knew that we did something very special, all together. With Go!Push Pops, Rafia, and Legacy Fatale performances at the opening night we will celebrate the New Bohemia.
"Youth Explosion" is at New York City's Czech Center July 7 through August 4, 2016. The opening reception is July 7 from 7-10pm.
Text Hannah Ongley