“I always make sure I take an ashquavanga [sic] multivitamin, and I wash it down with Pepsi,” a woman says while gazing into her mirror in one of Ilana Harris-Babou’s videos, titled Decision Fatigue (2020). The artist’s works target whitewashed, upper-middle-class aesthetics and sensibilities by coldly skewering influencer culture and aspirational brands—parodying cooking shows, commercials for high-end furniture, and instructional YouTube videos, along with the stilted performances they feature. Together, the works in “Tasteful Interiors,” the artist’s early-career survey at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, strike a strange and powerful chord.
The exhibition’s main room features three tongue-in-cheek video works that often star the artist alongside her mother, Sheila Harris: Cooking with the Erotic (2016), Reparation Hardware (2018), and Decision Fatigue. These pieces skillfully incorporate themes of Black liberation into the aforementioned content buckets as the artist quotes passages from Audre Lorde while her mother kneads yellow coloring into a package of margarine, or plays with the slippage between repair, restoration, and reparations. The university freshens these works by installing them on separate faces of a V-shaped arrangement of walls in the center of the gallery. Half of the outside wall is painted a pastel pink while the other half, and the inside of the V, are beige hues reminiscent of Crayola peach (a shade that, until the 1960s, was known simply as “flesh”). This layout also presents other surprises. The two channels of Cooking with the Erotic, for instance, occupy a tight corner inside the intersecting walls. Unless sandwiched into that corner, the viewer has trouble hearing the video. The closeness leads to an immersive and disorienting experience, watching soaking wet strawberries fall onto a handmade platter and splatter their juice on one screen, while, on the other, Harris-Babou delivers a line with a vacant gaze and wry smile: “There are many kinds of power, both those used and unused, acknowledged and otherwise.” Harris-Babou’s works spark joy by creating a sludge out of the concepts of taste, influence, and desire while discreetly slipping in uncomfortable and urgent truths.
Finishing a Raw Basement (2017), set off from the other works, was the most gripping and emotional work in the show. Here, Harris-Babou intersperses skits about home renovation tactics with stirring and vulnerable interviews with her mother. In one such scene, part of a segment titled “Easy Repairs,” Harris states that reparations would “bring a humanistic quality to man” and signify for her that the “group that oppressed me did understand what I brought to this culture and appreciate me for that,” a gut-punching sentiment. The clip is bookended with scenes of the two women painting their fingernails after failing to scratch the paint off whitewashed brick walls and, later, coating the whole basement in a blood-red shade. Symbolically, these gestures recall the slow progress toward equality made throughout generations, and evoke the frustrations felt at every step of the way.
Harris-Babou’s videos share the main room with staggered and stacked plinths of varying heights that display what the artist calls her “dysfunctional” ceramic and resin sculptures using found materials; slapdash and absurd in their craft, they are less subtle than the videos in which the artist deploys them. Soap bars embed slices of Little Trees car air fresheners, Edison bulbs perch atop lumpy lamps, and uneven rolling pins sport knobby handles. A peg board hung with misshapen ceramic hammers hearkens back to a recurring image in Harris-Babou’s videos: a white hammer made from unfired clay, crumbling when put to use. In the world of her videos, these defective tools are the only ones available, rendered in ways that expose and exaggerate their uselessness. They’re second-rate physical manifestations of inequality, and suggest another line from Lorde, paraphrased by Harris in Finishing a Raw Basement: “Like I told them, you can’t dismantle the master’s house with the master’s tools.” (“Yeah, of course,” the artist chimes in, slipping back into the comical role of sidekick on the design show. Her character ignores any tension and underlying metaphor in adding, “I hope we can really turn this [basement] around.”)
Harris-Babou puts forward difficult ideas with dispassionate delivery, and the exhibition is affecting in its ordinary arrangement. Its strength is its guise of familiarity. Serene, like a newly opened Sephora on a languid Sunday morning. Comforting, like the low, prosaic hum of HGTV playing in the background as your partner cooks dinner. Still, Harris-Babou’s main challenge in caricaturing these personalities is merely keeping up with cultural trends and changing approaches. Vulnerability and the appearance of sincere political engagement are the new hallmarks of industry for those in front of the camera. It’s no longer in vogue to be consumed by frivolous decisions. Social media influencers, the kind Harris-Babou targets in her most recent works, like Decision Fatigue, face the same quandary. Instagram captions are paragraphs-long diaries, and selfies are egoless schemes, a way to trick the algorithm into helping champion a cause. Kim Kardashian West is no longer just a beauty guru or style icon—she’s a mental health advocate, a shimmering face of prison reform. The artist has plenty of contradictions to mine as bourgeois taste adjusts accordingly.