Can a pair of boxer shorts help bring us closer together? That’s one question that artist Jonathan Lyndon Chase thought through as they were creating their latest exhibition, “Big Wash,” at the Fabric Workshop and Museum in Philadelphia, on view through June 6.
Boxers form a recurring motif in the show’s canvases, soft sculpture, and installation elements, as well as an ongoing boxer exchange program that is meant to help create community and intimacy at a moment in which artists have had to design new ways of being together while having to be socially distanced.
The show, Chase said in a recent video interview, is “bearing witness to transformation and to healing: water, being submerged, a wave washing over you.” It also draws heavily on the fashion and music videos of the early 2000s—“Mariah Carey was at her peak at that point,” they said—shortly after Chase came out in 1999. Other influences that Chase has drawn on throughout their career abound, like the work of Ghada Amer, Kehinde Wiley, Chris Ofili, and Barkley L. Hendricks, whom Chase sees as part of their “genealogy of figure making,” as well as the X-Men comic books and video games like Sonic, Crash Bandicoot, Final Fantasy, and Tomb Raider.
The boxers that appear in the exhibition and the exchange program were created as part of Chase’s recent residency at the Fabric Workshop. The show’s curator, Karen Patterson, met Chase shortly after moving to Philadelphia to take the job at the Fabric Workshop. As one of her first moves, she wanted to revive the Fabric Workshop’s residency program as a way for the museum to be more deeply connected to Philadelphia-based artists.
“The roots of the Fabric Workshop when it started were these short-term screen-printing artist residencies,” Patterson said. “I wanted to see if contemporary artists were still as interested in learning and trying screen-printing to see how that might impact their practice.”
Patterson conducted a studio visit Chase, who is based in Philadelphia, where they were born and raised, toward the end of 2019. In Chase’s work, which typically takes the form of intimate portraits of Black queer people that include collaged elements, Patterson noticed that the artist was already working with “domestic textiles: sheets, towels, bedding, clothing,” and she subsequently invited Chase to be a resident artist.
As part of the residency program, Chase worked with the museum’s technicians to create a fabric that drew inspiration from archival binders the artist uses to collect color swatches and poetry, as well as notes and sketches they make based on things they encounter. Chase then assembled the selected sketches onto a piece of Masonite before they were converted into several transparencies that would eventually be silkscreened over two 19-yard bolts of white fabric.
The resulting print is a collage of Chase’s signature portraits of queer Black people, who appear in the wings of orange butterflies next to roses of varying sizes, watches, musical notes, and squiggly lines over a deep periwinkle-blue background. The overall design is meant to evoke plaid boxer shorts.
The butterflies are meant to evoke “love and romance” and symbolize “metamorphosis, mortality, and transness,” while the roses, Chase said, are “a metaphor for pleasure points on the body: nipples, lips, anus. Our mouths are actually the same material as our anus—they’re just like on the opposite ends. I like to draw that bodily correspondence together.”
Once the fabric was complete, Chase took much of it back to their studio to incorporate it in a new suite of paintings and soft sculptures for the upcoming exhibition. In some works, the fabric appear subtly, as collaged fragments, like in the soft sculpture smellin gold rosebuds on my upper lip (all works 2020). In several, they appear as the boxers for the painting’s subjects: peaking over a pair of sagged pants in hes fine with me or hanging out to dry in Helping Hands. Occasionally, the works have a voyeuristic quality, appearing in the background as a shower curtain, like in Soapy Shower, or as curtains pulled back to reveal an intimate scene of people in their apartment.
One of the show’s largest paintings, measuring more than seven feet long and installed atop three bricks, is hang up vibrating purse, which shows a mostly nude figure looking over its shoulder. On their shoulder is a medium-sized handbag made from the blue and orange fabric, upon which Chase has collaged two red Motorola Razr flip phones (one open, one closed). “It has this incredible presence,” Patterson said.
The people depicted in Chase’s paintings are a combination of their husband, their chosen family, friends, fellow artists, and themself, while others the artist makes from their imagination.
“I make work for queer people and Black people,” Chase said. “That is my first priority—it’s my only priority in that way. I’m not saying that anyone’s excluded, but my audience is my own people. I want them to feel seen. I think back to when I was young and not knowing there were Black artists because they teach you this very skewed and white-filled history.
“For me,” Chase continued, “my work is a source to meditate and reflect and to think about different ways that you can exist. There’s not just option A or B. There’s so many ways that you can exist.”
The installation for “Big Wash” also includes a central space resembling a laundromat, replete with black-and-white tiled floor, two yellow-painted washing machines, soft sculptures of sinks mounted to a wall, and three laundry carts connected by white string that hold boxer shorts made from Chase’s custom-designed fabric.
“The laundromat has a really interesting dynamic between public and private,” Patterson said. “Essentially, you’re in a public space but you’re washing your intimates next to a stranger. There’s a charged energy that joins together at the laundromat. We wanted to make it feel like you had to traverse that space and question your body as it moves through different spaces.”
Also key to the exhibition is a boxer exchange program in which Chase created men’s boxers out of the fabric designed in collaboration with the Fabric Workshop. Chase sent the boxers to a small initial group of friends, and the exchange is still ongoing. The boxers arrived in a box with instructions about the program, as well as baby’s breath (a symbol for love).
“Now, more than ever, we’re so separated from each other, so I was thinking of different ways that we could connect with each other,” Chase said. “The isolation from everybody is just really painful, especially in times like this now, where you need to be there for each other.”
Each participant is to wear the boxers for about a week and during that time document their “day-to-day, mundane activities—whatever they want” in various forms from written notes to selfies and more. Each participant then sent their documentations to Chase, washed the boxers, and sent them onto another person. “They have this living energy to them,” they added.
The boxer exchange program ties into the exhibition’s title, “Big Wash,” which Chase sees as a way to think about the ways in which we “practice self-care. How do we wash our bodies, our minds, our souls? How do we wash our domestic spaces?”
The works that Chase created for the Fabric Workshop were all done within the context of the ongoing pandemic and the swell of Black Lives Matter protests that were ignited over the summer with the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor.
“Every single day that I wake up there’s a trans person or a Black person killed,” Chase said. “After a while, I’m not sad—I’m angry. I’m just so fucking tired. We have to protest in the middle of a pandemic. I turn on the internet and you just casually see a dead Black person—just there. There’s no way you could ever get used to that.”
Chase said that they had to take a short break from creating art last year. “I started feeling sick because of all of the death and violence that I was seeing,” they said. The break helped them realize that they don’t value their art making in terms of productivity and how much art they can make.
But they eventually returned to making art as it became an increasingly important outlet for them to express how they had been navigating the past few difficult months. “Images on their own can only do so much. I don’t think art can solve every problem, but it is at least in the right direction,” they said.
In channeling that energy, Chase looked to water and the elements as a way to evoke this concept of healing and transformation and for the many emotions that they—we, all of us—have felt over the past 10 months.
“I always say, ‘We can’t control our emotions. We can only endure,’” Chase said. “The enduring part is the complicated part. If it rains, you can’t stop it from raining. You get an umbrella. So if you’re sad, witness your sadness. Don’t try not to judge yourself and the time will come to pass.”