I want to beach the way Frostina beaches. Do you see him up there, the crocheted wool figure, legs propped open to expose a genderqueer, psychedelic rainbow? You can see the scars from a double mastectomy, perhaps from a gender confirmation surgery, glorious badges of nonconformity. The only item of clothing on his stitched body is a pink cape, identifying Frostina as not just not ordinary but extraordinary, a super queer superhero who feels right at home spreading wide for the world to see.
Frostina is one of artist Caroline Wells Chandler's "Beach Bois," a crew of genderqueer bathers whose awkward, cheesy smiles and rainbow physiques celebrate radical queerness, recently on view at Lord Ludd in Philadelphia.
The series takes inspiration from Paul Cézanne's "The Large Bathers," an early 20th century painting of nude women huddled around a natural bath. The Post-Impressionist figures sit and sprawl together on the shore, their unclothed bodies in various positions of gentle, passive repose. The naked ritual is sensual but not sexualized, as if the work's erotic charge emanated from the viscous layers of paint more than what they depict. The nude forms allude ever so slightly to an undoing of gender, their pale, fleshy bodies possessing both strength and grace in a way that contests normative fantasy and desire.
If Cézanne's 30-year effort to paint bathers in various iterations was an early call to undo binary distinctions between men and women, through the unifying beauty of flesh-colored paint, Chandler takes this holy aspiration to its most radical endpoint. In his crocheted cast of characters, rainbows spew from butt cracks, and genitals are awesomely ambiguous. While Cézanne worked in paint, a medium closely aligned with brooding male genius and docile female muses, Chandler opts for the typically feminine domestic craft of crochet, undoing the veil of masculine seriousness that pervades Cézanne's original.
Growing up as a queer trans person in a conservative family, Chandler often made those around him uneasy just by virtue of existing. "My presence can be uncomfortable for them, which is a bummer," he explained in an interview with The Huffington Post. And, of course, the reverse was just as true, as Chandler was constantly rattled by the traditional values he encountered. Because of his precarious relationship to comfort, motifs related to coziness and tradition often appear in his work -- for example comfort food, blankets and crochet.
Chandler originally picked up crochet when he was 19, when he was spending lots of time caring for his aging grandparents. Before this period he'd focused primarily on painting, but dipped into crochet because the social art form allowed him to create and interact with his grandparents at the same time. "I didn’t really want to ditch them and crochet is completely opposite to painting, which seems so solitary and isolated. Crochet is inherently a social way of making art," he added.
At first, Chandler didn't spend much time thinking about crochet's reputation as "women's work," a domestic craft that paled in comparison to the seriousness of macho painting. But somewhere down the line, the tension between masculinity and femininity, tradition and experimentation, seriousness and play, began to manifest in the form of mythical cartoon people who liked to get naked and go swimming.
While Cézanne's bathers are still, composed and a bit on the pale side, Chandler's batch of swimmers in the site-specific installation "Freestyln" emerge in parts from an invisible body of water, their multicolored bodies doing the freestyle stroke in unison, the passive stance replaced by sprightly motion, the averted gazes swapped for manic, giddy grins that meet the viewer head on.
Chandler identifies his bathers as cartoon people, somewhat mythical, some with superpowers, others imbued with a psychedelic something. "I dream in cartoons," Chandler says, explaining how the psychedelic nature of his work comes naturally, or perhaps supernaturally. "Art is the ultimate psychedelic experience," he said. "It's corny but I do believe it. Art is a mind altering experience. At least for the art maker."
Chandler mentions some of his favorite psychedelic art influences -- Hieronymus Bosch's "Garden of Earthly Delights," Michelangelo's "The Torment of Saint Anthony," Maurice Sendak's Where the Wild Things Are. Like the latter, Chandler's work has a somewhat childlike energy to it, his simple, outstretched bodies reminiscent of a euphoric, naked kid at the beach.
While Chandler himself wouldn't describe the show as nostalgic or innocent, he explains that many viewers recognize a whiff of prepubescence in the artwork. "Most kids are pretty open and confident in their bodies, before an adult tries to enforce a cultural viewpoint," Chandler said. "It's this place of openness that I’m interested in, which I think a lot of people can associate with childhood. My childhood was weird. I don’t think of it as a place of happy bliss."
Kids' drawings, however, did serve as a source of inspiration. When Chandler first started making figurative work, he took inspiration from coloring books and outsider art, particularly their use of urgent and primal forms. For Chandler, the immediacy of untrained artists amounts to images that feel direct, energetic, and often genderless.
Combine this youthful artistic urgency with the coziness of a wool blanket, the delicious allure of a gingerbread cookie and the throwback vibes of a masterpiece made on Kid Pix and you have Chandler's "Beach Bois" -- exuberant, ambiguous, unclothed and ready to play.
May we all go to the beach with as much confidence, fluidity and colorful body parts as Frostina and his crew.