Beyond skin deep

Raquel Paiewonsky at Yellow Peril; Kelli Rae Adams at the Granoff Center
By GREG COOK  |  July 9, 2013

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SEXY AND STRANGE Paiewonsky's 'Bitch Balls: Mentirosas.'

The giant fabric breasts clustered on the floor are the first thing you notice when you visit Raquel Paiewonsky’s great show, “im propia,” at Yellow Peril Gallery (60 Valley St, Providence, through July 14). The Dominican artist’s Bitch Balls: Mentirosas are 12 beach balls upholstered in shades of creamy white and suede tan and chocolaty brown. The nipples are long and upright like traffic cones.

There are many breasts here, and lots of hair, as well as a few penises. It’s the body disembodied, turned beach ball fun and sexy and a bit strange so that you can feel it afresh. With echoes of feminist and African-American art — in particular the sculptures Senga Nengudi made in the 1970s with fleshy pantyhose stretched, twisted, and bulging, in places, with sand.

“My work explores the relationship between our essence and our surroundings, the impact of stereotypes and cultural constructions, always taking as a reference our instinctual selves and the ways in which the primal component of our nature is affected by the new and ever-changing contexts of contemporary life,” writes Paiewonsky, who was born in the Dominican Republic, spent the 1990s in New York, and returned to Santo Domingo in 2001. She has shown in biennials in Venice, Havana, and Panama City.

Paiewonsky is a touchy-feely artist — even in her photos. Or especially in her photos of naked guys wearing fake breasts or a strapped-on pregnant belly, and naked ladies with fake penises and hairy chests and armpits. It’s goofy dress-up, but you get the tactile sensation of all that curly hair —or that long brown hair like a horse’s mane decorating someone’s crotch.

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CONNECTED A photo from the 'Enlace' series.

It’s about the skin and touch that links us. One of Paiewonsky’s Enlace photos shows a man and woman standing facing each other, naked except for a bra that stretches from her breasts to his outstretched arms. In another, the woman is costumed in a skin-tight suit made from men’s underwear that resembles bandages; a tube of fabric stretches from her crotch to the man’s crotch.

Muro is a 9-foot-tall wall of hundreds of fabric breasts in a United Nations of pinks and browns and creamy whites. So another thing you might notice here is race — and how skin color often has determined standing in the Americas. It might also make you think of “nude” pantyhose or the “flesh” colored crayon that Crayola renamed “peach” in 1962 as the civil rights movement reminded everyone that people come in many wonderful hues.

All these breasts seem to also be about motherhood — about nursing breasts. Many of the photos here burlesque notions of gender — with hair and swapped parts. It can be disorienting at times in our semi-liberated age when all those parts get all functional again and traditional gender reasserted as you talk about babies and mothers and fathers and the links between generations via biology and skin and all those messy bodily fluids.

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