by Blair LeBlanc
Language originated around 50,000 – 150,000 years ago, yet we still choose preceding forms of communication – signs, symbols, gestures – to express the full picture of what we mean. Taking inspiration from a line in the Talking Heads’ 1983 song This Must Be The Place, Jiha Moon and Michelle Laxalt’s two-person show The Less We Say About It The Better at Olympia (August 12 – October 7) explores the delights of friendly collaboration. Peaches dripping, yellow flowers smiling cheerfully, an ambiguously animal skull; together this exhibition beckons the question: if the less we say about it is better – what are we talking about and why is it better left unsaid?
Presenting twenty-four pieces created primarily in collaboration and a handful individually, the Atlanta-centric artists continue to push through the culturally charged genre of painted ceramics, and expand their sculptural vocabulary into new neighborhoods. The gallery space is brimming with the small works. They assert a dynamic color palate and are sprinkled with reoccurring motifs pulled from Moon’s pop inspired vernacular and Laxalt’s biomorphic body language. About half of the works are hung on the wall and the other half stand on either shelves or a table placed in the center of the room. Installed at Olympia, a gallery located in the Lower East Side of Manhattan, this show marks their first collaborative exhibition with the space.
Throughout their practices, both artists draw from life in attempt to come to terms with their multifaceted identities and existence in this world. While Moon speaks in the visual symbols and iconography that articulate one’s personality, Laxalt uses the forms and contours that fold out from our body and repeat into our living environment. The impetus of this exhibition is the development of their collaboration, showing a snapshot of how it has evolved over a period of seven months. However, the show also includes several pieces made individually. Acting as anchors – these pieces declare who the artists are on their own.
In Moon’s work Red Yolo (2023) for example, fortune cookies (a signature in her practice) rest on top either shoulder of a crimson vase. Moon is from DaeGu, South Korea and currently lives and works in Tallahassee, FL. In an interview with the High Museum, she notes that they represent an Americanized misconception about Chinese culture. The motif is comical and cute in contrast to her rigorously constructed sculpture. Further, the cookies themselves mirror a visual similarity to Laxalt’s often cream color palate.
Laxalt’s trademark glaze is shown most clearly in Pear I (2023), one of the smallest works in the show. The quotidian shape is delicate and familiar, and at the same time seething with a simmering intensity. A cerulean gloss envelops the porcelain fruit in a bubbling slither. Originally from Reno, Nevada, now based in Atlanta, Laxalt also has been engaging with ideas of identity, except through physical representations.
How do we perceive ourselves and how does the world perceive us? This question of identity is all the more acutely felt when approaching it from a place outside of center. The two play many more roles in addition to being artists; Moon is a mom, wife, and professor. Laxalt worked in arts administration, and is now a professor.
With these convening themes, all put in the context of a gallery with a mission to [dismantle] the cis-male-centric art canon, this show reminded me of a past collaboration with two other artists – Jean-Michel Basquiat and Andy Warhol. They are a behemoth pairing who persist as both introductory figures to art and as classic favs even to those well versed in the minutiae of art history. I don’t make the comparison lightly. I bring them up because both pairs of artists shared similar trajectories, matching missions, and a desire to think differently about the history of art. Where they diverge is their approach to co-creation. Where Warhol and Basquiat saw each other as competitors fighting in a boxing ring – Moon and Laxalt see each other as friends going out dancing.
Their playfulness in comparison creates a generative energy – more of a “yes, and…” improvisation. Like in the work, The Less We Say About It The Better (2023), a hanging sculptural piece installed on the right wall of the gallery. There, their approaches mix with a loose spirit. Folds of soft porcelain pleats pinch together meeting in the middle. An ominous double skull reminds us that we are only here for a finite moment. And on the top and bottom the show’s proposal unfurls, written in cursive on ribbon. This piece is a strangely melancholy outlier in the bright bunch. Yet, adorned with beating red hearts, the tone of the work still strikes a chord that is celebratory in the face of decay.
Though they don’t tell us explicitly, I imagine these artists actually do talk about “it” a lot. With “it” being issues of sexism, xenophobia, beauty standards, and navigating an art world that excludes us outside the center. To achieve an equitable art world we must build space for these voices. To get there, it seems Moon and Laxalt argue that dancing around the subject is the best approach. I don’t know if I wholly agree; coming from a queer perspective, where speaking up and being visible is (and in some states continues to be) a hard-won right. But maybe – if we turn up the music and get moving we could make the work we have ahead of us all the more fun.
Jiha Moon and Michelle Laxalt’s two-person exhibition The Less We Say About It The Better is on view now through October 7 at Olympia