BY JEANNE-CLAIRE VAN RYZIN
SUNDAY, SEPTEMBER 1, 2013
Comfort — we all crave it. But... how willing are we to receive it, especially if it’s offered by a stranger?
That awkward — and sometimes transgressive — relationship between giver and receiver is the core of Austin performance artist Katelena Hernandez Cowles’ “Comfort Sessions.”
Wearing a dress-like costume made of 100 yards of red fleece that unrolls in blanket-size strips, Cowles centers herself in a pile of pristine white pillows and sings lullabies, inviting visitors to lie down, close their eyes, relax and let go.
Cowles will be performing her “Comfort Sessions” Sept. 17 and 19 as part of “M Path,” an exhibit currently at Texas State University Galleries.
Featuring contemporary work from a roster of international artists, “M Path” dovetails with the university’s yearlong common experience curriculum, which this year explores mental health. Curator Mary Mikel Stump selected artwork — like Cowles’ “Comfort Sessions” — that explores empathy and emotional caring.
Cowles — who as an undergraduate visual art student at Yale University sang in that school’s storied Glee Club — became interested in lullabies when motherhood became her full-time job about a decade ago. (Her children are Celia, 11, and Gabe, 9.)
“I couldn’t make art as a full-time mom to two young children,” she says. “I realized that singing lullabies was incredibly pleasurable within the daily grind of motherhood.”
Cowles, a native of Houston, began sourcing more songs to sing.
She uncovered lullabies from cultures around the world. She sang songs from Broadway shows and Disney movies, from the pop music charts and the Great American Songbook. She sang cowboy ballads, gospel hymns and folk songs. (Cowles now has more than 130 songs in her repertoire.)
But then, a strange thing happened: Cowles began to suffer from extreme insomnia.
At first, a 2006 fall from a horse, which cracked the helmet she was wearing, seemed more an embarrassing goof than a life-changing occurrence. (Perhaps ironically, it was one of the first weekend getaways she and her husband, Jay Cowles, took after their children arrived.)
However, months after the fall, Cowles began to sleep less and less each night, eventually managing only an hour or two.
As her injury manifested more neurological symptoms, her world became increasingly circumscribed. She had to stop driving. And she suspended her board and community work for organizations such as Women & Their Work and the Austin Museum of Art.
Watching her children fall asleep as she sang was often as close to sleep — and comfort — as Cowles could get.
“Singing offered the only time when I felt happy and calm,” she says.
Eventually, through a long process of biofeedback therapy, Cowles regained the ability to sleep — and the desire to make art again.
As she recovered, Cowles conceived of the “Comfort Sessions” as an art performance. And, as a tangent, she also began singing by invitation to anyone who asked her for a personal session. She went to homes and to hospices, singing by request.
She has performed as part of the 2011 iteration of Fusebox, the annual performance art festival, and at arts venues in San Antonio.
Originally, Cowles hoped her “Comfort Sessions” would offer an irony-free respite from our cynical age.
But, instead, Cowles found that the act of singing for someone in so intimate a manner is actually an awkwardly charged experience for many.
A collegial hug to a co-worker might be deemed appropriate, for example. But what about lounging on a pile of pillows with a bunch of strangers in a gallery? And when does emotional intimacy become romantic or sexual?
Cowles’ “Comfort Sessions” has aroused tears from some participants and romantic proposals from others. Frequently, it takes people a while to settle down and relax.
“There are nebulous boundaries in terms of comforting someone else or being comforted by someone else,” she says. “We’re all very unsure of what we’re supposed to do and what we’re not.”
And yet we all crave comfort.
“We’re so programmed to keep ourselves inside a shell, to seem competent and in control all the time, that we can’t let go and be vulnerable,” she says. “But we all need to be comforted.”
When: Noon to 2 p.m. Sept. 17, 7 to 10 p.m. Sept. 19.
Exhibit continues through Sept. 28
Gallery hours: 9 a.m. to 10 p.m. Mondays-Sundays
Where: University Galleries, Joann Cole Mitte Building, Texas State University, corner of Sessom and Comanche streets, San Marcos
Information: 512-245-2647, http://www.txstgalleries.org/
SAN ANTONIO CURRENT
LIFE IN THE STUDIOS AT SOUTH FLORES AND LONE STAR
BY SCOTT ANDREWS
MAY 1, 2013
"Until last year, the exhibition space at 107 Lone Star was called LoneStar Gallery, and was run by Sean FitzGibbons, son of Blue Star Contemporary Art Museum executive director Bill FitzGibbons, whose cavernous sculpture studio carved out a once-a-month niche in front for show space. Sean left town for graduate school, and took the name with him. Now named 107 Gallery, the pop-up space is managed by the Lullwood Group, comprised of Emily Baker, Chris Castillo, Esteban Delgado, Joseph Duarte, Joe Harjo, Julie Ledet, Clay McClure, Willie Sanchez, and Connie Swann. Dedicated to “encouraging participation,” the group staged a rare exhibition of their own work during this year’s Luminaria where, to the delight of visitors, they filled a room of the Instituto Cultural de México with balloons and lights. Though several of the shows they have staged since taking over the 107 space last June have been rather traditional, at least in the media presented — paintings and sculpture — their last show, featuring Austin performance artist Katelina [sic] Hernandez singing lullabies while wrapped in a pillow-filled dress that cascaded to offer comfort to nestled visitors, was exceptional."
CAP MAGAZINE, ISSUE 2
PHYSICAL RITUALS: KATELENA HERNANDEZ’S TREAT SUIT
by Jené GutiÉrrez
“Hi, would you like a treat from the Treat Suit?” a colorfully-clad and friendly woman asked me. I excitedly unzipped a pocket at her side, plunged my hand inside, and retrieved my treat: a yellow smiley-faced, bendable figurine. Though not that captivated by the treat itself, I was intrigued by this performance. Who was this person and what was she doing?
Katelena Hernandez is a performance artist based out of Austin, Texas. Her work largely revolves around the theme of providing comfort andTreat Suit is no exception. Made of tubes, layers, folds, and 125 zippered pockets, Treat Suit was designed by Hernandez and Austin artist and costumer Chrissy Paszalek. Hernandez’s colorful, tubed hair design complements the structure that she carries around her body for hours and hours at a time.
When Hernandez began her performance at CAP’s launch party, I found myself enchanted. Everyone’s reaction was unique, ranging from skeptical aversion to excited entrancement. Some people pulled small trinkets or toys out of the suit, while others pulled bafflingly larger objects from her; some of the pockets are deeper than you would expect. Hernandez explains that some people stop short of acquiring their treat and tell her there is nothing in her pocket. She has to tell them to plunge deeper. The provocation of her suit and performance is apparent. For example, in her experience with Treat Suit, Hernandez has noticed a trend among younger men and older, but not so much the middle range. She says both groups respond in very physical ways, but that the younger group appears more into the maternal aspect of the interaction, while the older men seem more drawn to the sensuality evoked by the performance. Some men will look deeply into her eyes as they are retrieving a treat from her, creating a moment of connection that she feels is fundamental to her work.
“I really do liken my work in a lot of ways to being a courtesan,” Hernandez explains, in that what she is offering is their experience. She says that as people approach the suit, they will ask her how they are supposed to interact and react to it. “There’s no ‘supposed to’…it’s the way they need to react to it.” Hernandez feels that the physical interaction, the care and unconditionality of the exchange are essential to the pleasure both her and her audience experience. “It’s actually slightly transgressive to offer that to someone who you don’t know,” she says. “I’ve had people who say they’ve put the treat in the most honored place in their house…They feel like that moment of trade is really satisfying. Even if people aren’t as specifically responsive to the object, there’s still that transfer of discovery and wonder.”
While Hernandez’s work centers around the idea of “comfort,” some do not perceive it in this way at all or are put off by it. Perhaps the most touching Treat Suit moment she related was during an interaction she had with an older woman who appeared to be in her late 70s. The woman stuck her hand into a pocket on Katelena’s shoulder and pulled out a small magic wand. Katelena says she first interpreted her reaction as bewilderment at what to do with the object. She was about to suggest she give it to a little girl nearby when the woman looked up at her, crying, and asked, “How did you know?” This woman, like everyone who has engaged with Treat Suit, carried her own personal history into the experience.
Although her appearance and performance seem like they would appeal most strongly to children, Hernandez says that children are often afraid to approach her because of the big, colorful suit – not to mention the fact that children are often told to be wary of strangers. In December, Hernandez traveled to Miami to participate in events for Art Basel, an annual contemporary art fair spawned from Art Basel Switzerland that has been growing in scope and size annually since its inception in 2002. She was standing outside of Aqua Art Fair and approached a little girl who seemed intrigued by her suit. Hernandez told the girl that if she unzipped her pocket, there would be a present for her. The mother then pulled her daughter away and shot Hernandez a look like she was the weirdest, kinkiest woman she’d ever seen. Other people aren’t even interested in her treats; they just want a picture, telling her, “But you ARE the treat!”
Among her influences, Hernandez cites artists Marina Abramović, Anne Hamilton, Ana Mendieta, Annie Sprinkle, Patty Chang, and Linda Montano. All of these artists address the idea of boundaries of self and other, some more concerned with bodily boundaries, while others quietly ask for your engagement in some way. The most compelling thing about Hernandez’s work, as well as her contemporaries’, is that it offers the audience an opportunity to confront something unknown and unlock a capacity for transformation. In this way, performance art greatly differs from a more objective engagement that a viewer has of visual work. Performance artists are living, breathing, bodied sculptures who ask for more than your observation; they want you to be affected in visceral, emotional, and physical ways. Performance art demands you be present to witness and become part of the work. The older woman and her magic wand encapsulate this conception most purely.
In an age where a lot of our experience of life and art is dictated through the lens of objective media like the internet, performance art like Hernandez’s becomes both more transgressive and sought after. There is something about interacting with work of this nature that feels more meaningful and affecting than an experience in a gallery. Performance art is similar to theater in this way. When you watch a theater production, an event that takes place in your real time, you become a part of the performance. The audience or viewer becomes an active participant in the art form. Asking people to become active can excite, pacify, or disturb them. Whichever way you react it, it is a new experience that offers transformation, however simply or profoundly. For this piece to be a success, both Hernandez and her audience have to become vulnerable to each other. In a society that seems to privilege separation and individuality over connection and the potential for transformation through each other, Katelena Hernandez’s work seeks to bridge that gap, offering an experience that is unique to each participant, but connected through her and the same basic ritual interaction: unzip, fish, and retrieve.