Gender nonconformity on display at PAFA


One of the main functions of art is to enable the viewer to perceive some aspect of life in a new and different way. Transgender and gender-nonconforming artists, in particular, often find art an effective means of communicating what life is like outside the gender mainstream. One such effective example of this is now on display at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts.

“Melt/Carve/Forge: Embodied Sculptures By Cassils” is a multi-media presentation of Cassils’ (pronounced “castles”) groundbreaking work in performance, photography, video and sculpture. The PAFA presentation is the first solo museum exhibition of the artist’s work and should place the venerable Philadelphia institution on the forefront of the country’s modern avant-garde scene.

The exhibit revolves around Cassils’ live performance, called “Becoming an Image” (held at PAFA Dec. 2, but the event is completely sold out). In it, the artist unleashes an attack on a 2,000-pound block of molding clay in total darkness. The only illumination is from a photographer’s flash, which serves to burn a succession of images into the audience’s retinas. The results of this performance make up the photographic and sculptural aspect of the exhibit.

The photographs show Cassils pummeling away at the clay block, sweating and grimacing, attacking the clay with a ferocity that is actually disquieting. On the gallery wall around and above these photos is an enlarged image of an audience of a past performance, all with expressions of stunned fascination at what they were seeing. As an added enhancement to these images, four speakers are suspended from the ceiling, with the sounds Cassils makes while attacking the block. A quadrophonic effect enables anyone standing in the midst of these speakers to hear these blows as if they are coming at you from different directions. And if you listen closely, you can also sometimes hear the artist’s heartbeat. The cumulative effect is both eerie and fascinating.

In a separate gallery is another photographic piece called “Time Lapse Grids,” which is a record of Cassils’ transformation into a traditionally masculine muscular form via intensive bodybuilding, meant as a statement about how some people mold their own bodies, like art, to align more completely with their inner sense of self.

Also on display in the rotunds of PAFA’s Historic Landmark Building is a video called “Tiresias.” It’s a video record of an arduous, almost-five-hour performance in which the artist melts an ice sculpture of a classic male torso with only body heat. It is perhaps the most challenging and difficult piece to view of the whole exhibit. The expression on the artist’s face is pained, but grim and determined, a metaphor for the arduous process of molding oneself.

In addition to the sold-out performance, PAFA will conduct a series of panel discussions on Dec. 3 on several of their current exhibits. The one featuring Cassils is called “Gender and Sexuality in 19th- and 21st-Century Photography.” There will also be an opening reception held that day.

“Melt/Carve/Forge” is not a particularly easy exhibit to get through, nor particularly pretty — but it’s not meant to be. It is an artist’s serious effort to build a metaphor, not only of what it’s like to be gender-nonconforming, but of the arduous and often painful process of molding oneself physically into the person they perceive themselves to be. PAFA should be praised and congratulated on presenting the work of this important gender-nonconforming artist.

“Melt/Carve/Forge: Embodied Sculptures By Cassils” is on exhibit through March 5 at the Historic Landmark Building of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, 118 N. Broad St. For information about the exhibit, or the panel discussion and opening reception on Dec. 3, call 215-391-4806 or visit