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Reading Rämistrasse #73: Juan Barcia Mas on James Bantone at Karma International

The monster always represents the disruption of categories, the destruction of boundaries, and the presence of impurities and so we need monsters and we need to recognize and celebrate our own monstrosities.

Jack Halberstam, Skin Shows (1)

In Cuts of Love, James Bantone immerses the visitor once again in an environment reminiscent of the barbershop. A space particularly well embedded within black histories, acting as a sort of town plaza for gossip, political discussion and community building. However, at the same time, it is a place in which heteronormative aesthetical coding is put into practice. Having grown up as a black gay male, Bantone’s personal relationship to the barbershop ambiguously teeters on the fine blade between security and displacement, between submission and empowerment. So as to enjoy its protection, he is forced to come to terms with a space in which the unease of hypermasculine aesthetics presses down on him ever so harshly. In this confined interior, the stereotypical appearance of black males is trimmed and propagated and individuals are gendered according to pre-established binary models. In this sense, the hair salon is for a black gay male both a refuge and a trap.

Bantone confronts us with his own twirling version of the barbershop, as the green, wall-covering swirl that can be seen when entering the space already suggests. One whose grammar has been queered and distorted, and that has been flooded with horror and lust at the same time. One whose limits have been extended to draw in new modes of being. The works mirror the artist’s ambiguous feelings of desire and aversion and intend to tear down the gendered coding usually imposed within the normativity of said interiors. The conventional gowns one would find in a barbershop have been adorned with prints of kissing men, for instance. In The Fade (all works discussed 2021), a hair salon is photographed through its steamy shop window; only the blurry contours of the customers are perceived. Highly charged with sexual imagination, the wet and hazy window might even remind the viewer of the gay cruising place par excellence, the sauna. Bantone might be referring to and intensifying an already existing sexual tension within the hair salon’s codes of conduct, an environment that, despite its heterosexual coding, allows for close proximity between males, involving caressing hair and delicate touching, leaning tenderly over each other.

Through the gallery’s window, eleven portraits hanging on the opposite wall can be appreciated from the street. They bear the same title as the exhibition, Cuts of Love. The camera angle focuses on the hairstyles of the portrayed, resembling the pages that compose a styling magazine or the exemplary photographs of different haircuts that usually illustrate the walls of a salon. Here, the models have been replaced by Bantone’s friends. Their styles are inspired by aesthetic tendencies of the 2000s and their preference for openly artificial materials and colours. Synthetic wigs, dyed hair and tattoo motifs cut out or drawn on to the hair are but a few examples of the cosmetic array deployed. The images devote themselves to the artificial and the exaggerated, recalling some notions of Camp aesthetics. (2) Further, these photographs have been torn apart, reassembled, stitched together and coloured, making it sometimes difficult to discern between the photographed and the altered. Bantone employs a bricolage approach that even takes a surgical turn at times. Although the subsequent scanning lends the pictures some sort of unity and weakens the brutality of the relentless generative act, the ripping marks and the stitches are still clearly visible and thus manifestly belong to the new whole. As he does with the pictures, Bantone breaks the rigidness of the barbershop and reweaves its alienating signifiers into narratives of belonging.

Bantone’s act of tearing apart and the subsequent suturing handle the depicted body as a malleable object and acknowledge their own composed being, their constructedness and their “being out of place”.

The stitching appears again in the work “Terminal Irony”. The artist’s alter ego, inspired by The Powerpuff Girls' villain 'HIM', a transgender character, is helplessly trying to take out its head from a mirror, unable, perhaps, to grasp the whole of its identity. The life-size figure wears a neoprene suit, sewn together out of different off-cuts with oversized brilliant-green stitches, and thigh boots like the ones the series's demonic antihero usually wears. This time, Bantone makes an appearance himself, in the guise of a monstrous, composed being, with whom he strongly identifies. He marks his belonging, yet only within a body whose original history is one of alienation and abjection.

Bantone’s aesthetics resonate with Susan Striker’s description of the transsexual body as a 'technological construction' (3), a body that has been opened up, torn apart, recomposed and stitched together in a new way open to signification. Rather than a mere gender switching, trans bodies are composed anew, yet stay, at the same time, fragmentary and contradictory. According to Jack Halberstam, the transsexual body provides the visual evidence that all bodies 'are uncomfortable and wrong-ish, situated as they are within confining grammars of sense and security', a fact that is mostly visually evidenced by the transsexual body. (4) The wrong-ish transbody is the physical mediator, the 'undo-er' and the body that should be celebrated for what it does to all of the bodies. Bantone's bodies are evidently altered, rendering evident the fact that all bodies are in some ways monstrous, having undergone processes of alteration, suturing and recomposition. In his own version of the barbershop, Bantone makes space for monsters, abject, openly recomposed beings, objects that are already half broken, in a space in which he himself feels the uneasiness and displacement in his own skin. Through introducing horror, Bantone is able to construct his own reconciliation with the barbershop.

Finally, in Bantone’s space, the sutured monsters become desirable. This becomes most evident in Tongues Untied, a series of clippers unleashing lusty, blood-red tongues that lick and swirl through the floor and walls of the exhibition space. The sharp cutting edges of the tools that give shape to the hair patterns seen in the portraits are now spitting tongues of desire, rendering explicit that desire is something shaped and produced at the barbershop, through the 'horror' of assembling and disassembling matter. Love is a patchwork, a monstrous object that has to be cut into pieces, recomposed and reattached every time anew.

1. Jack Halberstam, Skin Shows: Gothic Horror and the Technology of Monsters, in: Karen Barad, TransMaterialities. Trans*/Matter/Realities and Queer Political Imaginings, GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies 21 (2015), pp. 387–422, here p. 391.
​2. Susan Sontag, Notes On “Camp”, New York 1964, p. 3.
3. Susan Stryker, My Words to Victor Frankenstein Above the Village of Chamounix. Performing Transgender Rage, GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies 1 (1994), pp. 237-254, here p. 245.
4. Jack Halberstam, Unbuilding Gender. Trans* Anarchitectures In and Beyond the Work of Gordon Matta-Clark, Places Journal, October 2018, https://doi.org/10.22269/181003 (accessed 1 December 2021).

James Bantone, Cuts of Love, Karma International, Weststrasse 75, 26 November 2021 - 29 January 2022

Images: James Bantone, courtesy the artist and Karma International, Zürich.

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