Luxury is so often determined by a price tag. But commerce is rarely how we interact with the phenomena of high-end merchandise—its excessiveness, its indulgence; its extravagance is almost always (and exclusively) experienced visually. We feel the texture of opulent velvets and silks first with our eyes, the metallic gleam of a smooth reflection through its cool touch on our sight, in jewels that refract their prismatic color back onto our gaze. There is something intensely tactile in the image of luxury—it is as visual as the eye that perceives it. The aesthetics of lavishness are accessible to all; it is not limited to the ones who can afford it.
Luxury sells you a fantasy. So does the work of Chicago-based artist Edra Soto.
Soto’s recent work elaborates on the false paradises promised to us by the imagery of the tropical vacation—an artificial aesthetic that carries with it the possibilities of warmth, leisure, and relaxation through the vehicle of the art object. These representations often take the shape of familiar domestic objects—plastic lawn chairs, side tables, patriotic flags, etc.—and indeed impersonate their function. We imagine experiencing this work surrounded by palm trees, while a cool breeze that comes of the shore, the faintest echo of the sea as the tide washes closer and farther in the distance. But with every vacation comes discomfort. The sand in between your toes, mosquito bites, sunburnt skin, the unappealing resort food—the dream is broken. The work is exposed as a cover-up.
In Soto’s work, the spectacular and its simulation are presented within a single experience. Fittingly matching its title, Say Everything, the imagery within this series of work hinges on excess. Two pieces within stand out in particular—in one, a bright, striking orange tiger commercially printed on terrycloth envelops a series of chairs, stacked on top one another. In the other, the bright blue eye of a snow leopard pierces the viewer with its gaze, positioned just to the center of the seat back. In both works, the printed image is treated as upholstery. While the fabric perfectly conceals the surface of the chair, neatly sewn and carefully applied, it does not disguise its material. The shape is undoubtedly familiar; you can almost feel the white plastic seat beneath you. While the image exists on top of the entire object, almost flattening the chair through the optical busyness of its overall pattern, the furniture becomes anthropomorphic. That the chair has “legs” takes on a new meaning. There is something humorously futile about the artist’s attempt to hide the cheapness of the material support by superimposing such a painstakingly labored image. A camouflage in plain sight.
Through their treatment, the chairs are transformed into a type of digital backdrop; like a screensaver or desktop wallpaper, the imagery allows viewers to ascribe their different projections on the status of the object—from utilitarian to decorative, useful to purely ornamental. Soto’s silk flags operate in a similar way. Though the works are not quite abstractions—their shape and scale quite obviously betrays the countries they propose to represent—they take full liberty with how they describe intensely familiar patterns. More reminiscent of foliage than governmentally appointed colors, which strips them of their “official” function, the flags are strangely more connected to their originally intended use. Which is, of course, to wave in the air. Here, the flags billow in the breeze more naturally, like leaves.
Just as the image of luxury sells us a fantasy, Soto’s work allows us to experience that more often than not, the dream of paradise is better than the thing itself.
This essay was first published in the ArtSlant Prize 2014 Catalogue, on the occasion of the ArtSlant Prize 2014 exhibition at Aqua Art Miami, from Thursday, December 4—Sunday, December 7, 2014. Edra Soto was the ArtSlant Prize 2014 Grand Prize winner.
(All images: Edra Soto, The ArtSlant Prize Exhibiton, 2014, Installation views at Aqua Art Miami; Courtesy of Edra Soto and ArtSlant)