Ilana Savdie: Radical Contractions
July 14–Nov 5, 2023
Ilana Savdie (b. 1986, raised in Barranquilla, Colombia and Miami, Florida; based in Brooklyn, New York) explores themes of performance, transgression, identity, and power in her vibrant, large-scale paintings. Her canvases assemble fragments into finely detailed, fluid compositions that pulsate with flamboyant color. Abstracted forms conjoin, merge, and blend to create riotous excess. At their core, Savdie’s paintings aim to dismantle ideas of binary or fixed identity and embrace performance as a transformative tool.
For this exhibition, Savdie will present some of her latest work, including paintings and drawings, as well as new works produced for the Whitney. Drawing on a range of subjects and environments as source material, such as the Carnival celebrations that take place in Baranquilla, Colombia, Savdie explores variable textures and forms of mark-making across each of her expansive canvases. Combining areas of stained and blurred color with swaths of thick visible brushwork or smooth, hard-edged marks, she employs acrylic, oil, and beeswax into paintings characterized by their dreamlike illusion yet grounded in the physical body.
This exhibition will be on view in the Museum’s Lobby gallery, which is accessible to the public free of charge, as part of the Whitney Museum’s enduring commitment to support and showcase the most recent work of emerging American artists.
Ilana Savdie: Radical Contractions is co-curated by Marcela Guerrero, DeMartini Family Curator, and Angelica Arbelaez, Rubio Butterfield Family Fellow at the Whitney Museum of American Art.
Generous support for Ilana Savdie: Radical Contractions is provided by the John R. Eckel, Jr. Foundation.
Additional support is provided by the Artists Council and Jackson Tang.
En sus pinturas a gran escala, Ilana Savdie (n. 1986) crea abstracciones insólitas que consideran cómo podemos resistir, transgredir o desmantelar estructuras de poder. La práctica artística de Savdie se inspira en la historia de la abstracción así como en una variedad de fuentes incluyendo el folklore, la anatomía humana, la microbiología, el horror y la cultura pop. Seleccionando imágenes de diferentes temas, la artista escenifica encuentros surreales que resaltan con un uso variado de texturas y una llamativa paleta de colores: verde bilis, amarillo rezumado y delicados lavados de rosa presionan contra campos expansivos de cera de abejas escamosa.
Esta exposición presenta pinturas y dibujos nuevos que continúan la exploración que hace Savdie del mundo biológico. Para la artista, las estrategias de adaptación y supervivencia que se encuentran entre los animales y otros microorganismos comparten paralelismos con las formas en que los humanos se enfrentan a las dinámicas de la política moderna. Las ideas de Savdie acerca de la exageración, distorsión y subversión como formas de resistencia a las inequidades sistémicas de género, de clase y raciales están arraigadas en sus experiencias en el Carnaval de Barranquilla, que ocurre una vez al año. En particular, se sintió atraída hacia la Marimonda, un personaje que se burla de la clase dirigente al portar una máscara que combina rasgos de monos y de elefantes. Para animar las imágenes en su obra, Savdie crea una analogía entre el comportamiento travieso de este personaje ficticio y la naturaleza transformadora de organismos vivos, como los parásitos. Al fusionar lo folklórico con lo clínico, Savdie desestabiliza formas de representación haciendo que se envuelvan, se transformen, se filtren, se deslicen y se derramen unas sobre otras. En Ilana Savdie: Contracciones radicales, el rechazo a conformarse o ser legible ofrece una oportunidad para cuestionar los desequilibrios de poder y recuperar un sentido de autodeterminación.
Minisode: Ilana Savdie and Carmen Maria Machado on trickery, horror, and the uncanny
Minisode: Ilana Savdie and Carmen Maria Machado on trickery, horror, and the uncanny
Narrator: Welcome to Artists Among Us minisodes from the Whitney Museum of American Art. The following recording is an abbreviated conversation from a public program that took place on July 24, 2023 at the Whitney between artist Ilana Savdie and writer Carmen Maria Machado. The talk was moderated by Whitney Curator Marcela Guerrero on the occasion of the exhibition Ilana Savdie: Radical Contractions. To view the artworks referenced in the discussion, please visit whitney.org/ilanasavdie. Savdie and Machado speak about a range of subjects including trickery, horror, and the uncanny—fitting topics for the month of October!—and how they wield them as forms of resistance.
Marcela Guerrero: So I thought that perhaps we could start with a pretty basic question that might be on the minds of everyone, which is: how did the two of you meet and what sparked this moment that we are living right now?
Ilana Savdie: I had read In the Dream House and fell in love with it and was in the process of working on a series of three paintings for my last show. And I started reading “The Husband Stitch,” and there was a specific moment in that story—the main character gets what is called the "husband stitch" which is an additional stitch given to women against their will. There's a really horrific, very unsettling moment in the story where the doctor casually goes, “it is nice and tight, everyone is happy.” I was working on these paintings dealing with the kind of horror of being on an operating table or the horror of being in a performative state like that. And so the three paintings were titled after “The Husband Stitch,” one is called Nice and tight y todos felices—all three were titled after that piece. Yeah. So I think from there.
Carmen Maria Machado: It was a story that I had heard from my aunt who was an OB/GYN nurse many many years ago. It was horrifying and it really stuck with me that husbands would make this joke when women were getting stitches after childbirth and they would say, “put an extra stitch in there to make it tighter.” And I was like, “well that’s the most horrifying thing I have ever heard in my entire life,” and she was like, “oh ya, they call it a husband stitch.” And I was like, “no, that’s the most horrifying thing that I have heard in my entire life.”
The story is weird because—I call it my hit single. It is the story of mine that people have read the most and referenced the most. It was fascinating to see it have this sort of impact in various places. Then, of course, to see these phrases pulled out—unstitched if you will—from the story and used as colorful paintings that have these organic, unsettling, uncanny shapes in them. It was a really beautiful and interesting experience to see that transformation.
Guerrero: At what point did you feel, Ilana, that you wanted to delve and dig into aspects of the body?
Savdie: I have always been drawn to things that delve into both the ideas around existence and having a body—the audacity of it, the offensiveness of having a body and the offensiveness of taking up space with it. A huge point of reference for me has been—I grew up in Colombia, which is home to the Carnival of Colombia. A four day event where four days before Lent the entire country basically comes to a Barranquilla and delves into this reversal, complete reversal of social norms and it’s a huge festivity.
I have always been drawn to the Marimonda. This figure comes from the combination of a monkey and an elephant and behaves like a monkey. And has this trickster quality of being vulgar and perverse and offensive but also bringing the joy of the Carnival. I have always been drawn to it in terms of its uncanny qualities and phallic quality. But it also has this history I discovered upon researching it. It is part of a costume meant to mock an oppressive elite. It mocked politicians, the upper class.
The idea of the trickster as an agent of change has always been interesting and the idea of humor as a mode of resistance and as a mode of inversion has always been interesting. I root in a really Queer form of resistance through exaggerating the body—and mimicry as a form of transgression. And so I kind of locate that back into the work.
Guerrero: Another agent that makes an appearance are different parasites. If you have seen the show, you have seen the protagonist role that one specific parasite has in the show. Do you want to speak to that?
Savdie: I like to find parallels between the trickster and folklore and the trickster in nature. And the behaviors of the parasite are, by nature, very trickstery. The sort of body-snatcher aspect of entering into a host and forcing it to change. The parasite is an agent of change and that feels like a trickster quality. That was always interesting as a concept. Then looking into them visually, there are so many different kinds. I think something that these paintings have been able to do is seduce through color and texture and force the viewer to look at something that they may not want to look at—in this case a disgusting parasite.
Savdie: There is a word in Spanish, empalagoso, which I think in English “cloying” is the closest. But it is this excess of sweetness and sugar to the point of disgust. I think that place before it gets to disgust is exactly what I seek in colors. For me, this work has become about modes of seduction and finding a way to draw you in to look at something that isn't quite as beautiful or pleasant as you might expect.
Guerrero: Can we also go back to something that you mentioned when you were talking about “The Husband Stitch”— I think I see in both of your works these bodies that are unresolved. They are excessive in some ways. How do you see your work as expanding discourses around the body?
Machado: I am thinking about an essay I wrote a few years ago. I was interested in writing about the fat body and fatness. Eventually I began to think about fat bodies as volume and fatness as an expression of literally demanding more space and cleaving the air more than somebody who is less fat. And I was finding a lot of references. I had been reading the Shirley Jackson biography from a few years ago. There was this horrible line—the biography was wonderful—but in an interview the woman said she was so fat she took up half of the couch but so charming at parties that people hardly noticed. What if the fatness is a part of the expression of this artist and the person that existed in the world? To me those feel inextricable from each other. And bigness, excess, opulence—that is something to be embraced and revered and not feared and shied away from whether speaking about a piece of art or a piece of writing or a person's body.
And I wrote “Eight Bites” and I was thinking about a woman who gets gastric bypass surgery, loses a bunch of weight, and then this ghost of the body that she lost is haunting her in her own home. And she beats it and at some point she tries to kill it. And it is really sad and horrible. When she dies years later the thing that comes to take her away is the body that she lost. I feel like there is, for me, something about the body that feels ungovernable. Capitalism resists it ya know. But it insists upon itself and demands things and I find that beautiful and interesting.
Savdie: I want to say something about “Eight Bites.” You had this one line: “I couldn't make my body…”
Machado: “I couldn't make eight bites work for my body, so I made my body work for eight bites.”
Savdie: I think about that all the time. Sometimes your words come out of my mouth when I try to explain something. That is one of them. I come from Colombia which in general is one of the places with the most constricting beauty standards. There is a lot of talk about la cirugía, the surgery. “Just get the surgery. Put these little boundaries around your organs so that you can make sense in this space.” And I was like I am just going to make ten-foot paintings instead. It makes me want to make bigger paintings and take up more space. There are moments when we were talking about the audacity of my making these huge paintings and putting them in the Whitney. And how dare I! I have these moments of anxiety and stress about it. At the end of the day, it is the only way to understand. The paintings are made to the proportions of my own body. So I can use all of my joints to make them, as angry as that makes my joints.
Machado: I feel like there is related discourse about who gets to write giant fat novels or books that are a million pages long. And I love the idea of something that becomes so big but you are demanding something because it is also so excellent.
Hear directly from artists and curators on selected works from the exhibition.View guide
Installation view of Ilana Savdie: Radical Contractions (Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, July 14–October 19, 2023). From left to right, top to bottom: Trismus, 2023; Thirty-Seven Counts, 2023; Inventaron un cristal que dejaba pasar las moscas, 2023; Las tinieblas, 2023; I they you we gently pull the milk, 2023; The Hyphal Tip, 2023; Caracalla, 2023. Photograph by Ron Amstutz
In the News
“The artist’s paintings are grotesque and uncanny — and that’s what makes them irresistibly seductive.” —i-D
“Sus composiciones dinámicas emplean colores vibrantes y formas fragmentadas para desafiar identidades fijas, abrazando la transformación a través de la actuación.” —Telemundo
“El talento de Savdie se despliega en lienzos de gran formato, que se engalanan con pinturas vibrantes, y abordan temas como la performance, la transgresión o la identidad.” —Magazine Horse
“Though her work addresses large systems of oppression, the interactions between colors in her work remind us of how humans, too, are capable of finding solutions to peacefully coexist.” —Art & Object
“Savdie captures a pervasive feeling of collective dread and anxiety through her vibrant mixed-medium paintings and black-and-white drawings.” —ARTnews
“If you’re wishing to connect over a barrage of disparaging news and a general feeling of tumult, look no further than the paintings and works on paper in Ilana Savdie‘s exhibition “Radical Contractions” at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York.” —ARTnews
“Chaotic and seductive, the eight paintings and several works on paper are challenging to engage with and yet impossible to turn away from.” —W Magazine