Elle Pérez’s "guabancex" Is A Meditation On Historical Erasure, Resilience, and Presence
A boxer balances like a crane against a white wall, his left glove lifted in parallel with its corresponding leg. He’s turned away from us, concealing almost his full anterior, and yet the composition of the photo feels like a key turning in its lock: though we can’t see the boxer’s face, there is the sense of having been shown everything.
The boxer appears twice within the framed works of “guabancex,” Elle Pérez’s second solo exhibition of new photographs and collages at 47 Canal. Aside from the collages, the rest of the mostly monochrome series is conspicuously unpeopled. Pérez, themself a boxer, has spoken before about their interest in “making work where you are.” What then are we to deduce from the planters, curbs, and lightless apertures into the unknown? From the natural settings of resilient disrepair that adjoin liminal publics— subway trains, dining sheds—and fraught privates, like the garlanded parlor of a funeral home?
The capacity to notice a place’s most mundane aspects—the vestibules, the sliding doors, the inadvertent petri dishes where grit and moisture coagulate—suggests a deep familiarity, one that can’t be easily granted. “guabancex’s” framed work conjures a glimpse so intimate as to be microscopic, producing insights that one is forced to question; similar to a boxing coach, Pérez instructs by feinting (or feints as instruction).
That sense of careful, if combative, guidance pervades “guabancex.” To borrow from film director Douglas Sirk, you can’t make photographs about things, you can only make them with them. When the with is obvious, we’re graced with a dynamic stillness of breathtaking beauty, like the other framed photo of the boxer, whose bare back curves like a nautilus against that same white wall; but when the with is unclear, as in the framed photos of broken chain link, wet plastic, or algae-furred mangrove roots rising from water, it feels like a delicate redirection, a reminder to avoid the temptation of about. With and about are different experiences, as Pérez is surely aware.
Which isn’t to say that Pérez won’t play with this distinction: the collages recombine the framed photos with new images of grapplers, surgical patients, anthropomorphic sculptures, and the photographer themself. In contrast to the framed photos’ unpeopledness, the body—a Pérez standby, along with tantalizingly rich shadowplay and the voyeur’s studied cool—has followed us here, though it, like location, must be understood expansively. “guabancex,” says the artist, is a “meditation on…historical erasure, absence, resilience, presence,” on “being part of a politically constructed body of people that has been created to be moved, denied roots not just once, but in multiple eras and epochs, in multiple locations.”
—Davey Davis, September 2023