Frankie Toan's sculptures at Craft Alliance include a multilayered 'Queer Garden'
Childhood visits to the City Museum fueled Frankie Toan’s interest in playful art that attracts casual visitors.
Toan, 32, developed an artistic style that combines their interests in craft materials and gender studies. Now based in Denver, Toan specializes in textile sculpture and immersive installation. “Strange Familiars,” their exhibition at Craft Alliance, includes a bit of both.
Colorful fabrics, pink fringe and even a stuffed duvet cover create an environment that is welcoming but also a bit strange. The works resemble disembodied arms and hands, and a large “Queer Garden” that’s filled with artificial-looking vegetation. Toan said the mood reflects the mix of celebration and unease that some trans people experience as they find their way in the world.
“Strange Familiars” is on view through Oct. 29.
On a recent tour of the exhibition, St. Louis Public Radio’s Jeremy D. Goodwin asked Toan about the layers of meaning within their work.
Jeremy D. Goodwin: What sorts of materials did you use to make all this?
Frankie Toan: There's lots of fringe throughout the show. There's beads, sequins, paint, a lot of vinyl. I love shiny, kind of acrylic, plastic-looking materials. There's also some old bedsheets, old tablecloths. There's Mason twine, that's often used in construction — a lot of my cross-stitch pieces are made from that. There's LED lights. There’s snaps. There's a lot of different kinds of recycled fabrics. All kinds of things.
Goodwin: Looking around the gallery, I see those items arranged into different shapes. I see a lot of body parts, mostly hands and arms. There’s vegetation, things growing. How do these pieces fit together?
Toan: I like to play with the body, the human body form, quite a lot. This one here is made from an old duvet cover, with a hand at one end and some hot-pink fringe on the other.
This piece is a little bit monstrous. The fringe is sort of like where the arm could be cut off, so it’s a little bit like blood. But it’s also very much like a party skirt. A lot of my work plays with the dynamic between horror and playfulness.
Goodwin: There’s kind of a celebratory feel in some of this, but you use the word monstrous, too. What’s that line you’re walking?
Toan: A lot of this is inspired by the experience of having a marginalized body in the world. So I'm a queer, trans, nonbinary person. And so a lot of this is my reflections on what it's like to move through the world in that way. And a lot of that is scary at times, but also very playful, and also very celebratory. So there's a lot of joy in that as well.
With this piece, for instance, this large arm — the playfulness of the colors and the materials come in, but it’s also a disembodied arm. It’s potentially an arm that’s been cut off, or that is too big for the space or that is being crammed up against the wall. Maybe it’s being restrained, or maybe it’s being hugged to the wall.
That tension between awkwardness or difficulty, and then also lightness and playfulness, is where my interest really lies.
Goodwin: When you talk about feeling estranged from one’s body, I haven’t experienced gender dysphoria, but that’s how I’ve heard it described. Does that relate here at all?
Toan: There’s definitely the idea of gender dysphoria in terms of how you fit inside your body, or how you fit into the way that people are seeing you.
But to me, on a more personal experience, it is not so much not fitting into the expected expression of gender. As much as I understand my own gender, I'm trying to express that to the world and trying to have that be seen and reflected back to me the way that I experience it.
For me, it's more about trying to find the authentic expression of gender in myself and show that and express that to the world, rather than the other way around.
Goodwin: And so it comes out in a very individual, unique way, right?
Toan: It’s that line between, on a hard day, it can be hard to be "other" in the world and in many different kinds of ways. But on a good day, there's so much joy and there's so much wonderful community that can come from that. And I think that is expressed here as well.
Goodwin: In the past, you've described your color scheme as tacky, which is a word I usually hear with a negative edge to it. What do you mean by that?
Toan: There's a lot of maybe seemingly negative words that I would associate with my work. Fake is one of them. I love very shiny, tacky materials that are obviously not natural. How do I put this the best way? There's something artificial about all of this,
I also think there is an element of trying to come up with a queer aesthetic. I want to be clear: I think it is dangerous to try to make an aesthetic for one community which is a varying, vastly different group of people. But for me, I like to have within my work the sort of visual language that could be called a queer aesthetic. So I use things like the painted nails on the figures or sequins or bright, shiny things. And I think there is a tackiness to that. And I embrace that within my work.
Goodwin: The centerpiece of the show is “Queer Garden,” which covers a 20-foot wall. I see a lot of vegetation there, some flowers, a hungry rabbit. And we see what look like two human hands coming out from the background, to hold hands. It looks like they both have painted fingernails so it suggests maybe that’s a same-sex relationship.
Goodwin: They’re at the center of it, but also a little bit hidden in plain sight. And I’m not sure how comfortable those figures are with coming out from behind the bushes.
Toan: Gardens in queer history have been used for cruising and for other social and sexual encounters in public space. And so that is a history that is included in "Queer Garden."
So the figures are behind the bushes there, maybe they're sneaking away. Maybe they're just having a private moment within a public space. There's also an element of: Who has access to outdoor spaces? And how complicated is that?
Goodwin: It seems that there’s a lot of playfulness in this work, and there’s a lot of melancholy as well.
Toan: There is definitely a lot of playfulness in this work. And “Queer Garden" is about subverting existing power structures as well, the idea of the western garden as this manicured, very particular, neat, organized, tidy thing. Here it’s absolutely unruly and kind of just a thicket and an explosion of life.
Follow Jeremy on Twitter: @jeremydgoodwin