Julio Gonzalez was traveling in Mexico when he spied a couple huddled across the plaza in which he stood. They were in their own world, kissing, hugging and cuddling, oblivious to the bustling crowds crossing the paving stones.
“I thought of the joke, ‘Get a room,’” Gonzalez remembers. “But they probably couldn’t afford to move out of their parents’ houses, so there was no room to get.”
Heading back to his home in Charlotte, the 40-year-old multidisciplinary artist couldn’t shake the image of the couple, now indelibly stamped in his brain. Back in America, Gonzalez realized he didn’t see any displays of public affection at all, not even two people chastely holding hands.
“Then I saw a YouTube video,” Gonzales says, “’How to do PDA the Right Way’ or something like that, and it was giving advice on when to touch, [and] when not to touch.”
LOVE & DEATH
Soon after, Gonzalez was talking with his friend, 29-year old fiber artist and journalist Jillian Mueller. Mueller had been following Gonzalez’s work since she visited his groundbreaking exhibit Dia de Los Casi Muertos, or Day of the Almost Dead, in 2013. Gonzalez had begun the exhibit in reaction to Halloween revelers appropriating Day of the Dead-style face paint for a quick costume without regard for the Mexican celebration’s social and spiritual underpinnings.
Over time, as Gonzales adorned volunteers with skeletal-yet-colorful body paint and interviewed them about mortality, the exhibit snowballed into an examination of how different cultures deal with death.
Mueller remembers the show as the first exhibition she saw in Charlotte that made her excited about the local art scene. Soon after, she met Gonzalez at Petra’s in Plaza Midwood, and the two started talking about collaboration. Everything gelled as the summer turned to fall, and Gonzales told Mueller about the affectionate young couple in Mexico City. Just like that, the kernel of an idea that would turn into an art exhibit was born.
“We started thinking about people not just on a cultural basis but [their] individual vulnerability and personality,” Mueller remembers.
The two friends decided to gather a diverse group of artists to explore their serious, funny or heartfelt takes on how each of us expresses affection. The result of their call to arms is PDA: An Art Show Exploring Displays of Affection, going up at Crown Station on February 15, one day after Valentine’s Day. The exhibit is free and will be open to the public through March 15.
TO THE TOUCH
In addition to Gonzales and Mueller, 12 other artists will be sharing their visions of empathy and tenderness in the public sphere. Contributors include Elisa Marie Sanchez, musician Sweat Transfer, avant-garde theatre troupe XOXO, painter and mixed-media artist Dammit Wesley, spoken-word performer de’Angelo Dia, fiber artist Sarah Terry Argabrite and more.
As the show’s philosophical fulcrum, Gonzalez is developing a de-facto performance piece, an installation comprised of a park bench where people will be encouraged to hang out.
“I’m asking individuals to sign up and sit for two minutes and they can do whatever kind of PDA they want,”
Gonzalez says. He’ll be photographing all interactions and using the photos for a large-scale project later. Even here, cultural expectations came to the fore. Although he left the ground rules for the bench invitations open to interpretation, Gonzales discovered that some people psychologically limited themselves.
He’s heard people say they don’t have a partner to comprise a couple. On the other hand, many professed to being completely cool with sitting down and holding hands with a stranger. “It’s interesting when you pose a question, what people arm it with,” Gonzales concludes.
While these micro-connections are taking place on a park bench in Charlotte, Gonzalez extrapolates what this simple process could mean on a wider scale. Too often people allow television, newspapers and social media to tell them what they see and know, he explains. But if people broke through their preconceptions, and actually touched and hugged people from other cultures, divisions could vanish.
Mueller also believes in the power of transformative touch, but that too often affection is expressed in material ways. When she was working in Uptown a few years ago, she would see men buying flowers at vendor stalls every day at lunch and carrying them home to their partners. Gifts, she says, are not part of her love language, but she realized that carrying flowers was the men’s way of displaying PDA. She was struck by the paradox that PDA is prevalent — even among Uptown banker bros — while at the same time taboo.
“I’ve always wondered why it’s so taboo to express something that’s so natural and innate in all of us,” she expounds. “I realized that people express it in different ways, and I thought that would be interesting to explore [in the show].”
For her part, Mueller will be doing a yarn bomb outside Crown Station, festooned with all sorts of Valentine’s Day-themed items. Since the show is so close to the greeting card holiday devoted to hearts and flowers, Mueller is drawing on her childhood memories of trading Valentine’s Day cards with classmates at the Catholic school she attended as a child in Raleigh.
“I am making over-the-top squishy adorable goodness,” she says.
There will also be plenty of flowers. Mueller says most of the people she’s dated in the past 10 years have shown affection through gifts, so during that decade she’s received more than her share of flowers. “That’s not how I’ve interpreted and received affection, so I’m going to be working with that.”
‘VISUAL CULTURE AND AFFECTIONATE NATURE’
Inside the venue, patrons will be confronted with a flurry of sights, sounds and experiences, Mueller and Gonzalez promise.
For her part, Sanchez will show a set of ink paintings and drawings on layered paper and vellum.
“My works pull from recent and past travels to cities that I’ve noticed are open and colorful in their visual culture and affectionate nature,” she says.
XOXO artistic director and founder Matt Cosper says his troupe will present a non-linear impressionist performance called Tender Care. Actors Kadey Ballard (Cosper’s wife), Jon Prichard, Cody Frye and Will Rudolph will be performing a series of looped actions, he explains.
“There’s a development to the loops but the whole is all contained in each of the pieces,” Cosper says. He also promises that the performance will not be interactive, so people weirded out by potential touchy-feely encounters at Gonzales’ installation won’t have to worry about being ensnared by Cosper’s merry pranksters if they stray too far from the bench.
When Cosper and his cohorts started developing the piece, they considered drawing audience members into their ritualistic movements but thought better of it. It turns out XOXO may be a little squeamish about getting up close and personal with strangers, too.
“It’s [a series of] standalone performances that people don’t have to engage with, and we actually encourage folks not to. Do not feed the animals, so to speak,” Cosper says.
Gentleness, intimacy and care are not what people think of when they first hear the term PDA, he continues.
“The easy choice with PDA would be making out. That’s a cliché performance art response to the prompt PDA: ‘Let’s have a kissing booth. We’ll just make out with everyone.’” But Cosper feels the more radical choice — and perhaps the more necessary choice — is to explore tenderness and non-erotic intimacy.
Performance artist de’Angelo Dia will also be exploring non-erotic affection and intimacy. Set to music by Matt Tully, “Revolutionary & Militant Love” will incorporate movement and spoken word with a possible soupcon of audience interaction. The piece will explore how we use the word love with interchangeable meanings.
Admiration and appreciation for things we can do without is often conflated with genuine affection for people and places we need in our lives, Dia explains. The conflict is that we say this overused verb “love” [to] conflate people with things.
“I’m theologically examining how can I say I love apple pie and then I turn around and say I love my mother,” says the performance artist, who is also a chaplain at Trinity Episcopal School and an associate minister at St. Paul Baptist Church.
Dia will examine how love and touch, particularly between male peers, can bring healing. In his day jobs, Dia works with young black men who don’t often experience love, affection and encouragement, he says, and he feels that affectionate interactions can be transformative.
“I hope that we’ve evolved to the point where saying publicly ‘I love you’ to a brother, with no romantic connection or intention, is getting closer to a place of universal acceptance,” Dia says.
Jimi Thompson, better known as artist Dammit Wesley, says that being in love while being a person of color is almost taboo in America. Since the narrative he’s developing through art is multi-layered, Thompson is allowing his canvas to determine the arc of his story.
“The primary focus of my piece specifically is to show the fetishization of black sexuality,” Thompson says.
When we speak, Thompson says that his contribution to the PDA show will be a painting, though he cautions that it might turn into a mixed-media piece by the time it’s finished. In any medium, the content promises to be explosive.
“I’m working through my feelings in my mental rolodex,” he expounds. “What do displays of public affection look like in different eras, like the 1950s in Charlotte? I want to show the horror of being in love and being a person of color at that same time.”
THE SNOWBALL EFFECT
Despite that cautionary note, Gonzalez feels the PDA show will represent a coming together for the city. He’s excited about how quickly and easily the show has gotten on track.
“The conversation [with Mueller] happened, we reached out and Crown Station said, ‘Yeah, do whatever you want to do.’” Gonzalez enthuses. “It’s one of the beautiful things about Charlotte. It’s a great sandbox. It’s small and it’s easy to know who we need to get something together on short notice.”
For Mueller, coordinating the show has been like seeing the snowball effect in action. She and Gonzalez got the word out, people responded, and all the pieces started falling into place.
“We have so many great professional artists who will be there, but it also feels like a group of friends making something cool and having a good time,” she says. “I think that’s how it’s going to feel for people coming in.”
Sanchez hopes people leave the show excited to see their culture and themselves represented, and a little curious about the way others express themselves.
“I want people to have a great time and experience great art,” Mueller says, though she also hopes the event prompts people to think about how they express affection and vulnerability, and how they can tap into those feelings.
“Public displays of affection are important to make people feel seen and loved,” Mueller concludes. “If we can encourage people to do more of that, then [the show] will have been a success.”