Janet Levine March Gallery at Nashville’s Gordon Jewish Community Center through April 30
WORDS Audrey Molloy
This month, Janet Levine March Gallery at Nashville’s Gordon Jewish Community Center opens with Kristin Llamas: ¿Como Te Llamas?, an expansive exhibition of illustrative paintings which playfully characterize the phonetic resonance of naming. Kristin Llamas is a Nashville-based artist widely known for her minimalist and photo-realistic paintings produced concurrently with social outreach initiatives. ¿Como Te Llamas? is a continuation of Llamas’s relational investigations through paint, but marks a particular transformation in the artist’s practice towards subjective abstraction.
I had a conversation with the artist to discuss these new works…
What was the catalyst for your interest in this visual play on nomenclature?
My work is always project based and involves study and dialogue from the community while addressing social issues. However, in the start of 2017, I began feeling drained by social concerns. There was so much political and global disrupt that I felt like I needed to research something that someone of any race, belief, or country of origin could connect to. The Llamas Art Show has become the most inclusive project I have created to date. I consider this project a playful unifier, while also provoking honest conversation and self-awareness. By engaging with people on their name alone, I feel we are able to strip away all of those divisive factors such as location, politics, race, religion, and social status.
Besides the semantic play on “llamas,” what is the symbolic or conceptual significance of this particular animal in context of this work?
We are all given a label when we are born. This title, our name, becomes the first piece of information that we share about ourselves. A name is something that everyone has, everyone wants to know, and no one can take away. A name is the one thing we carry with us everywhere we go, even when we are gone.
Naturally, when I decided to research names, I played upon my own name by asking “¿Como te Llamas?” My name is pronounced “ya-mus” but almost always mispronounced like the animal, so my subject matter seemed pretty obvious. My work has always been heavy in narrative and symbolism, and the llama symbolizes themes that I hope to portray with this project: strength, perseverance, communication, and community.
In Llamas, your process is concerned with creating a visual representation of a name—a designation which is phonetic, etymological, and entirely free of aesthetic reference. Have you, in working on Llamas, constructed a stylistic lexicon or strategy for representing names?
This has been one of the most interesting and time-consuming elements to this project. I’m not sure that there is any real science behind it, but when it comes to associating a name with visual representation, I can most closely describe it as a form of synesthesia called photism.
The sound or “feel” of a name is what creates the form and imagery. To me, hearing and seeing a name leads me to feel like it looks a certain way. Now, we all have biases toward names. These biases are based on our experiences with people who share those names, and whether consciously or subconsciously, these interactions can create positive or negative feelings in us when we hear that name again. In some instances, I embrace that association of a name with its visual representation. Other times, I try to push that aside.
As the artist, I understand that I am taking liberty in linking characteristics with a name, but I don’t see these llamas as portraits of people so much as they are a representation of the name itself. My visual association with names is also proof that these labels hold a lot of weight on the perception of our identity. Have you ever said to yourself, “Wow, he doesn’t look like a Frank … Andrew … Jacob”? Or, “I keep wanting to call her Rachel!” Why? What is it about names that create an actual association to a look and or “feeling” within us?
So, what is the significance of a name? Particularly after spending time on this body of work, has your conception of “naming” changed at all?
With all that I have learned during the creation of the first 200 names as llamas, more questions have arisen than have been answered. If someone is legally named “Matthew Jacob” but was always called Jacob, which do they connect to as their first name? If you have variations of your name, how do you choose if and when to share them with specific groups of people? Do you have a “professional” name and a “friend” name?
How does your name change as it crosses borders and adjusts to new languages or tribes? Does that change have an effect on your actual feeling of identity? Does it affect your personality to have a name that is constantly pronounced or spelled incorrectly? Do unique names have a positive or negative effect on your self-esteem? Is your name helping or hurting you in life? How much of your life is predetermined by your name, a label, that you may have received before you were even conceived?
Regardless of race, belief, sexual orientation, or country of origin, we are all struggling with the same battle of identity. I learned about a woman who was given a name that in her culture means “next a son.” I’ve spoken with people who have changed the spelling of their names, named their children all various versions of their own name, and those who had never even thought about their name until I asked if they identify with it. I have questioned the fate that I laid out for my own children by choosing their names. I have questioned our entire system of labeling people at birth. Importantly, this project has allowed me to feel a connection with individuals on a global level.
“Regardless of race, belief, sexual orientation, or country of origin, we are all struggling with the same battle of identity.”
Kristin Llamas: ¿Como Te Llamas? will be on exhibit at the Janet Levine March Gallery at Nashville’s Gordon Jewish Community Center during the month of April. The opening is April 11, 6:30 to 8:30 pm. For more information, visit www.nashvillejcc.org/jgalleries. See more of Llamas’s art at www.kllamas.com.