When encountering Autumn Wallace, one is reminded of a young Frida Kahlo, with her elegant poise, fiercely intelligent eyes, gender-fluid beauty, and determination not to let herself or her art get boxed in.
Wallace, who goes by the pronouns they/them, grew up in Philadelphia and graduated from Temple University’s Tyler School of Art in 2018 with a B.F.A. in painting and ceramics. Now, as one of the Fine Arts Work Center’s visual fellows, Wallace will have an exhibit of recent work, titled “#THECONTAINERSTORE,” with an opening this Friday from 6 to 8 p.m. at FAWC’s Hudson D. Walker Gallery in Provincetown.
Wallace’s art draws from such diverse intellectual interests as European art history, cartoons from the ’90s, black femme sexuality, and language. The metaphor behind “#THECONTAINERSTORE” is a box that fails to contain what is happening within. “The action in the work tries to break the fourth wall, with me as the unreliable narrator,” Wallace says. “As for the story, it’s for the viewer to find their way in through multiple planes of tense — past, present, future.”
From “narrator” to “tense,” the language of storytelling is key. “Language and linguistics are fascinating to me — breaking language down to where and why we use the words we do, or how words can mistranslate through different languages,” says Wallace, who is proficient in German, speaks some Italian, and is learning Icelandic as well as Latin. “That’s an obsession of mine. Because if you translate, for example, ‘I’m sorry’ into German, you’re saying, ‘It causes me pain.’ The added empathy is fascinating.”
The imagery in Wallace’s work is intended to raise questions or cause confusion — even discomfort — in the viewer. Cartoon characters mixed with painterly figures challenge notions of what goes together and what appeals to us and why. Wallace does this by “creating spaces where sexuality is maybe, but not overtly, happening,” they say. “It manifests in the black femme body. So much of our sexuality has been taken out of our narrative, so I’m trying to take it back and create wider discussions about consent, BDSM, and how we are also free to make all of these decisions without the social baggage.” BDSM is an acronym for bondage, discipline, and sadomasochism.
“I have sets of sadist characters, sets of masochistic characters, some in-between, and some symbiotic relationships,” Wallace says. “With all of these constellations, I like to push, pull, put together, and separate to see what happens.”
Wallace’s creative process includes some acting out. “I dress up as my characters, or I conceptualize a character through a new persona that I try out somewhere,” they say. “Going to a new environment as a stranger and behaving in a way that the character would behave — it’s refreshing and liberating, kind of my version of field research.”
Being in Provincetown has caused a shift in Wallace’s work. “Since arriving here, because it’s kind of quiet and cold and dark, I’ve been staying inside more, reflecting on my past, my foundations, considering questions like why you are here and why you are who you are,” they say. “By listening to myself answer these questions, I’ve extracted new meaning from previous works that I’ve done and put more of that meaning into the newest ones. I had a habit of removing myself from my work, because art was how I distracted myself from my past — all the bits of myself that I tried to stuff in a box. But now I’m actually using scenes from my past — the childhood home we were evicted from, my parents, things like that. I feel like the more personal you can allow yourself to get, the more universal the message becomes.”
Wallace has been “shocked and heartened” by how generous and personable people in Provincetown have been. “You walk into a place to get a coffee and suddenly, you know what they do, their name, why they came here and for how long,” they say. “That has just been so beautiful, and it has definitely softened my emotional resolve, because my own emotions have been in their own box, being a big city person and all. I’ve learned to open up here.”
Being part of the diverse group of writers and artists at the FAWC has been a bonus as well. “As a group of fellows, we have bonded intensely, traded ideas and collaborated,” Wallace says. “I got to do a broadside with the poet Joy Priest. We spotted our common ground during a show-and-tell the first week and immediately bonded on human sexuality and the black femme experience.”
Wallace and Priest created three broadside editions together and put them up for sale online on Wallace’s Etsy.com page, VeggiemonStore. Two are multilayered screen prints of Wallace’s work, inspired by a poem from Priest’s upcoming collection, Horsepower, and the third is Priest’s poetic response to one of Wallace’s drawings.
“They’ve been going fast,” Wallace says.
Painting Outside the Box
The event: Opening of exhibit of work by Autumn Wallace
The time: Friday, March 6, 6-8 p.m.
The place: Fine Arts Work Center, 24 Pearl St., Provincetown
The cost: Free