Skye Volmar on Maximalism, “Deflowering,” and Black Pubescence

Mar 10, 2021 4:19 pm

Skye Volmar’s solo exhibition “flower, child,” on view at Deli Gallery in Brooklyn through March 21, takes flowers as its central motif, talking back to the images we associate with young girls. In paintings, drawings, and assemblages of varying size (all 2019–21), the LA-based artist confronts her subjects’ simultaneous delicacy and vitality, using bright colors and playful materials like colored pencils and hair accessories. Below, Volmar frames the racist and misogynistic attitudes that underpin concepts like “gaudy” or “tacky,” and reflects on the often conflicting rules of behavior and dress that she was taught as a young Black girl.

I’ve been reflecting on some good old childhood trauma, specifically the experience of Black girlhood. Thinking about the language and metaphors we use to talk about girls led me to the flower motif. Words like “deflowering” or figures like the flower girl were on my mind.

The first three drawings you see when you walk in are arranged in a triptych-like formation, though they’re individual pieces. Petal Pulling (2021), which is on the right, shows two hands plucking petals, as if a girl were saying, “he loves me, he loves me not.” There’s longing, but also violence in that tradition. Girls are socialized to desire attention from men, and often in that search for approval, a beautiful living being gets destroyed. The act of deflowering can be both literal and metaphorical.

Similarly, for my still-life drawing Watering Hole (2021), which is hung on the same wall as the triptych, I was thinking about how we cut flowers, then put them in jars, possessing and displaying these things of beauty. But the moment you pluck them, they start dying. This flower is the most vaginal one in the show.

I have asthma, and I’m really allergic to flowers. I grew up in an urban, predominantly Black environment, where asthma isn’t just genetic. It’s also circumstantial. I wasn’t exposed much to plants and pollen, so I never really got to sit and smell the flowers as a little girl. If I did my face would swell up—like the figure’s face in Flower Smelling (2020). I understand now how environmental racism plays into that. Being allergic to this thing I’m really drawn to seems like a potent metaphor for girlhood.

I often draw with colored pencils, which I got into as a poor college student. For this show, I wanted to get in touch with my inner child, and crafty materials help me retain that childlike sense of discovery and play. The pandemic has been conducive to self-reflection, and to using the kind of materials that work well in a bedroom-cum-studio.

Baby (2020) is one of my makeup drawings. I love to put on a bunch of makeup. . . . I’m from New Jersey! Sometimes, I blot my made-up face with a piece of paper, then keep the paper around to use as a prompt when I’m stuck. This time, I saw a little doll in the smudges, which are almost a Rorschach test. But there was this red streak on the page, which felt kind of violent. It became a portrait of four women mourning around this young child, a boy. In the context of my show, the work speaks to how Black femininity involves caring for Black men: I made that work amid protests against the police brutality they regularly experience. I need to see the child in this drawing as a doll, because it’s too hard for me if it’s an actual child.

The double portrait Paradise Lost (City Girls), 2020, speaks to vitality, resilience, and survivorship rather than victimhood. I’ve come to appreciate the beautiful community among Black girls created in part by our shared socialization. I incorporated glass mosaic fragments, barrettes, and neon colors into this painting, hoping to celebrate these freaky, fantastic qualities that I associate with Black femininity. From the outside, a lot of people see certain aspects of Black girlhood—the barrettes, the beads, the nails—as gaudy. When I was growing up, these things made me feel like an outsider in the predominantly white prep school I attended. I see now that these barrettes are protective mechanisms, a way of keeping young Black girls super girlish so that people remember: this is a child. Last month, cops in Rochester pepper sprayed a nine-year-old Black girl, and they actually said to her, “you’re acting like a child.” She replied, “I am a child.”

I’m still drawn to rainbow colors à la Lisa Frank, which is definitely my Caribbean influence showing. At first, I was kind of embarrassed about all the maximalism—I rarely encounter such intense palettes in a gallery space. I realize some people hate on this loud femininity. I still wanted the works to be “pretty,” though—it’s a show about girlhood, so confronting the pressure to be pretty seems crucial. I want viewers to see the lengths these works are going to in order to dance for you, to balance all these conflicting expectations and aesthetic sensibilities, or maintain the two-ness that Du Bois described.

—As told to Emily Watlington