New York

Heather Cassils, Becoming an Image Performance Still No. 1, 2013, C-print, 22 x 30".

Heather Cassils, Becoming an Image Performance Still No. 1, 2013, C-print, 22 x 30".

Heather Cassils

Ronald Feldman Gallery

Heather Cassils, Becoming an Image Performance Still No. 1, 2013, C-print, 22 x 30".

In many contexts, soft is a derisive term. When describing character, it connotes wimpiness or gullibility; when describing physique, it suggests the flabbiness our fat-phobic culture finds utterly repellent. In 2011, Heather Cassils banished every trace of physical softness—without surgery or any kind of hormone treatment—by adhering to a grueling diet and workout regimen, gaining twenty-three pounds of muscle in as many weeks. For this solo show, Cassils used his body—now a paragon of hypertrophic hardness and butched-out sexiness—as both medium and prop.

A display of twelve photographs, which document “Becoming an Image,” his 2012–13 series of performances from prior exhibitions in London, Montreal, and Los Angeles, depict him pulverizing one-ton mountains of clay into rough-hewn, abstract forms. These seductive, cinematic images of the artist—just barely clad and bathed in a luxuriant, romantic darkness—show him sweating, grimacing, and virtually flying through the air, a primal force of rippling, scarred flesh pummeling blocks of earth. Accompanying the photographs were two sculptures from 2013: After, a mound of clay from a “Becoming an Image” performance that took place on the show’s opening night (this work was accompanied by a multichannel sound track of sharp breaths and wet punches recorded from the event), and The Resilience of the 20%, a violently elegant, funerary work of torqued black concrete. The title of the latter underscores a sickening statistic: In 2012, murders of trans men and women increased by 20 percent around the world. In these works, Cassils employs violence as a constructive, substantive force. Looking at the photographs, one can envision the artist’s body only becoming stronger with every powerful, focused strike against the clay—his muscles having to break down in order to build up. The sculptures, muscular-looking objects themselves, are not only records of Cassils’s brutal actions but also talismans that profoundly make palpable the amount of will necessary to transmogrify a body—which more often than not is an unpredictable, stupid, and unyielding thing.

Unfortunately, the remainder of the show, in the smaller north gallery, did not measure up to the powerful aggregation of works in the main space. Too much art was crammed into too tight an area, with relatively weak pieces competing for attention with much stronger ones. The “Maxing Out in Opera Pink” and “Disfigured Image” series, both 2013, are, respectively, a set of smaller self-portrait watercolors and burned-up or painted-on self-portrait photographs. They felt like afterthoughts and had no business being around the smartly conceived Cuts: A Traditional Sculpture, 2011, a photo project that documented Cassils’s twenty-three-week period of muscle gain (which pays direct homage to Eleanor Antin’s famous body-nullifying work Carving: A Traditional Sculpture, 1972), or the elegiac video Tiresias, 2013 (named after the prophet in Greek mythology who was transformed into a woman for seven years), a fifteen-minute distillation from a four-hour performance of the artist pressing himself up behind a voluptuous male torso sculpted from ice, which melted away. In this work, Cassils’s body isn’t just burning away the mantle of Tiresias; it absorbs it as well. The artist summons a crucial dimension of the anachronistic category the “third sex”: magic. And, happily, it seems that Cassils has a lot more of it in store for us.

Alex Jovanovich