Practice in Print: Theresa Chromati
Through painting, digital collage, sculpture, and installation, Chromati has developed a bold visual language of refusal. Her bodacious characters engage in acts both routine and riotous, affirming their presence by way of apparent ambivalence. Through portraying the beautiful and the mundane, the tender and the armored, her work affords an opportunity to see black women.
To inform her characters, Chromati draws from the various body types and physical gestures of women she first observed growing up in Baltimore. Her experience there, as a black woman in a community of other black women, helped her form a notion of black femininity more nuanced than anything she saw represented in the media.1 Her female protagonists appear in a panoply of forms, a mashup of colorful limbs, buttocks, breasts, and genitalia. They recall the hybridized bodies of artist Wangechi Mutu (b.1972), whose collage work renders the black female form as a capacious site.2 Sourcing material such as pornography and glamour magazines, Mutu reconfigures and dismembers her subjects, invoking the beauty and violence inextricably linked to black women’s bodies. Chromati builds her figures with a similar sensibility, and locates agency and beauty in cultural stereotypes to radically reframe black women’s lives.
The menacing masks in each work, previously armor, now exist as free agents and extensions of a single persona. They collectively portray Chromati’s extraordinary woman, her beautiful and undesirable aspects rendered with equal conviction.
Chromati further addresses the complexity of black femininity by appropriating conventions of racial and sexual exploitation to assert dignity. Often wearing masks and what the artist calls “pussy lips,” her figures don these accessories as femme armor. Chromati states that these symbols “represent something you have to put on before you walk outside,” a necessary protective layer for all black women.3 The artist’s 2016 series, “BBW,” repurposed the acronym for “big beautiful women,” a subgenre of porn, to imagine scenes inspired by an array of other “B” words, such as “bruised,” “baes,” and “brains.” The comic-like treatment and overt innuendo of these subjects bring to mind the paintings of another artist, Robert Colescott (1925–2009), who used humor and caricature to confront similarly loaded topics. Colescott’s art subverted the racist characterization of the black figure to fantastical effects, upending narratives and racial identities, and influencing younger artists to blithely appropriate America’s acidic popular culture.4 By illustrating the expansive narratives of black women while reclaiming their sexualized stereotypes, Chromati’s figures appear at ease among themselves, content to be seen simply being.
Chromati’s technique is informed in large part by her study of graphic design at the Pratt Institute. Constructing surreal architectural tableaus with vector software, the artist collages her painting and drawings in digital space, often printing on a variety of materials that she subsequently reworks by hand. Her work takes a distinctly feminist approach in this way, eschewing traditional artistic hierarchies for a fluid practice that complicates the primacy of the canvas with the ubiquity of the digital print, in which she occasionally inserts her own image.
Unfolding across four pages, Stepping Out to Step in (2019) reflects an evolution from Chromati’s iconographic visual language to her more recent gestural painting practice. The artist’s signature vibrant checkerboard pattern appears in the foreground, while postmodern archways anchor the first two frames, providing passage into dimensions beyond. Her tile floors suggest generative spaces of self-care and community, recalling the kitchens, dancehalls, and salons of Baltimore. In the first scene we see a graphic figure, green and clown-like in her appearance; her fingers and toes, nipple, and phallic legs slide across the plane toward the next frame. A single hand snakes its way into the following page, its fingers flick another reality.
The graphic bleeds into two cacophonous paintings. Through one archway we see I already Let that shit go (Moving On) (2019). Perhaps the same green woman is now looking back at us, overlaid with numerous limbs and faces that swirl around her. She expels whatever affront she’s just faced through cartoonish flatulence. Hey! I'll be there in 5. Can I bring a few guests? (Me and Me's) (2019) sees the figure deconstructed even further; a tangle of bodies fills the frame. Here, Chromati brings the multiplicity of identity to the forefront. The menacing masks in each work, previously armor, now exist as free agents and extensions of a single persona. They collectively portray Chromati’s extraordinary woman, her beautiful and undesirable aspects rendered with equal conviction.
Through her genre-bending practice, Chromati’s protagonists refuse to be one-dimensional. Their potential is too vibrant to be traditionally understood. Her work is an act of love and defiance.
- Kristin Farr, “Grace in Her Space,” Juxtapoz Magazine, Spring 2018.
- Sarah Lewis, Untitled, RE: COLLECTION, eds. Elizabeth Gwinn and Lauren Haynes (exhibition catalogue) (New York: The Studio Museum in Harlem, 2010), 109.
- Farr 2018.
- Michael Lobel, “Black to Front: Robert Colescott,” Artforum, October 2004, 266–69, 306–10.