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Online OnlyNov 14, 2023

Eyes Without a Face: Providence-Based Duo Velvet Other World Explore Sexuality and Concealment

Rhode Island-based artists Katrina Pisetti and Josh Allen use charcoal, oil, and rhinestones to create mysterious characters that toy with pageantry.

Feature by Marcus Civin

Black and white images by Katrina Pisetti and Josh Allen, set against a black background, with stands bearing white flowers in between.

Installation view, “Bimboteque: Part II,” July 14 - August 4, 2023, Kapp Kapp, New York. Photo courtesy of the artists and Kapp Kapp.

Rhode Island-based artists Katrina Pisetti and Josh Allen are best friends. They spent all their days together as undergraduates at the Rhode Island School of Design. After graduating in 2018, they apprenticed in print shops and, in 2021, began working together under the name Velvet Other World—a nod to Other World Kingdom, the female-dominant bondage resort that operated in the Czech Republic until 2008. Velvet Other World found inspiration for their first drawings in Photoshopped, Facetuned, or otherwise heavily manipulated selfies they saw on Instagram. “We were looking at all these images of women who had edited their faces to the point where all you could see was, like, their eyes and nose holes,” Pisetti recalled the September afternoon I visited the duo’s studio by the Providence River, a couple blocks from where they went to school. The spirit of those first drawings has stuck with Velvet Other World. Tensions between exposure, sexuality, and concealment are central to their work, and the paintings and drawings look airbrushed, even though they’re not. You won’t hear the artists endorsing the social media-propelled plastic surgery industry. Although they’re fascinated by it, it’s only one jumping off point for their imaginations. Full-figured is beautiful here, and body parts are all sorts of shapely and fantastical. Arms might be triangular or resemble cartoon versions of vine-ripe fruit or big pearls on a choker. The cumulative effect puts us back, if only for a moment, in our own brimming and sometimes funny forms. After all, we might be losing touch with our bodies. Scientists say our screens and chair-time increase our chances of getting sick and maybe make our heads more prominent. As we become more sedentary and tech-obsessed, it’s very likely we’re developing Anthropocene physiques.

Installation view, “Bimboteque: Part I,” June 10 – July 7, 2023, Kapp Kapp, New York. Photo courtesy of  the artists and Kapp Kapp.

In person in Providence, I peered at a charcoal drawing taped to a board showing a masked figure receiving a golden shower. Onto their curvy form, pee rained down like diamond teardrop pendants you might expect from Christian Dior. A framed work resting on the floor nearby showed another masked figure looking back over their shoulder, seemingly annoyed at being interrupted when they were about to bury their face in the round butt of a companion splayed out before them. All of the characters depicted around the room had serious, purposeful eyes. To me, they looked like subjects in Spanish court paintings, except Velvet Other World renders usually in black and white only. Very Audrey Hepburn, I thought. I watched Velvet Other World drawing on an Instagram broadcast the other day. They cooed each time a close friend joined to watch. Allen was working on texture, smoothing white into a darker section. Pisetti used a straight edge to help make short, fine lines—parts of maybe a garter belt. They both wore gloves. “Nitrile gloves are magical. There’s a slight grit in the fingers,” Allen explained. “We’ll use a little sanding pad,” Pisetti continued, “but a lot of times we’ll do a light sanding just using our gloved hands. It’s how we get a lot of our velvety soft gradients and textures.” Allen agreed and elaborated: “Yeah, that’s definitely from lifting up layers and fibers of the paper and shoving charcoal dust back in. The more we sand this cotton paper,” he said, “the more it accepts charcoal.”

Velvet Other World, Knight in White Satin Armor, 2023. Charcoal on BFK. 42.5″ x 42.5″. Photo courtesy of the artists and Kapp Kapp.

A two-part Velvet Other World exhibition titled “Bimboteque took place this past summer at Kapp Kapp, a gallery in New York. The first part, held in June and July, featured paintings. The second, stretching into August, showcased the drawings. In both parts, black curtains covered some walls and a neon sign with the show title cast a pink glow. Sometimes, it took a second or two to figure out what was happening. The figure in the drawing Knight in White Satin Armor (2023) rode confidently on what? Or who? A motorcycle? A Vespa? A partner who acts half human/half machine? Both artists felt like outsiders in shitty worlds when they were young. Allen is from Andover, Massachusetts—a place he characterized to me as “not very gay-friendly.” Pisetti, who grew up in Texas, shared, “I’m a Filipina girlie, and everyone else there was conservative and white.” These days, the artists trade sketches back and forth until they decide on a work plan. As they go, they talk about the pop culture of their youth—girl group movies like John Tucker Must Die (2006) and exaggerated cartoon characters like Bunny (Johnny Bravo’s mom) and Jessica Rabbit (“I’m not bad, I’m just drawn that way”). Allen pointed to the near-finished works in the studio and estimated, “I would say there are ten previous sketches behind each of these.”

Velvet Other World, Worship of the Lady from Behind, 2023. Oil and rhinestones on canvas. 48″ x 48″. Photo courtesy of the artists and Kapp Kapp.

Once they have a plan, they work together on every piece, approaching a page or a canvas like co-quilters. Pisetti explained, “I’ll be watching what Josh is doing and try to make sure what I’m doing feels like what he’s doing, and then he’ll simultaneously be looking at what I’m doing and try to do that. Sometimes I’ll finish something and be like, ‘What you were working on looks so good!’ And he’ll say, ‘Really? I was just trying to copy what you’re doing.’ And then I’ll say, ‘Wait—I was copying what you were doing!’” “Kat and I imagine ourselves in these scenes,” Allen admits. “They will have our eyes or parts of our bodies in them. We are observers and performers. There’s a certain sense of drag, dress-up, and play.” Pisetti added: “We want to create these beautiful creatures and shield them with these beautiful things. It is very emotional. I feel like we can see ourselves in them, because we also want to be protected from the things in life that have harmed us.” At their studio, we also discussed how tight and revealing fetishwear has made its way into everyday life. There’s nowhere to hide. Yet, at “Bimboteque,” for as many machos, showgirls, and offbeat runaway models I observed, still so much suggested protection, what Allen called “highly crafted exterior shells.” I felt like I’d visited a members-only, safe-space sex club. Drawn zipped into a comprehensive catsuit, Bimbot (2023) posed on an opulent fur bed. She wore something like a bowling ball for a glove, and her Missy Elliott goggle sunglasses seemed snapped into her hair-shaped helmet above her face mask. In the painting Worship of the Lady From Behind (2023), the costumes of the entwined figures looked embroidered. They were not just getting busy on elegant furniture, they were merging with it.

Velvet Other World, Bimbot, 2023. Charcoal on BFK. 42.5″ x 42.5″. Photo courtesy of the artists and Kapp Kapp.

Meanwhile, the single figure in Hardcore Volume (2023) resembled one of Japanese illustrator Hajime Sorayama’s sexy robots, this one pushing up their breasts with their arms. But as they did this, they also seemed to be shrugging rather than pushing back their shoulders, as is more common in this kind of pose. Reading into what may be ambivalence, let’s try placing Velvet Other World’s work alongside the late poet Justin Chin’s amazing poem Lick My Butt (1997). The poem describes how one particular behind has “reason to be careful” after what it’s been through. “On the wrong end of muggings & bashings/ it’s been working like a damn dog for years to make ends meet/ it’s been on the lam, on the block, on the contrary/ & on sale for far too long.” Solace for this rear end might be in knowing it can lose itself in pleasure now and then. The poem concludes: “Lick my butt & I’ll lick yours;/ we’ll deal with shit of the world later.” It’s not easy to find anything or anyone entirely dazzling or—well—genuinely worth licking. Velvet Other World might mask aspects of human appearance, but with a protective embrace, they open up a celebratory and progressive vision of apparently whole-heartedly pleasurable, harm-free, and generously affirmational and glittering sex and sexuality. To this, I say: Yes! Go! Go! Go!

 

Marcus Civin

Contributor

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