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Online OnlyMay 27, 2023

The Sublime Feminine: Caleb Yono’s “Flotsam” Actualizes Femme Futures at Shoe Bones Gallery

At a storefront gallery in Salem, Yono’s “Flotsam” draws from a rich pool of queer aesthetics, personal myth, and femme iconography in twenty-one drawings.

Review by Poppy Livingstone

Colorful designs, many of faces, adorn the white walls of Shoe Bones Gallery.

Installation view, “Flotsam,” Shoe Bones Gallery, 2023. Photo courtesy of Shoe Bones Gallery.

Viewing Caleb Yono’s “Flotsam” in its totality, one feels caught in a primordial soup of feminine imagery growing more illegible and frantic as one plunges into its depths. Necklace chains, fingers, and gemstones churn around doll-like faces. Disarranged genitals decorate elegant stilettoed bodies. Frankie Symonds, the founder and curator of Shoe Bones Gallery, stood beside me as I took in one of the Chicago-based artist and performer’s drawings. We expressed a shared desire to climb into her universe, to occupy the same plane as their intrepid protagonists. Drawing from a rich pool of queer aesthetics, personal myth, and femme iconography, Yono’s work is a captivating threshold to a dreamlike world.

Left: Caleb Yono, Femme Flotsam, 2020. Colored pencil and plastic gems on paper. Photo courtesy of Shoe Bones Gallery. Right: Caleb Yono, Inter dimensional Femmes / Moon Bath, 2023. Photo courtesy of the artist. 

“Flotsam” includes twenty-one drawings hung from binder clips, each no bigger than a sketchbook page. Despite their humble size and staging, the series thrums with frenetic energy. Yono renders her illustrations on plain paper thick with graphite, colored pencil, and chalk pastel. Their work is populated with pencil smudges and evidence of reworking; in Proto femme/pinch, a semi-erased figure floats almost fetally behind a surely drawn femme. These eraser marks appear not as aberrations but as a life-giving force, animating her figures with pulsing vitality. This proof of process serves as a reminder of the evolving nature of these femmes, and of femininity itself. “Flotsam” is an offshoot of Yono’s prolific series of “Inter Dimensional Femmes,” which places high-femme protagonists into an ethereal realm of their own making. The femmes’ celestial autonomy empowers them to play with historically reductive understandings of femininity; in this imagined universe, the oft-maligned states of hysteria, ditziness, and vanity are celebrated with aplomb.

Caleb Yono, Inter-dimensional Femme/Self Portrait with Star, 2020. Colored pencil and plastic gems on paper. Photo courtesy of Shoe Bones Gallery.

In her portraits, humanoid divas bear made-up faces and glowing third-eye chakras, their expressions ranging from panicked to serene. Many of Yono’s pieces seem to be born of this state of heightened perception, illuminating unseen registers of the feminine with hypnotic urgency. In Proto femmes, a pair of flying apparitions flank a multi-legged, cyclops-like figure. In Femme Flotsam Medusa, a kaleidoscopic tableau of fingers, high heels, and cartoon eyeballs surround Medusa’s glowering face. Yono often describes the eponymous femmes as chthonic beings, the divine feminine sent not from heaven but the underworld of the repressed. It is here, in the space between the hysteric and the sublime, the familiar and the indecipherable, that their work reaches its harmonic peak.

Shoe Bones, which opened its doors in Salem this February, seeks to platform radical queer artists and their unmet visions. In this way, it shares a great deal with the multiverse that Yono’s femmes occupy. Like Shoe Bones Gallery itself, “Flotsam” creates a realm in which queer bodies and their desires are deconstructed, transformed, and empowered to transcend.

Flotsam” is on view at Shoe Bones, 28 Boston Street, Salem, through June 1, 2023.

This review was written by an inaugural fellow of the 2023 Boston Art Writing Fellowship, a partnership between Praise Shadows Art Gallery and Boston Art Review designed to offer an introduction to curatorial work and sharpen the critical skills of writing, editing, and storytelling in the contemporary art landscape.

Poppy Livingstone


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