The Skin We Live In: Ariana Page Russell

Words By Anthony Thornton

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Living and working in Brooklyn, artist Ariana Page Russell has dermatographia, a condition in which pressure-sensitive histamines inflict painless welts where the skin is scratched or rubbed. She has incorporated images of her reactive flesh into installations of wallpaper arabesques, temporarily tattooed Victorian mirrors, even a latex-like breath play mask—all evidencing the body’s communicative, volatile interior. Broad Channels, her most recent show at Magnan Metz Gallery in Chelsea, compiled Russell’s latest dermal iterations. The skin itself had grown larger in appearance, and glossy simulations of it shown in Medusa and Husk threatened to consume the figure entirely. Elsewhere, mirrored furniture sensually captured the minute detritus we leave behind when making contact with surfaces, and with each other. Topical Cream interviewed the artist via email and met up in-the-flesh for an exclusive feature: Russell self-styled temporary tattoos she created from photos of her own skin.

Anthony Thornton:
Does your sensitive skin extend to extreme cold? Because I’m almost incapacitated if the temperature drops below 40. Maybe this is why we’re in Google Hangout; it’s too freezing to meet up in person.

Ariana Page Russell:
It’s so cold out! My nose and cheeks turn bright red when it’s frigid outside, especially when it’s windy. My eyes water too, and I think people who see me walking down the street probably think I’m crying. Not sure if any of that has to do with the dermatographia itself though.

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Topical Cream:
About that: did your initial diagnosis prompt you to create a body of work addressing this sensitivity? Does this desire to create come out of documentation? I’m curious about the content your pre-diagnosis visual art explored.

Ariana Page Russell:
I actually started photographing my dermatographia before I had the official diagnosis. At that point, I knew my skin was very sensitive and did something weird that most people’s skin didn’t do, but I wasn’t aware of it as a condition yet. Taking photos actually got people interested in my skin, and a professor encouraged me to find out what it was that made my skin welt. It was more a way of exploring the visual potential and beauty of skin than straight-up documentation. My work has always been about the body, so it made sense for me to do that. When I was a budding art student I was photographing the skeletal system abstractly to make people’s bodies look like landscapes. I also did a series of abstract photographs in both color and b&w that resembled body parts but were actually organic material: plants, details of compost, sand, rocks, etc.

Topical Cream:
The artist is more keen than the institution (or in this case, the medical profession). You weren’t waiting for someone to tell you what it was.

Ariana Page Russell:
Yeah I just wanted to explore what I knew from experience–the experience of being in my skin. I didn’t need a name for it or anything

Topical Cream:
Totally. It seemed intuitive. Broad Channels marks your fourth New York solo show, and with each outing you extract more visceral, disruptive implications of skin. Your face also becomes more obscured in the process. Are you retreating into the medium or perhaps planning to do away with it altogether?

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Ariana Page Russell:
I don’t necessarily have plans to obscure my face, but I am moving toward more abstract portraiture. Like the transfer prints. I like how they begin as photographs, then end as a kind of painting/photo hybrid with inkjet ink. The photograph is still there, but it transforms into a more elusive image in the process. It’s a nice balance between planned and spontaneous. I plan and stage the photographs, then put them on the decal paper, wet it, and the ink does what it wants from there. I never know exactly what I’ll get, but I can shift the ink around a bit once the transfer is on the page.

Topical Cream:
The transfer prints are really beautiful. Like plasticky three-dimensional watercolors or treated celluloid.

Ariana Page Russell:
Thank you! I’m so excited about them, and plan to experiment with them a lot more—making them larger and using different imagery.

Topical Cream:
I’m lobbing Ana Mendieta, Hannah Wilke and Wangechi Mutu your way. They share an exploration of the female body and its feminist concerns that are inseparable from their practice. Do you feel a kinship with any of these artists? Is there another that influences your more? Are you one to address feminism in your work?

Ariana Page Russell:
Yes! I definitely feel a kinship to Hannah and Ana, and Wangechi too. When I was a young artist learning about feminist art, I was instantly drawn to it. Especially Wilke, Mendieta, Carolee Schneeman, Janine Antoni—all the heavy hitters. The way they were unapologetic about their physicality, femininity, and the beauty and grossness of being human really spoke to me. I was sick of the posturing manliness of phallic symbols dominating culture, and sick of the good ol’ boys of AbEx and contemporary art. Seeing these powerful women celebrate their experience moved me and helped me to know that my understanding and experience of culture was valid too. Even though I don’t have a penis! I don’t intentionally incorporate feminism into my work, but because I’m feminist it’s totally there, in everything I do. Also, I am inspired by my corporeality and the work comes from that place of female experience (although I don’t mean to exclude people with penises).

Topical Cream:
Exclude, please! I’m in solidarity; thousands of years of phallic rule must end. We have these fearless women to thank for disrupting the art world patriarchy. I wanted to ask: how did Broad Channels end up as the title for the work at Magnan Metz? Are you showing Queens some love? Or is this skin-related?

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Ariana Page Russell:
Broad Channel station in Jamaica Bay is a transfer point between train lines to get from where I live in Brooklyn to Fort Tilden, my favorite beach in the area. It’s easy to get from the city to the ocean; I hop on the subway and am there within 1.5 hours. I love that presence of connection between wildlife reserves and dense population in such close proximity to each other. This made me think of skin as a channel between the inside and outside worlds—how easy it is to move back and forth between the two, to connect with other people and their experiences, and to communicate. And thinking about the calm of the interior self that one can always enter while still living in the chaotic outside world.

Topical Cream:
It’s like you’re incorporating the pastoral, the landscape back into your work, coming full circle from your initial photographs. Before we exit, explain SKINTOME, your online forum for aggregating readers’ unique dermatographia experiences. It seems likes the next technological step in art therapy.

Ariana Page Russell:
You hit the nail on the head—I do feel like I’m coming back full circle! The name SKINTOME came about after thinking of the body as a book, with skin as its cover revealing what’s contained inside. Bodies have language and speak though skin, its biography. SKINTOME is undergoing some major changes. It’s still going to be a resource for people with dermatographia, and a space for sharing skin stories, but it’s also for a more general audience. I’m gearing it toward finding inspiration in day-to-day experience, staying healthy with the help of imagination, and finding a voice for self-expression and creativity for artists–anyone who’s interested in making, writing and performing. It’s about living a holistic, artistic life.

Photography: Topical Cream
Hair: Yulu Serao