Turndown service with a little chocolate on your pillow? Yeah, I’m thinking that’s not happening at a motel. And with paper-thin walls, you’re bound to be disturbed by your neighbors’ rhythmic bed creaking and other things that are bumping in the middle of the night.
But don’t worry about that Do Not Disturb sign, Selina Román invites us in to her solo show “Please Disturb” at Gallery 221@HCC. Based off her motel room photograph series that she started around a year ago, she invites people to her motel room-turned-studio for photo shoots. (Check out Megan Voeller’s scoop here.)
“I was thinking about opening it up to everyone, but that seemed a little weird to me. I’m trying to keep it to at least acquaintances, because I don’t want any misconception about what is going on,” she jokes, “because when you think about people coming and going every two hours, it does seem a bit shady.”
Inviting people to her quirky, sometimes a bit rough-looking room for two-hour blocks, she uses this project to shoot acquaintances or referrals she hasn’t worked with before in a wide range of ages from young children to 60-plus.
“I missed the conversations I had in grad school, chatting with people on a daily basis like, ‘What are you doing?’ and ‘Why are you doing that?,’ just picking apart every nuance. I missed that, so I thought about using these different motel rooms as a temporary studio space where I could make work and have these conversations with people,” Román says.
“So the first part of the session is that we catch up and talk. Originally, I thought the discussion might center more on my work, but I quickly learned after doing some visits that it’s not about me. The room actually became this sacred space where people have revealed things to me. It sort of has become a confessional in a way,” she explains. “I don’t probe anyone or anything like that, but some feel that’s something they want to do, and I think that’s great that they feel comfortable. After the conversation, I bring out my collection of clothing and props, and we talk about the possibilities of what they can do.”
For her, these works are more challenging and exhilarating because she’s giving her models choice, and a voice. Sometimes, they are creating new identities through these costumes so she’s not only dealing with their boundaries, but a bit of hers as well. Some of her models don’t want their face to be included, which is part of Román's aesthetic throughout her varied portfolio.
“I can definitely say that a common thread in my work is that I like to conceal the figure. I’ve always felt that it’s mysterious when you can’t see someone’s face. As a viewer, it makes it easier to imprint your interpretation on it. People tend to think about being anonymous as this terrible thing, but I think it can also be kind of powerful. I can see you, but you can’t see me — so you don’t know what I’m feeling or thinking,” Román says. “I can see the oppressive qualities of anonymity, and I revel in the uneasiness. In a way, you’re able to shift the power to the person who’s hidden.”
Self-imposed anonymity can be a powerful tool for an artist to control how their work is perceived. A great example would be the Guerilla Girls, who are feminist artists that capitalize on the power of anonymity to fight for gender and racial equality in the art world.
“It’s funny, I tend to link things to back when I was a journalist and reporter [BFA in Journalism at USF] and it was all about what you reveal to the reader to get that narrative across,” Román explains.
Some pieces exude an uncomfortable humor, where you don’t know whether it’s appropriate to laugh or not. In "Draped," a figure looks longingly out through partially opened window shades, regardless of the busy floral print drapes that engulf him or her. Humor slowly shifts to discomfort as you start to wonder what is going on, or if the draped person is doing OK under there. There's also humor in the play between images, as if the "Draped" person is playing a game of hide-and-seek with the man in "Please Do Not Disturb," who isn't doing such a great job at the hiding part. The uncanny is an important aspect Román toys with in her work. There’s a strange familiarity about the work that draws you in, but the unfamiliar territory or veiling of figures denies the audience instant access to understanding.
“I like the idea of pushing and pulling. I love color and that plays a big part in my work, especially in this series that is heavy on pinks and blues. So the seductiveness of color and texture, like the sequins, kind of pull you in, but at the same time you’re pushed away. I’ve always enjoyed creating that,” she says.
If you haven’t noticed, fashion plays a pretty big role in her work, especially in her wonderful tribute piece “Ode to Horst.” Appropriating similar imagery in Horst P. Horst’s “Mainbocher Corset,” Román shakes up our expectations by using a muscular, male model to don her white corset-looking orthopedic back brace. His skin gently pools over the top of the tightened fabric, showing the beauty of the body regardless of popular media’s standards.
“I’ve always loved fashion. I remember collecting Vogue magazines when I was a kid, and I still have one of my favorite issues from 1992. After I had worked as a newspaper reporter for a while, I just needed a change. I thought I wanted to be a fashion designer, so I apprenticed with one in Miami but I realized that I don’t like sewing that much. Operating a surger terrifies me,” she laughs. “Eventually I got a camera and started documenting her work, and loved it. Things starting shifting because I was working for her, but I was also starting to develop my own concepts. My ideas started getting less normal or mainstream, so I think that’s where the shift happened from fashion to fine art.”
From her previous series “Confidence Tastes like a Low-Slung Cloud” to her current body of work for “Please Disturb,” she’s thinking about fashion with a bright, Floridian color palette, mainly pink, turquoise and their variations.
“I’ll look for things when I’m out thrifting, for garments with specific colors and textures. But it’s never fashion for fashion’s sake. It’s about creating a particular character. Some outfits even repeat in the series, but what I find so interesting is how the person changes the clothes. The same blouse on two different women creates a different experience where you might not even notice it’s the same shirt,” Román says.
We’ve all heard that it’s “the clothes that make the man,” but maybe we’ve had it all wrong. Each model can transform the setting and mood of the image, going back to how Román’s male model in her Horst piece completely changes the mood of the corset and image, versus a thin, female figure.
As for what the future holds for her, she isn’t quite done with her motel series yet.
“There are a few more motels on my wish list that I’d like to shoot at and I can’t get them out of my head until those are done. Depending on more work that I would get out of this series, I love the idea of possibly putting these images into a book because there are so many. There were a lot images from each person that I enjoyed, so I couldn’t just pick one favorite. I thought it would be interesting for each person to have their own ‘suite’ of images in a book,” she jokes with her play on words.
It’s not just the glittery suits and bright colors that attract audiences — like bees — to Román’s photographs: it’s the playful, tender narratives that slowly come through that make her work so compelling.
To see more of Roman’s work, visit selinaroman.com.
Urban Dictionary defines Femme Fatale as “a woman with both intelligence and sex appeal that uses these skills to manipulate poor helpless men into doing what she wants. May cause death.” Keeping in line with this concept, the women highlighted in Caitlin Albritton's "Femme Visuale" series aims to highlight local women artists and show off some lesser-known talent that's been hiding in the shadows. In the art world, if it ain't big and loud, it ain't being seen (looking at you, Koons). Art as a grand spectacle leaves little room for modest, sincere, or quiet voices, especially women's voices. And I promise, we won’t bite.