In artist Emily Babette’s newest exhibit “Darwin, the Declining Daystar,” she explores the concept of performance and defies the traditional artist-muse relationship through a single subject: Darwin Grey.
“Part of my interest is the way that people portray themselves or present themselves every day,” Babette said. “People tend to present themselves in a certain way based off of how they dress and how they move through the world.”
In 2014, while studying for her bachelor of fine arts at Cal State Long Beach, Babette was introduced to Grey through a mutual friend.
“I [didn’t] know it, but I was looking for a muse,” she said of Grey, who would later spend two years as the subject of paintings, multimedia and 3D artworks. “Darwin, for me, was like this very perfect example of what I was thinking about and how people presented themselves.”
Darwin Grey, an androgynous self-proclaimed “queer-witch,” was raised in a Latino-Catholic household and chose the misnomer “Darwin Grey” as an act of rebellion against those roots.
They belong to the Dandy subculture, a group described by 19th-century poet Charles Baudelaire as “one who elevates aesthetics to a living religion.”
The two bonded over their love of 19th-century fashion and costumery. Babette had been involved in theatre in the past and, at the time, Grey was hosting tea parties that Babette described as “glamorous occasions.”
“It was this universe that they created that I was so fascinated with,” she said. “Not only the costuming behind that but the social collaborative aspect of it.”
In Babette’s paintings, Grey poses in rich settings that allude to their shared love of 19th-century style. They’re represented with rosy cheeks and rouged lips, a transgression from typical western beauty standards. In one painting, Grey lays shirtless atop ornate pillows, their fingers decorated with rings.
Historically, the artist-muse relationship consists of a straight male artist and a female muse, often posing nude. Babette said the work that comes out of these relationships is often infused with the male gaze, a perspective that tends to objectify or sexualize women.
“The idea of Darwin being gender fluid and kind of existing in this very expressive state of being, I think, for me, that just kind of clicked,” she said. “I felt like I could represent somebody, not through a sort of sexual gaze, but try to portray them honestly.”
In this way, Babette’s focus on Grey as a muse is a rejection of the status-quo of the art world, which places particular importance on the presence of female forms.
“When I curate for the space, I try to be as diverse as I can with all the exhibitions,” Flatline Gallery Director Elizabeth Munzón said. “With everything going on this year, I think the work is even more important now.”
When Munzón made a call for proposals earlier this year, Babette submitted the body of work that had come from her time with Grey.
“I loved Emily’s proposal because I’m familiar with her work,” she said, having attended CSULB with Babette. “I just knew whatever she worked on the rest of the year, getting ready for the exhibition this December, it was just going to come together and be amazing. And sure enough, it was.”
Her exhibit portrays Darwin in traditional forms, such as paintings, but also delves into more unique mediums like puppetry and embroidery.
Babette said she chose these mediums, often considered “craft-oriented” or “women’s work,” as a way of elevating them into a fine art environment.
She collected books about the history of puppetry with the intention of creating a marionette of Grey, a physical representation of performance. She created a paper mache doll of them, complete with a hand-sewn suit with flared sleeves.
Though she wanted to explore more three-dimensional elements in her work, the doll isn’t a far cry from her work as a painter. She described the puppet as a “three-dimensional painting with oil.”
Her painted folding screen sticks with that idea of performance, acting as one element of what Babette described as a “theatrical stage set.” On the screen, Grey lays in the foreground with one arm over their head. They don a luxe red robe contrasted by the deep turquoise backdrop.
“I’ve always tried to subvert the kind of historical, rigid status quo of art history,” Babette said. “Thinking, how can I just totally flip that on its side?”
“Darwin, the Declining Daystar” is being exhibited at Flatline Gallery at 6023 Atlantic Ave, Long Beach, CA 90805 by appointment only. To see more of Emily Babette’s work, you can follow her on Instagram @emilybabette.