There’s a Greek myth that characterizes the experience of losing a lover as being physically torn from them. Aristophanes’ speech in Symposium is about how people used to have two faces and eight limbs. These whole people were strong and happy. Then they tried to challenge the gods, so Zeus cut them in half. After some physical rearrangements, people spent their lives bumbling around, looking for a person to heal them. The story romanticizes seemingly inhuman transformations (doubled limbs, repositioned sexual organs, bodies sliced in two) to encourage morality.
Phantom Limb, Ceaphas Stubbs’s current exhibit at the Paul Robeson Campus Center Gallery at Rutgers, reconsiders the process of romantic recovery. Expressionist sculptures are made of pictures of naked body parts and other papers, glues, and wires. They are held up by string and then photographed. Stubbs (who is from Newark) told me over email that “the collaged creatures are suspended in that moment of yearning but trying to move on.” After these moments are documented, the sculptures are either dismantled or repurposed. The strings loosen. One project ends, and another begins.
The title draws from phantom limb syndrome, the sensation that an amputated body part feels like it’s still there. It usually begins right after an amputation and can be painful. People with a phantom limb, however, don’t always experience it as an exact replica of the former limb. Sometimes they’re bigger or smaller than before or, for example, a person’s wrist might feel very small in comparison to the rest of the forearm. Alexa Wright designed prosthetic limbs based on people’s experiences with their phantom limbs for her collection After Image. The creative prosthetics are hyper-realistic, making her photos uncanny.
While Wright’s subjects seem pleased and comfortable, people in Stubbs’s photos are paused in dramatic poses. Pieces of bodies combine with non-human parts to create subhuman shapes. A picture of a person’s arm is attached to another person’s chest. Heads are ripped off. Hands from one picture touch a body in another. The malleability of the human body is not half-done or hidden here. Instead, it’s completely deconstructed. Bright colors embolden physical intimacy. What gets left behind is placed to the view.
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Layers of genre create clear barriers between the viewer and the subject. Stubbs sees the transition from sculpture to photography as another example of complex losses and gains: “There’s also a loss of understanding what each object is (or was before manipulating the materials), a loss of one’s footing, and the tools you trust to help you navigate the works (your eyes) become like phantom limbs.” These photos give you a way to see the sculpture. It’s protected from alternative angles or of being touched or tampered with. In that way, it contrasts the constant vulnerability of our physical bodies to missing people and parts. Corporeality thus becomes a question of perspective.
The use of negative space is part of what make these images eerie. Ghostly shadows also exist in the individual titles of the photos. Numerous ellipses show that there is content and context happening around each line (and picture). Stubbs said that he thinks of the titles as parts of conversations happening inside and outside of the pieces. Titles like “…A Touch Here, A Tickle There…The Full Lengths of The Bodies Pressed…” and “…To Heal the Troubled Mind…The Center Must Be Found…” can seem like one or two voices, depending on how you read them. The silences in between sound a lot like the intuitiveness that’s lost in former partners.
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Though the topics are mature, a child can still find their place in these works. My son was most interested in the glass encased sculpture. He saw ghosts in it, as well as zebra stripes and a cow pattern. That helped me see the innocence in some of the materials. Stubbs mentioned that the items are everyday finds—“drinking bottles, delivery packaging… things found on the streets, and the body images come from pornography, Instagram, and Tumblr.” The internet is transferred to paper, the street is transferred to the gallery. Multiple realities intersect in a very physical way.
Relationships end every day, but turning our attention to what gets lost can help center the narrative. Especially in a performative cancel culture that offers the allusion of control, it’s tempting to try to ghost our own feelings. But it’s a process. And as this collection shows, there is action in absence.
Phantom Limb is on view at Robeson Campus Center Gallery (350 Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd, 1st Floor) through August 2nd.