Pace Taylor plans a deep dive into uncertain identity in their forthcoming solo show, “Breathe when you need to” at Nationale. This exhibition of intimate portraiture will feature faces and figures of unsure emotion, all rendered in vibrant color. Taylor offers “masking” as a touchstone for approaching these works: “Masking as a concept and term has recently entered my own life, most specifically as it relates to Autism and gender identity,” they explain in their artist statement. This sentiment rings true in my life as well, and my affinity with Taylor’s concerns brought me to their studio to learn more.
For many neurodiverse folks—like both Taylor and myself—“masking” refers to a facade of learned behaviors that can help keep us safe in conformist social environments. Masking might involve wearing clothes to fit in, adopting a certain vocabulary, or even suppressing physical impulses, aka. “stims.” Often, these behaviors run counter to our desires and needs, so much so that we may struggle to truly know ourselves. While the term originally rose to prominence in psychology, it has been reclaimed and expanded upon by neurodivergent folks, fueling a movement toward “unmasking,” or removing layers of rigid social programming.
“‘Breathe when you need to’ looks at the domestic space as a site of unmasking,” Taylor elaborates.
While this might sound liberatory at first, the process of unmasking in domestic space—especially space that is shared with others—can also be a terrifying prospect. Taylor makes the nuances of this known. Their new body of work centers “an agreement of belonging even in the midst of complex periods of individual transition and turmoil.”
When I visited their studio, Taylor spoke about garnering inspiration from Surrealist gender-nonconforming artist Claude Cahun (b. 1894-d. 1954) for this exhibition:
In their day, Cahun had played with daring self-portraiture, creating varied personas of boundary-pushing gender expression. Their art and writing explored gender as a kind of performative mask—underscoring how slippery and ubiquitous masking can become across many aspects of life. Cahun’s essay “Bedroom Carnival” illuminated the loss of identity that may result from ill-fitting gendered masks, while their self-portraits showcased the generative potential of experimental masks.
Taylor honors Cahun through tender portraiture in you add to yourself, a wrinkle. Cast in hues of red and pink against a turquoise background, the semblance of Cahun’s profile is unmistakable. Their head is cranked back and a red hand hovers above. A subtle tear falls from the corner of their eye, suggesting quiet distress. I sense my desire to know something of their gender in this image—a concrete answer about what mask they are wearing here. But their pointed gaze tells me that I cannot know and that my assumptions are wasted. This portrait—which is based on one of Cahun’s self-portraits—opens a portal to the domestic sites of Taylor’s other works by denoting a history of gender experimentation that, for many, begins in the privacy of home.
“I like to think of all of my subjects as nonbinary or gender fluid,” Taylor told me. They went on to share that they hope that audiences might “leave their own perception of their [own] gender identity at the door” when coming to these works.
The mediums Taylor employs add layers of mystery between what I am perceiving and what their work is actually made of. When I first encountered Taylor’s art on social media, I decided I was looking at paintings without so much as a second thought. “A lot of people think that they’re paintings,” Taylor remarked. “Some people think that they’re collages as well.” But in actuality, Taylor uses a blend of pencil and pastel, and they wear a respirator to keep pastel dust at bay while they work. This blend of mediums gives me pause as I approach, causing me to reconsider my conceptions of the composition and the care entailed.
Taylor’s mastery of medium also extends to their singular relationship with color. “I crave really bright colors. I like how it feels on my eyes,” they muse. “I also have these big emotions that don’t always translate to realistic colors, so I want to show what I am feeling through the vibrancy of the colors.”
In Eye Contact I and II the same face greets me in two different color palettes: One cast in pale hues with gentle crimson accents and the other in bright pinks and oranges. I can tell I am looking at two portraits of the same person by the soft blue of their eyes. These faces avoid me—their averted eyes signal states of disquiet and obfuscated emotion. I learned from Taylor that they are self-portraits.
“They’re not supposed to be exactly, fully realistic,” Taylor explained. “They’re extremes of how I’m feeling about myself.”
Many of the drawings in this exhibition reference personal photos of their partner, close friends, and themself. Taylor strategically triangulates enigmatic posturing, ambiguous gender, and uncertain emotionality of each of their subjects, and I must constantly shed my inclination to name and categorize as I bear witness to their shifting states. Unmasking begins to emerge within the subtlest gestures these subjects make toward an existence not yet known to me. Conclusiveness has no place in my relationship to them.
However, when I catch sight of Taylor’s drawing the bather (a very cold winter), I am filled with recognition, as if I am looking at a different version of my body: A person with pale skin lies in a bathtub, their large hands tucked up under their chin. I wonder, are they trying to hide their chest from my view, or are they just shivering? Their legs press together, and swells of pink and red accent their knees. Their gaze turns down, as if to assess their figure.
“I’ve been thinking a lot about the slow horror show of being in a body and just how complicated that feels and how I’d like to be outside of it so often,” Taylor mused during our conversation. They studied Pierre Bonnard’s (b. 1867-d. 1947) paintings of nude bathers before embarking on this drawing, eventually rendering a new bather who bears witness to their own body. For my part, I struggle to ascertain the tenor of this bather’s expression: Are they displeased or contented, uncomfortable or at ease? I realize that this drawing reminds me of the bathtub as a site of imagination and play dating back to early childhood—a soothing and private environment, which was one of the earliest sites of my own unmasking.
In this way, “Breathe when you need to” invites me to reflect on my own history and identity through conduits of intimate portraiture. Taylor’s drawings illustrate that unmasking is an act of transition, at once beautiful and scary—and not always possible for those without the social privilege and secure relationships to support it. Taylor’s homage to Cahun points to the fallout of ill-fitting gendered masks, while reminding me that masks sometimes offer generative possibilities for queer experimentation and self-expression.
And while Taylor’s work hones in on the intersection of trans and neurodivergent experience, it also prompts me to consider the masks I wear throughout all aspects of my life. These ruminations leave me guessing how contemporary art audiences might react to Taylor’s show—perhaps some visitors will even begin to explore the implications of masking and unmasking for themselves.
“Breathe when you need to” opens June 10 at Nationale. Nationale is located at 15 SE 22nd Ave and is open Thursday through Monday from 11:00 am – 6:00 pm (Sundays 12:00-5:00 pm).