Fluidity informs almost everything about Chella Man: his painting, performance and sculptural works and his identity as a deaf, trans-masculine, Jewish and Chinese artist. An actor, activist and model and former contributor to them and designer for Opening Ceremony, Man is a multi-hyphenate whose ever-growing list of titles further supports his practice of investigating the intersections between race, gender, disability and sexuality. Nowhere is this more apparent than his studio in Industry City, Brooklyn, where the artist has recently embarked on a new residency program with The Collision Project.
A diverse selection of Man’s work decorates the entrance to the sparse and spacious studio loft. Clips of the film he created in collaboration with fashion label Private Policy, The Beauty of Being Deaf, hang on the walls alongside an article about the last group exhibition he curated, Pure Joy, that features exclusively disabled artists. Across the short hallway are copies of Man’s book, Continuum.
“My mediums are very expansive,” Man tells us. “I don’t like to feel boxed in with my work but also my identity. So recently I’ve been working on some films, the Beauty of Being Deaf is one.” The other is a conceptual film that charts the development of one of the first cochlear implants. But, he adds, “I’m implementing my personal experience, because if you know anything about deaf culture, the cochlear implant is widely controversial. Some deaf people even view it as genocide to an extent.”
Oftentimes Man is juggling multiple projects at once and it’s evident during our exclusive tour of his studio. For the artist, learning that identities are spectral—meant to be messy, undefined and continually evolving—was an integral lesson that built his journey to self-acceptance as well as his work. It makes sense then that this philosophy permeates Man’s equally vast and flexible practice.
“Listen to Me”—one of the artist’s recent installation and interactive pieces which also sits beside the entrance of the studio—exemplifies the variations of Man’s work. The artwork is a jewelry box with dice inside that contain ableist idioms and sayings. “Within linguistics, often we use ‘disability’ as an adjective with negative connotations. So when you open [the jewelry box], there is a die with a bunch of different ableist remarks that we often use in our day to day language like ‘Keep your ears open.’ It’s exploring the nuances of ableism because some are blankly ablest like ‘What are you, deaf?’ and some are like ‘I hear you’ which is more audism,” explains Man.
When it comes to painting, the artist’s approach continues to fluctuate and expand. “It changes all the time,” he continues. “I don’t really have a process and I don’t want to create a routine, because I feel like it can be limiting. My current process is actually to create a bunch of shitty paintings, because I started realizing that I was too fixated on the final product. My goal right now is to fail as much as possible and destroy more paintings than I keep. I think that it’s really liberating; I’m encouraging failure instead of what I deem as success.”
Currently, Man’s experimenting with oil rather than the acrylic he used in his earlier works. Both finished and soon-to-be-destroyed paintings lie around the floor of his industrial studio. The makeshift patchwork flooring is itself a testament to Man’s ever-evolving creativity, be it the subdued, line-art-inflected works like “Mary V” or the colorful, expressionist canvases as depicted in “How To Do The Right Thing.”
If there’s one thing Man keeps consistent throughout his shifting mediums and methods, it’s a dedication to continue investigating the multiplicities of an object, identity or idea. Typically, “The concept comes first and then the medium,” he says. But “sometimes it’s the other way around.”
For his residency with The Collision Project, Man is working on an installation in one of the building’s freight elevators. Here, the medium and concept informed each other. “I was raised very academically. So I started doing a lot of research into the physics of why elevators work and how the pulley system works,” he explains. “But then I was thinking more about the socialization and the etiquette behind elevators. There’s this weird, unspoken etiquette that no one ever talks about where you just go in and you have to be emotionless.” With that in mind, for the Industry City installation, “I want it to be so when you come into this elevator, you have arrived—this is your destination,” he continues. “I’ve been exploring chromeo therapy a lot and blue is a color that is associated with connection, trust and serenity. So there’s going to be a blue light and we’re working with some fabricators to make the whole thing feel like a glass box. So anywhere you look, you’re going to see whoever you’re with.”
The piece will also be interactive with questions displayed onto a holographic fan that further initiate conversation. A ballot box for written answers will also be in the elevator as engaging in verbal dialogue isn’t always accessible to everyone including the artist himself. He tells us, “This is going to be a place to go to socialize rather than just stand there quietly like a robot, because I just feel that is so dystopian and kind of what our world has become—and I want to break that.”
The project rethinks the politics and parameters of spaces, which Man does frequently throughout his work. “My main dream is just to create space, ideally for disabled trans BIPOC artists,” he says. Through projects in film, literature, art and more, Man does more than represent marginalized identities. He renders their complexities, and the ways others are complicit in their misperceptions, wholly visible.
Hero image by Antonio Ysursa; all images courtesy of the artist