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Twirling Toward Freedom

Gina Tuzzi and friends at the Sanctuary



"My artist's statement is a mixtape," Gina Tuzzi said. The paintings in her show Dance Hall Days at the Sanctuary this month are Valentines to the music that defined her personal teenage idyll. The works' sleek, patterned surfaces make them look contemporary; gyrating silhouettes from the iPod commercials of the 2000s are an unavoidable reference point. But this hyper-contemporary appearance belies the series' foundation in nostalgia for the dance parties, fashions, classic cars and especially the music of the artist's youth.

The exhibition is split between acrylic paintings on paper and painted plywood silhouettes. Tuzzi said she wanted these works to embody a "dance hall vernacular" feel. So dancers' bodies emit auratic clouds in shades like aquamarine, lilac and fuchsia. Madly grooving bodies catch the spirit, and blossoms of color spiral in their wake. Strobe lighting multiplies every form, spinning off halos and afterimages. Dancers' bodies remain devoid of detail, so you can project any identity you want onto their forms. Mirror balls, rainbows, streamers, and precision drawings of objects like lawn chairs and tropical flowers complete the party décor.

At a distance Tuzzi's figures look as crisp as the synthetic sound of a gated snare. Up close, it's clear nothing has been rendered in a rote or mechanical way. Each of the concentric lines of the colorful auras blooming from dancers' forms is painted freehand. Slight irregularities in each repeated form lend the paintings a kinetic quality, making them appear to shimmy both on and off the wall.

Tuzzi grew up on the Central Coast, in Santa Cruz. "When I was 16, in the mid-1990s, I was gifted a box of Desmond Decker cassettes. Early rock steady and reggae sounds — the origins of ska. And those cassettes changed my life. Learning about vintage reggae at a young age was just a beginning; it somehow turned me on to the idea that there was this world of other music, the music of the past," she said. "And at the same time I had my very first car, a 1965 Ford Falcon Futura. All I wanted to do was cruise around and listen to those cassettes, and of course at the time I had no idea that 1995 was going to be this important touchstone moment for me, in retrospect."

As Tuzzi tells it, Desmond Decker became a gateway drug of sorts, leading to other groove enthusiasms, with Giorgio Moroder's louche disco exerting an especially strong influence.

Tuzzi said she started sneaking into dance parties at Santa Cruz's Coconut Grove ballroom at a tender age. "The club was right on the beach. The DJ would be playing everything from disco to local hip-hop in this beautiful space, and my girlfriends and I would sneak in and go dance to disco. To this day, whenever I smell Malibu rum, it takes me back."

You could say these artworks are driven by nostalgia squared. In other words, the soundtrack to this idyll was already vintage when Tuzzi experienced it the first time around. "It's funny — at the age of 16 I was spending all my time cruising in this vintage car, listening to records made like 40 years ago." Tuzzi's relationship to history is complex in a way that will feel familiar to viewers who came of age in the 1990s, arguably the first decade in which pastiche and remix began to dominate youth culture.

Tuzzi now divides her time between Arcata and Oakland, and she still thinks of the dance floor as a place of refuge. "When you're on the dance floor, you're safe, you're in the moment. Your mind can exit the space that's defined by daily pressures, responsibilities, problems. You can just say, 'Fuck it — I'm gonna dance.'"

She wanted these paintings to conjure the kinesthetic experience of moving to music, so it was important to make them "visually enticing" in ways that would recall the maximalist interiors of clubs like the Coconut Grove. Strobe effects, candy colors, and vibrant patterning evoke the "transcendent" state familiar to clubgoers of every age — that state in which it's hard to answer William Butler Yeats' question, "How can we know the dancer from the dance?"

Tuzzi teaches painting at Humboldt State University, and this exhibition also features a selection of works by her advanced painting students, Rebecca Baldwin, Alyssa Newton, Kasey Haas, Victor Feyling, Shane Donaldson, Victor Batz, Danielle Carlson, Gabrielle Castro, Angie Allen and Grace Franchini. She allows that there's going to be "a lot of visual competition in the (Sanctuary) space," but "the exhibition space feels really full of life. There's a sense of vibrant community, and because the space was built to be a church it is designed to amplify sound. It's the perfect church for these works. "

So naturally the exhibition opening is going to double as dance party. Sound will be provided by the Arcata-based DJ Jaymorg, who collaborated with Tuzzi to curate a playlist of cuts scientifically proven to bring the funk. "Jaymorg has this impeccable vinyl collection and he loves the same 1970s funk that I do. So I sent him links to the music that's on heavy rotation in my studio, and he came up with a setlist — that's his contribution to the project."

That brings us back to Tuzzi's manifesto, available at the opening in the form of free CDs. "They feature my all-time favorite dance tracks," Tuzzi explained, "at least, the ones that I could hunt down. Because there are so many great cuts that never made it onto CD, or mp3 ... or even cassette, for that matter." Among the tracks are "Not Just Knee Deep" by George Clinton and Parliament, "It Mek" by Desmond Decker, "Jungle Fever" by Stevie Wonder and "I Feel Love" by Donna Summer.

Experience the manifesto in its entirety at the opening for Dance Hall Days at the Sanctuary on Friday, May 13, from 6 to 9 p.m.


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