Surface Aesthetics: Art, Race, Performance, and Play

Guest Editor: Uri McMillan, Associate Professor of English at the University of California, Los Angeles
Submission Deadline: April 1

Surface has emerged recently, in all its permutations, as a key word across a variety of disciplines including art history, literary studies, cinema studies, and critical race theory. An attention to surface, these scholars argue, foil binary logics between interior and exterior, essence versus covering, a superficial surface and a fleshy invisible depth, while also gesturing toward the emergence of alternative forms of representation and personhood.

Art historian Krista Thompson’s Shine: The Visual Economy of Light in African Diasporic Aesthetic Practice, for instance, details the unique use of shine, glow, and bling in contemporary African diasporic artistic practices, specifically photographic media and videography, as techniques to index different forms of legibility and visibility. In doing so, if these practices challenge the supposed transparency of photography by privileging visual effects, rather than the document of the photograph itself, they also call attention to other “notions of surface—the embellished surface, the reflective screen, the surface of the body, the surface of the photograph or screen, the backdrop and green screen.” In this way, these practices call attention to what Thompson describes as “the surface of the surface—the effect of light reflecting off of surfaces—as the representational space for figuring black subjects.”

Literary critics Sharon Marcus and Stephen Best, meanwhile, posit surface reading as a reading practice that studiously avoids psychoanalytic models of interpretation based on depth and instead embraces an analytic attuned to the fecund potentials of the surface. In their essay “Surface Reading: An Introduction,” both authors caution against literary analysis’s reliance on a symptomatic reading practice that assumes latent meanings hidden inside a text, waiting to be uncovered by the critic-turned-archeologist. Surface readings, by contract, seek to describe, rather than evaluate; they avoid a “depth model of truth that dismisses surfaces as inessential and deceptive” and instead provoke a deep immersion without casting judgment or value. In short, surface readings stay attentive to all the fecund potentials a text incites.

Meanwhile, interdisciplinary scholars situated in African-American Studies and performance studies have positioned black epidermal surface—the skin—as an overlooked site in an expanded sensorium. These scholars share a desire to more rigorously attune to the different scripts skin, particularly black skin, can enact when it is not simply seen as the visual ur-text of epidermal difference. Skin, Michelle Stephens argues in her book Skin Acts: Race, Psychoanalysis, and the Black Male Performer, is not a hard container but rather a form of relationality, a “threshold, a point of contact, a site of intersubjective encounter, between the inner and outer self and between the self.” Meanwhile, in her Second Skin: Josephine Baker and the Modern Surface, Anne Cheng denotes how Baker’s nudity never stands alone; rather, her theatricalized nakedness often relies on its idiosyncratic intimacy with other layered surfaces—banana skins, feathers, drapery, and animal fur. Finally, in her recent article “Williams, Walker, and Shine: Blackbody Blackface, or the Importance of Being Surface,” Tina Post suggests that an attention to the surface qualities of greasepaint in black minstrel performances reveal how Bert William and George Walkers’s surfaces do not resolve the question of the nature of blackness, but instead playfully rebound it between them, signifying differently for white and black audiences in the nineteenth century.

This special issue of Women and Performance: a journal of feminist theory is entitled “Surface Aesthetics: Art, Race, Performance, and Play.” In it, we seek queer and feminist approaches to surface aesthetics as an aesthetic medium, performance practice, and perceptive mode for pondering alternative visions of the social. Surface aesthetics, or surfacism, is a term used by art historian Christopher Pinney to describe an emphasis on materiality and texture in the picture plane. This special issue is concerned with centering a performance studies approach to surface aesthetics. Thus, in our conceptual schema, surface aesthetics signals how artists and performers deploy it as an embodied praxis and artistic strategy to foil the gaze and reframe how bodies are consumed and comprehended. Surface aesthetics becomes a powerful, if counterintuitive strategy for evading the gaze and escaping the grasp in a world that often demands transparency, readability, and legibility, especially for racialized subjects.

This directive is heavily indebted to the writings of feminist scholars, particularly black feminist scholars, in visual studies, performance studies, literary studies, and gender and sexuality studies. Nicole Fleetwood, Daphne Brooks, and Jennifer Brody’s scholarship foreground performance practices—of excess flesh and non-iconicity, opacity and afro-alienation, and punctuation as theatrical marks choreographing thought, respectively—that function as distinct approaches to representation and visibility, be it refusal or strategic misrepresentation. Utilizing these authors as a jumping-off point, we may consider surface aesthetics as a praxis of freedom. “Surface Aesthetics: Art, Race, Performance, and Play” asks how surface play may function, in philosopher LH Stalling’s words, as a dynamic interface that produces “alternative orders of knowledge about the body and imagination” as well as “new sensoriums and ways of being.” In what ways do artists and performers, in addition to poets writers and philosophers, deploy surface aesthetics in efforts to create possibilities for the emergence of what film theorist Kara Keeling calls “subaltern common senses,” or ways of knowing that subvert and evade hegemonic and official common sense logics?

Women and Performance, as the premier journal of feminism, performance, and queer theory is the ideal forum for this special issue. We aspire towards creating a unique conversation in Women and Performance, one that not only ponders what the ‘surface turn’ offers performance studies or one that privileges the intellectual conceits of feminist critics in the vibrant conversation we seek to ignite, but also one that recognizes that female artists and performers have been at the forefront of this performance-centered practice of surface aesthetics for much of the twentieth and twenty-first century. Whether it is aforementioned actress Josephine Baker’s flirtation with cladding and self-fetishization; model, Bond rocker, and sphinx Grace Jones’s avowed superficiality and play with “surface energy,” to use her term; or conceptual artist Adrian Piper’s play with the surface signifiers of race in her The Mythic Being performances, black women artists, performers, and philosophers have wielded surface aesthetics as a singular, if quixotic, approach in pop art, portraiture, and performance art for quite some time as a method of escape, a pleasure politic, and a performance of objecthood.

This special collection of essays aims to bring together an array of scholars working at the dynamic intersections of performance studies, theater studies, art history and visual culture, cinema studies, feminist theory, media studies, African American Studies, and critical race theory.

This CFP will serve as the initial node in a constellation of intellectual and aesthetic dialogues investigating the surface and the interior, the fleshy and the immaterial, the artificial and the putatively authentic. This issue, in addition to standard essays, will also welcome art, performative pieces, poetry, and other creative forays into its aesthetic orbit. Finally, we also welcome new voices in this conversation, in efforts to design an expansive conversation; this includes scholars who have never published with Women and Performance before.

Topics of consideration and points of inspiration may include, but are not limited to:

  • Surface, skin, and race

  • Affect, sensation, and surface

  • Race, representation, and the senses

  • Opacity, inscrutability, and other modes of embodiment

  • Diaspora and sensuous geographies

  • Queer and feminist approaches to the archive

  • Tactility, viscerality, and other sensory knowledges

  • Surface, contemporary art, and the modern

  • Surface, texture, and style

  • Intersectional analyses of surface, sensation, and pleasure

  • Iconography and racial fetishism

  • Pleasure, abjection, and race

  • Artifice and theatricality

  • Shine and glitter

  • The poetics of representation and racial legibility


All submissions for Surface Aesthetics: Art, Race, Performance, and Play should be directed to Uri McMillan:

For additional submission guidelines please click here.