Art Insider: The human arm as an art gallery

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Ruiling Zhang, “Open Letter” (2020) at Arm Gallery. Image courtesy of Visitor Welcome Center.

David Bell closed his physical gallery, Visitor Welcome Center, just a couple of weeks before the pandemic. But for the next year, Bell is curating artwork on someone’s arm. 

Arm Gallery is a 2.5 x 5.5 inch tattooed rectangle on the arm of artist John Burtle that’s been operating since 2007. Burtle invited Bell to plan this year’s programming when his physical space closed in March. 

Bell explains, “Arm Gallery was the perfect thing because it’s this body that’s moving through space and not taking up any more space than one human body does.”  

For one of the first shows Bell curated, artist Ruiling Zhang wrote an open letter to Burtle. Bell explained to me, “It was basically her coming to terms with what it means to be a person of color showing on a white arm, and I think that actually laid a lot of groundwork for a lot of the other artists who are also POC that are thinking about the same thing.” 

In the open letter, Zhang’s self description was “not white, not a guy, not light-skinned, not straight, and not American-born.” She writes that she can’t imagine the gallery being on her own arm without added politicized context.  

She explains, “The response from artists-contributors would inevitably or perhaps obligingly consider race, gender, sexuality, ethno-culture, etc. in making contact with the brownish square framed on my arm.”


Victor Yañez-Lazcano & Livien Yin, “Have it Both Ways: Sublime Bronze SPF 50” (2020), self-tanning lotion & sunscreen
. Image courtesy of Visitor Welcome Center. 

The current Arm Gallery show, by artists Victor Yañez-Lazcano and Livien Yin, again directly addresses these issues of skin color and “the white cube.” For the exhibition each day, Burtle applies SPF 50 within the “gallery space” on his arm and a strong tanning oil around the gallery. 

Bell explained that the work references Coco Chanel’s popularization of tanning oil in late 1920s. Bell told me, “It is essentially like blackface, right? Like white people wearing brown skin or tanned skin as the ideal, yet still discriminating against anyone with brown skin.” Over the next two weeks, Burtle’s arm will continue to shift tonally. The gallery will remain pure white, while the remaining arm becomes a bronzed brown.

I asked Bell why the arm excites him as a space for curating. “I’m having conversations with every single person that I know, especially my family, about ideas of race and whiteness. And I think this platform actually has set up a surprising space to have conversations about … what it means to show in specific spaces. We have the idea of the white wall gallery or the white institution, and this is literally an arm — a white arm — like the skin itself.” 

Bell told me that many of the artists participating in his programing are thinking about Burtle’s arm as a perfect site to engage in conversations about the specificity of space, the white cube, and what it means for the artists to navigate these kinds of spaces going forward. 

Simone Leigh artwork to raises funds for Color of Change


Simone Leigh Benefit Edition for Color of Change, “Sentinel IV” (2020). Courtesy of the artist and Hauser & Wirth.

Artist Simone Leigh, who has a solo exhibition currently on view at David Kordansky Gallery, has debuted a new bronze sculpture that she will be selling on Hauser & Wirth’s website. There will be 25 identical sculptures for sale. All the proceeds will go to Color of Change, a civil rights nonprofit. 

The artwork, titled “Sentinel IV” after a similar monumentally-sized work by Leigh, is a 20 inch tall cast bronze sculpture of a female figure. The figure’s head is replaced by a circular spoon form.

According to Hauser & Wirth in a press statement, Leigh’s hybrid form “exists in a category described in West African Art as a power object, something that acts either through formal significance or ritual use.” 

In the last several weeks, following killings of Black trans women Riah Milton and Dominique “Rem'Mie” Fells, many have been reminding Black Lives Matter protesters to uplift and centralize Black women and Black trans voices. 

Rashad Robinson, President of Color Of Change, explained that Leigh’s sculpture “makes visible and palpable the subjectivity of Black women, whose experiences and leadership have always been central to struggles for liberation nationally and globally.” 

Leigh has been working with Color of Change since 2015. She says, “I’m thrilled to support work that will champion solutions that move us all forward.”