Virginia Zamora is well-versed in the art of seduction. I watched her erotic mixed-media work beckon me from The Storefront Project’s interior, where we agreed to meet for our interview one sticky afternoon in mid-July. Zamora’s first New York solo show – I’m Sweaty, Come Thru – set the summer day’s tone. By the time I finished introducing myself, we had already bonded over mutual perspiration.
My previous visit to The Storefront Project had been in June, for the launch of UP’s inaugural issue. Entering the space again gave me artistic vertigo. Zamora’s art dominated the front entrance and led me toward the back office, where she sat patiently waiting for our interview. With limited background knowledge regarding her work, I wasn’t sure where to begin. I asked what brought her to the gallery, a shot in the relative dark.
“I came here by boat,” she joked. “It was a long ride.”
Wearing a bathing suit to channel her Floridian roots, she created most of the paintings in her Chelsea studio over a period of three months and tailored their scale to fill the gallery’s walls.
Zamora explained how her exhibit came together on a whim. She met The Storefront Project’s co-owner Gina Pagano in March at the Got It For Cheap Art Fair, which was hosting an iteration at The Hole in the Lower East Side. Shortly after making her acquaintance, Pagano proposed the idea for a potential summer solo-show. Zamora realized her deadline was approaching. Wearing a bathing suit to channel her Floridian roots, she created most of the paintings in her Chelsea studio over a period of three months and tailored their scale to fill the gallery’s walls. Sketchbooks and other miscellaneous drawings occupied the rest of the space.
“This was such a lark. There I was, pedaling around my color pencil drawings,” Zamora told me. “And now I actually have paintings to show.”
She walked me through the gallery while she articulated its layout, pausing in front of a series of large-scale canvases. The sultry compositions put an illustrative twist on genre painting and depicted queer women during intimate micromoments: crying, texting, drinking, fucking – glossy wet skin, imperfect tan lines, and hard nipples in full view. A painting of her friend Gabriel was one of the few exceptions. From self-portraits to representations of friends and lovers, each autobiographical vignette formed a larger narrative of the artist’s life. I felt compelled to dig deeper.
“A lot of my work is like a layered cake. You can either take what’s on the surface,” Zamora said. “Or you can dissect it.”
Zamora cut the first slice when she told me about her childhood.
The artist left her native Miami at eighteen with a one-way ticket to New York. As a kid she romanticized attending The School of Visual Arts and everything living in the city entailed – the freedom, the glamour, the chaotic creative lifestyle. That spell broke when she graduated with an illustration degree and began working a nine-to-five. To direct her unhappiness into a constructive outlet, Zamora spent most days sketching stories in her journal. Art became a meditation, an oasis all her own.
“I can think of the exact feelings I had every time I look at these drawings,” Zamora contemplated. “It’s a lot of introspection.”
Many of those sketchbooks were on display during her solo-show, with specific pages opened to show self-portraits of Zamora taking selfies, reclining nude, or masturbating. The artist left no raw detail untouched, right down to the pubic hair and messy coffee table littered with wilting flowers and a half-eaten croissant. “I got my period on Cinco de Mayo after being 10 days late,” one sketchbook read. “So I went to Happy Endings and drank champagne.” Zamora’s sincerity emanated from her cartoon-like forms and prismatic palette. “Y tu mujer?” another asked, referencing the adage “Y tu novio?” The drawing succinctly captured the complex story behind the work, which depicted a romantic struggle with a man who wasn’t ready to commit to a relationship.
“I didn’t think anyone would ever see these,” she disclosed. “Yet they’re hanging here.”
Zamora’s candor developed gradually. Born of Cuban descent, she grew up lonely and repressed by rampant machismo. Having experienced my own brand of traditional Catholic oppression, we dove right into our cognitive dissonance. Zamora described a community fixated on gender norms, where the role of a woman is dictated by the male gaze and a good wife must be passive, yet sexual. The consevative culture she experienced during adolescence is only now beginning to shift, as people like Zamora harness their sensual power and continue to subvert ingrained stereotypes. Her exhibition at The Storefront Project helped reclaim her sexual autonomy. Though much of its material was sourced from her Miami life, the home she’s found in New York provides her with a stable environment to continue creating art. Miami is a refuge whenever she needs perspective.
“Am I my Miami self? Yes, she comes out. She’s a lot of what you see in these women,” Zamora said. “But at the same time, I’m an academic and an intellectual. Two things I wasn’t able to be in my culture.”
If the women in Zamora’s work aren’t semi-nude or engaging in a sexual act, they’re absorbed in a distant digital world, apathetic and disconnected.
Undertones of narcissism and dissociation infuse Zamora’s female figures. Throughout her mixed-media, the inner turmoil of being a woman saturates each scene, their focal points drenched in sentimentality. While many of her subjects appear empowered, others exude anguish or indifference. A color pencil drawing of Zamora waxing her own bikini area titled Do It Yourself hung near a self-portrait of her peeking out from her cellphone, a singular tear creeping from her winged eyeliner down to the cigarette in her mouth. Both the title and the writing on her shirt indicate a common dating discomfort: Who’s Your Friend Tho? If the women in Zamora’s work aren’t semi-nude or engaging in a sexual act, they’re absorbed in a distant digital world, apathetic and disconnected. This duality permeated the entire exhibition.
“We’re giving time to a machine, not one another,” she said. “People need to understand what it means to be connected to another human being, to be truly intimate with them.”
Feminist themes also pervade Zamora’s larger body of work. Though many of her subjects are female presenting, they usually have traditionally “masculine” features, like sharp jawlines, pixie cuts, and body hair. The portrait she painted of her friend Gabriel – whom she described as the most “alpha-Columbian man [she’s] ever met” – highlighted his inner femininity through an all-white ensemble, painted nails, and a soft facial rendering. Embodying a range of LGBTQ+ identities, Zamora uses her art as a platform to emphasize diversity and gender fluidity, as well as to address topics like religion, polyamory, and inclusivity. Her work at The Storefront Project showcased her observations of those closest to her and used a variety of body types, skin tones, and sexual orientations to highlight how often platonic and romantic relationships bleed into one another throughout the queer community.
“Dynamics are really fascinating to me,” Zamora said. “I only draw things I’ve experienced firsthand.”
When I asked about her plans following I’m Sweaty, Come Thru, Zamora informed me she remains a go-with-the-flow type of artist, mentioning a return to Miami as the only item on her agenda. Outside of her mixed media work, she also dabbles in screenplay writing, film, and graphic design, each freelance endeavor bringing her one step closer to her objective: to be true to herself while remaining financially prosperous. As she put it in her own words, to afford pina coladas and the lifestyle she depicts in her art, her career must continue to grow. Zamora cited Shantell Martin as an example of an artist who is both authentic and commercially viable.
“Who knows what’s next,” Zamora laughed. “I don’t want to limit myself.”
As for the women who exist within her compositions, the trajectory continues toward the glass ceiling. Zamora has successfully situated her work into a broader feminist dialogue, its reach increasing with every person who walks out of her show instilled with a new sense of self-determination. In art historian Linda Nochlin’s seminal book Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists, the scholar aptly claimed: “the fault lies not in our stars, our hormones, our menstrual cycles, or our empty internal spaces, but in our institutions and our education.” Like Joan Semmel, Emma Amos, and other great female artists before her, Zamora continues to challenge the institutions tightening grip, locking her own grasp around a society that perpetuates its ideologies. In her painterly microverse there is no distinction between Madonna and whore – even fully exposed, femininity maintains its inherent power.
“If I can visually empower women to own their own sexuality for themselves and not for the other person,” Zamora explained. “Then I’ve reached one goal with this show.”
I toured the gallery again when we finished our interview. While I inspected its walls I felt I was peering through a window into Zamora’s soul, a voyeuristic pursuit I had been unprepared to take earlier that day. As she navigates the grey area between crude and realistic, Zamora’s work ultimately resonates because it’s genuine. I too want to be as uninhibited as those women, who even in their moments of heartbreak seemed poised and self-aware, honest about their wounds. Her subjects eliminate the performance often associated with femininity and pull back the curtain to reveal their true state: vulnerable.
Viewers can admire the woman who sits topless at her computer, nursing a glass of wine and likely a headache; or, to the other, who deadpans and crouches over to reveal a knife in her heart, the message “don’t fuck with me” inscribed on her clothes. The artist even leaves room for fantasy when she allows us to spectate her orgiastic escapades in a piece titled The Professor, The Italian, His Wife, and Her Lover. With a precise hand and an affinity for personal touches, Zamora uses her talent to represent a spectrum of emotions and ambitions, a subtle composite of the audience she hopes to engage.
And we find parts of ourselves in every fine line, the women we are or might someday aspire to be.