A century after the emergence of Dada, Mickalene Thomas and Racquel Chevremont’s curated section is all about political collage.
By Elena Goukassian
A hundred years after the creation of the Dada movement‘s characteristic collage aesthetic, the Volta NY fair is championing the political nature of collage in a curated exhibition, The Aesthetics of Matter, organized by renowned artist Mickalene Thomas and her partner Racquel Chevremont, an art advisor and collector. Featuring the work of eight artists and brought together under the general theme of “ideologies of collage,” the display is the first in the couple’s new Deux Femmes Noires project, a mentorship and exhibition program dedicated to increasing the visibility of and creating new opportunities for artists of color. At least partially due to the political-collage nature of much of Thomas’s own work, The Aesthetics of Matter is both philosophical and philosophically coherent.
Before you even walk through the rectangular freestanding walls into the curated section, you’ll encounter the photography of The Aesthetics of Matter‘s first artist, Christie Neptune, represented by Rubber Factory. The Brooklyn native’s conceptual photography and video series, Unpacking Sameness, takes its inspiration from James Baldwin and Frantz Fanon. Neptune addresses the ideologies around white supremacy by focusing on an artistic invention called “The Colorline,” a metal stand and green velvet curtain, “designed to block out the reality of systematic racism, cultural and racial difference, white supremacy, and aggravated stress caused by interactions with non-white persons.” Behind the curtain, a comfortable delusion of overarching equality awaits.
Adjacent to Neptune, hanging on Studio 301 NYC‘s wall are the bricolage sculpture/paintings of David Shrobe. Unique takes on classical portraiture created from reclaimed detritus (like pieces of chairs, linoleum, doorknobs, and wallpaper), Shrobe’s works often include only fragments of the faces of his “sitters,” their collaged torsos surrounded at least partially by old frame fragments. Through the amalgamation of various found objects with their own separate backstories, Shrobe symbolically fuses and recombines their historical narratives. Opposite Shrobe, Anna Zorina Gallery presents Haitian-American artist Didier William, who draws from Vodou symbolism in his depictions of writhing bodies engulfed in swarms of eyes, ripped pieces of painted paper collaged into the background. Carved straight into the wood panel, the eyes look as if they’re almost poking at the distorted bodies, causing them to buckle and at times even dissipate into the wood itself.
In the middle of the curated section, Brooklyn’s new Jenkins Johnson Gallery takes up two facing walls, with photographs and mixed media work by Devin N. Morris and wallhanging sculpture by Kennedy Yanko. Morris explores racial and sexual identities through large-scale collages and photographs that create an aura of 3D collage, often combining them into a single installation. On the side of one wall, he installed a photograph of a man standing outside a house, his legs covered by a broken door and chairs hanging precariously out of windows; in front of the photograph, two completely different broken chairs are recombined into one. As with Shrobe’s works, this recombination is symbolic of a reimagined history (and future).
Turning to the other wall, you’ll spot Yanko’s hanging sculptures made from crinkled metal parts. Reminiscent of the remnants from a horrendous car crash, her works often incorporate “paint skins,” combining the opposite elements of the soft and the hard, the malleable and the intractable, the masculine and the feminine. In an increasingly polarized world, there’s something almost comforting in the sight of a large piece of dried turquoise paint draped like a scarf over the neck of a jagged piece of metal.
Next in the curated section, Troy Michie (Company Gallery) creates works using photographs with people’s bodies and faces cut out in a symbolic specter of invisibility, and Tomashi Jackson (Tilton Gallery) assembles sculptures that meld Josef Albers’s color theories with the history of racial politics in the US. Both Michie and Jackson, like Shrobe and Morris, use collage as a means of questioning deep-seated societal narratives and pushing for a kind of historical reconstruction.
The final artist in this section, Kameelah Janan Rasheed covered one side of Project for Empty Space‘s wall with “Selling My Black Rage to the Highest Bidder” flyers with pull-off tabs printed with a phone number. (If you call, you can leave a voicemail with your bid, which as the automated greeting informed me, starts at $100.) On the other side of the wall, Rasheed arranged black-and-white cut-outs, clippings, and xeroxes of seemingly random words and phrases that transform into poetry. Reading the snippets of text in all directions creates infinite combinations and meanings with every glance, suggesting an inherent complexity of language and understanding, both literally and in the abstract.
Although The Aesthetics of Matter effectively stole the show at Volta, I would be remiss to exclude a couple of standout booths. In the first, Bratislava’s Soda Gallery presents the works of Lucia Tallová, who uses old family photographs and furniture to create monochromatic installations highlighting the unreliable nature of memory. At the booth of São Paulo’s Galeria Emmathomas, gray paint covers the chaos of a broken piano with bottles, lamps, and chairs littering the floor, an installation by Alan Fontes that almost feels like a Cubist still life in 3D. Behind the installation, on the gray wallpapered walls of the booth, hang paintings of crumbling houses.
Like those of the artists represented in The Aesthetics of Matter, the works of Tallová and Fontes combine materials and media in a collage-like manner. In fact, these two booths would fit very nicely into Thomas and Chevremont’s curatorial vision, especially considering the curators’ focus on the pitfalls of historicity and neatly ordered narratives. It seems at Volta this year, a century after the emergence of Dada, the politics of collage are as relevant as ever.