Fourth-Generation Harlem Artist Challenges What It Means To Be An American

In artist David Shrobe’s multimedia work “Guerrilla Tactics,” the edge of a gold picture frame knocks up against a curved slice of mosaic nestled near an emerald-colored plastic crate. A triangular slab of shopping cart hovers atop them. They’re materials you might find piled high in your attic or garage, and pay them little heed.

Through Shrobe’s practice, however, the domestic materials are chopped up, rearranged and reincarnated, forming an unlikely canvas. A ghostly figure hovers atop the amassed materials, his or her invisible face demarcated by a frilly collar and decadent cape. The image of old fashioned nobility is shoved up against the stuff of modern-day detritus, forming a hybrid image that’s hard to place, but harder to shake.

“I’ve been collecting objects from in and around my family’s home in Harlem for many years,” Shrobe, a fourth-generation Harlem resident, wrote in an email to The Huffington Post. “Sometimes they make it into a work, sometimes they sit in the studio for months or years before I find their purpose. I’m often drawn to things that speak to a sense of home, things that are commonplace in our communities. They say a lot about us, from social status to the things we consume and the environments we live in.” 

In his exhibition “Homegrown,” which recently closed at Thierry Goldberg Gallery, Shrobe fuses his found materials into portraits that feel over-crowded and otherworldly. The artists responds to the elitist and exclusive tradition of classical portraiture with a visual display of texture, heterogeneity and abundance, offering an alternative to portraiture’s elitist roots and singular perspective. 

With the show’s title, Shrobe hopes to address the current political climate, raising the question of who is deemed a “true American” and why. “It came from questioning ideas about our nationalism and what it means to belong to one’s country or home, and the ways I see that being challenged, both now and throughout history,” he said. “It also speaks to ideas about consumption and domesticity and having a connection to the materials I find.”

Shrobe invites these materials, including clocks and mirrors and doorknobs and ceiling tins, to speak for themselves, allowing viewers to connect to and identify with them as they please. Through literally slicing up traditions of portraiture and rebuilding them anew, he makes space for a new kind of identity, which embraces multiplicity down to its core. 

“As a painter, I am always pushing my affinity for painting and interested in what painting can be and how it can function in this contemporary moment,” Shrobe said. “Collapsing divisions between past, present and future gives birth to fragmented portraits, mythological beings and hybridized forms who are not oriented to a specific time or place, but rather floating in a space of disquieting coexistence.”

Shrobe’s work, reminiscent of contemporary artist Titus Kaphar, offers a new model for representation, one that acknowledges the complexity and brokenness of its subjects. The images are especially resonant in this day and age, when complex and composite identities are under threat. 

“For me,” Shrobe said, “it’s about asking questions through the materials I use and creating new meaning from the histories that are inherent in the images and objects I reposition and the art historical canon from which I borrow and bring into a new context ― that of my own. To create spaces within which new forms and mixtures become indigenized; figures imbued with a sense of heroism and who embrace their humanity, while challenging what it means to be an American in these turbulent times.”

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Source: HuffPost Black Voices

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