About suffering they were never wrong . . . how well they understood its human position; how it takes place while someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along.
My work investigates the psychology of connection, violence, and transience in America. Influenced by postwar literature, true-crime television, and documentary photography of the 1970s, my intimately scaled paper collages depict scenes that appear ordinary but have a loaded history. I meticulously cut out every component of each form—no matter how small—which gives a strange significance to seemingly irrelevant minutiae like an electrical wall socket or stain on a sidewalk. This approach is inspired by the phenomenon of trauma perception, in which the senses become heightened and the brain takes equal note of all stimuli present during the traumatic event, regardless of whether they are pertinent or not. Surrounded by acute detail, the main clause of the narrative in the collages is always left blank, resulting in images that feel both empty and concrete. Vivid palettes that combine dissonance and harmony add to the underlying tone of anxiety.
THE PLACE-BASED WORKS
In 2012 I began a place-specific body of work that focuses on various locations across the U.S. Each series in this body of work depicts specific sites that together have a poetic resonance and historic significance.
The Offing series (2012–14), based in New Orleans, is about that city’s displacement of bodies, both living and dead. The collages depict former orphanages, disinterred cemeteries, and locations where murderers have hidden the bodies of their victims. In New Orleans the dead can’t be buried because the city sits below sea level and the coffins pop back up out of the ground, like buoys held underwater and then released, whenever a heavy rain loosens the hard topsoil that keeps them in place. Early settlers learned this the hard way, and they began housing bodies in aboveground tombs. This gives New Orleans a curious relationship to the dead—residents live among them rather than on top of them. Yet present-day narratives still erase bygone ones, often mundanely: The city’s first Jewish cemetery is now an abandoned playground, a prominent Catholic orphanage is now a quaint bed and breakfast. Although these sites often bear little physical evidence of their past, the collages are imbued with a psychological tension that hints at a charged history. Ultimately the works stand as reminders that we sometimes end up in places we never intended to go, and that those places themselves remain in a state of constant flux.
The Offing grew out of a contribution I made to the 2013 book Unfathomable City: A New Orleans Atlas, by Rebecca Solnit and Rebecca Snedeker. Works in this series were first exhibited as a solo show at the Foundation Gallery in New Orleans, and were subsequently shown in the 2013 group show A Sense of Place at the Wellin Museum, Hamilton College, and at Foley Gallery's solo booth at the 2014 Volta art fair in New York.
The Everything That Rises series (2014–15) pictures two types of sites in New Jersey (where I reside): former Underground Railroad way stations and locations where race riots have erupted. Although on the surface the Underground Railroad and the riots may seem diametrically opposite—people working cooperatively versus in conflict—I see both as acts of rebellion that mark instances of rupture and change. The collages in this series depict what are today hair salons, abandoned buildings, boutique shops, empty fields—the kinds of places you pass by without noticing. With a quiet eeriness and subtle psychological charge, Everything That Rises speaks to the ways we remember—and forget—the charged events of our country's turbulent history of race relations.
The title of the series is taken from Flannery O'Connor's short story "Everything That Rises Must Converge." Set in the South shortly after the desegregation of the public transportation system, the story describes an interracial encounter on a bus and the altercation that ensues. Collages depicting riot sites are titled by excerpts from newspaper articles published at the time; those of Underground Railroad safe houses are untitled but identified parenthetically by the town in which the site is located.
Everything That Rises is currently on view as a solo show at the Visual Arts Center of New Jersey in Summit (September 20, 2015 – January 17, 2016). From there it will travel, with additional works, to Foley Gallery in New York, where it will be on view through March 2016.
I have recently begun a new series, stemming from Everything That Rises, on race-riot locations from across the entire country. (Riots in this series date to 1834 and include those incited by white mobs attacking black communities.) Unlike the earlier work, these collages are large scale and monochromatic (constructed from a handmade, reflective silver paper). Tentatively titled The Terrible Speed of Mercy, this body of work will also include life-size effigies, constructed from handmade silver tissue paper, of objects associated with the riots.
My process, especially with the place-based work, involves a significant amount of initial research, followed by a trip to the location and extensive photographic documentation of the sites. One of the challenges of photographing the sites is remaining attuned to the mundane, present-day narratives that unfold there—my goal is not to find evidence of the location’s history but rather to depict its current identity, even when that identity seems trivial in comparison to the site’s past.
Back in the studio, I select the photographs I want to work from and create a contour line drawing of the site. At this stage I eliminate certain elements (like debris on the ground) and add others (like clouds in the sky) to best convey the felt experience of the place, which photographs don’t always communicate. Anything integral to the fundamental identity of the site is left unaltered. Next I select a palette that will, again, suggest the feeling of the place. Often that means changing, for example, the color of a wall to one that better conveys the smallness of the room, or rendering a scene shot during the day as one shot at night to convey a foreboding feeling that didn’t come through in the photographs.
Cutting the pieces with an X-acto knife and assembling them for the final collage is the last and most technically demanding stage. Many of the components are no bigger than the head of a pin—I use surgical tweezers to place them—and the order in which they are layered critically affects the way the collage reads spatially. The cutting is an integral part of the work, as it gives each tiny component a physical heft (and thus narrative significance) that it wouldn’t have if it were merely painted. The layering also builds up the three-dimensional depth of the surface, which contrasts with the flattening the forms achieved by the expanses of solid color. The small scale of the work, the slight shadow thrown by the edge of the paper, and the stark separation between tones and objects gives the collages a crystalline, gemlike quality that is at odds with the fleeting feeling in the scenes depicted.
Truman Capote described the nonfiction novel genre he created as having “the credibility of fact, the immediacy of film, the depth and freedom of prose, and the precision of poetry.” I hope to achieve the same balance in my work, telling a story about a present that’s unmoored from its past but never perfectly free from it.