In his essay 'Freaks and the American Ideal of Manhood,' James Baldwin writes about how the "American ideal" of sexuality and masculinity "has created cowboys and Indians, good guys and bad guys, punks and studs, tough guys and softies" and other such archetypes, resulting in "an ideal so paralytically infantile that it is virtually forbidden—as an unpatriotic act—that the American boy evolve into the complexity of manhood."
Like Baldwin's queries about constructions of masculinity, race, sexuality, and gender, artist/writer Devin N. Morris' solo show "In a Dignified Fashion," at Terrault Contemporary through May 6, expands and subverts conventional categories of identity both in content— queer subjects in flat, surreal environments—and in his technical style.
The planar architectural geometries Morris learned as an engineering student at Baltimore Polytechnic Institute recur in the visual language and conceptual framing of his collages, which combine inside and outside space in somewhat fantastical ways. The collapse of "realistic" space within his collages, photographs, and video installation seems to present a different way of being in the world, where a person's gender, race, and/or sexuality don't stifle or simplify how the world sees them.
"The work is not about validating blackness as opposed to whiteness—hence the use of abstraction," Morris said to me during an interview before the opening. "It's about creating new worlds, worlds where I am happy."
Raised in Baltimore and now based in Brooklyn, Morris is perhaps best known for his independent publication, 3DotZine, a project popularized for its unabashed depiction of black queer joy and stories, poetry, collage, and more. (Find 3DotZine with Kahlon this weekend co-hosting the Cut Up Series III: Brown Paper Zine and Small Press Fair at the Eubie Blake Cultural Center.)
Most of the works on display in "In a Dignified Fashion" are mixed-media collages. With primary color schemes and aerial perspective, Morris plays with an imagined urban landscape and architecture. The worlds Morris creates could be in any city, but feel deeply influenced by Baltimore or Brooklyn, with a particular emphasis on shared community spaces, like neighborhood blocks or domestic interiors. The figures that wander through the spaces in each collage are fragile and seem genderless; the limbs and core of the bodies are soft, noodle-limp, malleable forms.
Ten small collages—alternate covers for "Baltimore Boy," a special edition of 3DotZine featuring three of Morris' short stories—are included in the exhibition. "Baltimore Boy's" cover depicts an androgynous figure at a door; the face of the figure is distorted, their hands concealed in the pockets of their jeans. At the opening, Morris read from 'Something Like Initiation,' a story about first loves and new neighbors, and 'Washing Poles,' a story he described as being about "dreaming, escapism, and the praise of Ralph Lauren." All of those themes, as well as ideas about community, home, the supernatural, and death recur in his work. Copies of the zine are available for purchase, displayed in a zine library that Morris curated within the gallery.
In one of the larger collages, 'Build a Pool on Dried Tears,' two blue-toned figures cry huge droplets from the second story of their home onto the street below. The droplets flood the street with a sea of tears, with cars that float on the surface. In 'Hold Me Up,' a god-like, golden, three-fingered hand holds up a clothesline stretched between two row homes. Bright, obscured figures hang fabric outside the windows of the buildings. Other boldly colored figures meet outside, where the buildings connect, and they each hold onto the fingers of a large, disembodied hand that hangs like the clothesline outside the windows and doorways of the building.
Morris' playful characters and environments blur delineations between reality and dream. The encounters in 'Build a Pool on Dried Tears' and 'Hold Me Up' allow viewers to imagine their own narratives to explain the strange scenes. Did the two blue figures break up and as a result of their despair or bitterness create a natural disaster, a literal manifestation of Ella Fitzgerald's plea to "cry me a river"? Did a god-like manifestation create unity between two feuding households? The narrative possibilities seem limitless, and the collages' expansiveness draws a connection between Morris' literary and visual ambitions.
A video piece titled 'If I Were to, Would You?' set up in the back corner of the gallery combines elements from his collage and photography. In the video, Morris uses male marionette paper dolls within intricately designed diorama stages to present a brief three-scene play about the beginning and end of a love affair. The relationship, like the collage series, is hyper-stylized. It is hard to say for sure what, specifically, is going on between the marionettes, whose erratic and at times aimless movements float awkwardly through the constructed landscapes, but viewers understand the intimacies of the characters' relationship through their movements.
The highlight of the exhibition, though, is the series of six colorful and flamboyant portrait photographs that mirror the flattened perspective and sharp geometric color block and floral aesthetic showcased in the collage series. In the photos, black men are draped regally in lace lingerie, skirts, silk, or long fabrics. Most of the figures stare off beyond the frame, lost in the moment or the story in which they are captured. The photos feel like movie stills or snapshots from a broader narrative; the portraits could depict princes, kings, sages, but their clothing is not necessarily definitive of their identity. Morris and I stood for a long time in front of 'No Need,' a photograph that displays a muscular bearded man wearing a form-fitting lace nighty while assuming a boxing stance. After a while I asked, "What is he fighting?" Morris thought before he responded: "The photographs express liberation and how to not be bogged down by the need to hide." Morris continued, "If you want to wear a dress you can. I want to break down associations."
"In a Dignified Fashion" is up at Terrault Contemporary through May 6. For more information, visit terraultcontemporary.com