By Nan Collymore
Karen Jenkins-Johnson and David Shrobe’s discerning curation of Somewhere in Between begins with the brilliant placing of Portal (2017). The stand-out abstraction of portions of furniture, paper and fabric eliding together in a maelstrom of noisy clashes is placed in the entrance to her downtown San Francisco art space.
David Shrobe’s interest in everyday objects that he encounters in his New York neighborhood is a way of initiating a discourse on re-assembling and decoding Black materiality. The portraits he builds are a nod to the work of Betye Saar and Noah Purifoy, both artists who grew out of the 1960’s/70’s LA art movement. His work, however, brings his East Coast perspective to the wall. In New York he is in a constant dance with his own practice as a painter, sculptor and mixed-media artist, using charcoal, oil, flocking and metallic paint as ways to reinterpret found materials from the city. In a brief conversation I had with Shrobe, he spoke about his process: “Even when I’m painting, I am working in a collage logic (…) A lot of my images become hybridized, drawing from Black Diaspora and African cultures—I am considering potential futures”. His background in fashion and his knowledge of textiles has helped him move his practice towards a more playful approach to materiality.
One of the most engaging facets of Shrobe’s current exhibition is its tenderness towards the subjects portrayed in each work. Pulling together materials that have previously been used in a domestic setting—like fabric and furniture—Shrobe is referencing artists like Saar or Lynda Benglis who have used assemblage and collage to critique the limitations experienced by underrepresented artists, specifically women. Consciously collecting, breaking, and re-instating the material into a new form, Shrobe is employing artistic gestures often seen in women’s art strategies that are essential in exploring the terrain of subjectivity in everyday life. The portraits appear as almost cyborgian, constructs of objets trouvés assembled in a way to confront the way we perceive human/non-human (machine or animal) interaction, challenging the racialized ways of seeing the black and brown body as animalistic and the white body as neutral, or rather: normal.
Shrobe works in a very intuitive way and his use of family heirlooms, both fabric and furniture, are integral parts to his practice. “I work in the space where three generations of my family lived before me,” he says. “My great aunt still gives me pieces of quilt blocks from a technique that has been passed down along generations. I work in a similar way to how the patchwork is constructed and arrive at a new narrative through the various juxtapositions of material”.
The use of high lacquer on wood contrasted with the exposed grain tells us of a broken narrative in Keeper of Secrets, one of making good of a material created from neighborhood leftovers. The purple paint and black flocking are references to royalty and a reflection on 17th and 18th century portraiture as well as depictions of “Saints, Knights and African nobility, often painted with haloes above their heads”.
Shrobe is exploring how we navigate our worlds through a methodology of dislocation. And it is in this dislocation that he performs his style of making work from a series of manufactured objects that have previously lived in a specifically Black domestic setting. One of the strengths in his work lies in the autobiography and wider biography of his local community attached to certain pieces like Spoon Fed, Night Vision and Adams Express (2018), but also in the gestures to human form that make us connect with the portraits and the subjects behind them more deeply. The politics that surface in Knelt are inspired by Colin Kaepernick. Shrobe uses his story to rethink what patriotism means in 2018, and he is “challenging the notions of what it means to belong to one’s country, challenging ideas of nationalism”.
The smaller watercolor studies with their iridescent tonality and splashes of glitter have a heavenly appeal; compressed, subtle portraits of subjects in quietude. These works on paper are placed out of sight from the main gallery, a decision made by Jenkins-Johnson and Shrobe because of the height of the ceiling, creating a more intimate experience for the viewer. The works appear like a secret part of Shrobe’s self and one is prompted to return to them again and again because they are such engaging moments of thoughtful and artistic precision and a possible portal into the mind of this astute and profound artist.
David Shrobe: Somewhere in Between is on at Jenkins Johnson Gallery, San Francisco until 27 October 2018.