SOLO EXHIBITION BY MELVIN “GRAVE” GUZMAN
DÉTOURNED EXHIBITION ESSAY
By Carlo McCormick
Across a landscape of desire where consumerism constitutes lifestyle and luxury in surfeit subsumes identity, there wanders a creative adventurer named Melvin “Grave” Guzman. A scavenger of our wasteful excess and an interlocutor of those discrete meanings that lay latent within our manic materialism, Guzman is watchful of our wishes and conscious of the cultural subconscious that compels the compulsions of acquisition. He understands the nature of our dream machine and moves through our dreams like an interloper whose interventions are at once a trespass, a theft and a rescue. His art, a tracing of his travels and examination of the traces strewn to the side of our perpetual distraction, is a saving grace, the best thing that can be said about all that is wrong at the moment.
Much like the cargo cults that developed in the late 19th and early 20th century where less materially advanced cultures, encountering the detritus of the modern world, developed ritualistic practices around the foreign materials that washed up upon their worlds, Guzman’s retrieval and recombination of the shiny display baubles he gathers in his daily rounds of the great shopping mall that is now downtown Manhattan offers a kind of magical thinking, an alchemy of transmutation where the emptiness of a non-specific and unquenchable wanting is invested with personal and esoteric meanings. It is at once casual and relatively random yet also deliberate and definitive, built of his idiosyncratic mythologies and empowered through the modern ritual of performance art where the spontaneity of play and the inventiveness of imagination proffer a make-believe that makes belief. DIY and homemade no matter the inherent slickness of much of his found objects, the theatricality of process, captured in videos but also evident in the work itself, reveals and revels in the dual status of his art as not simply objects of contemplation but also as artifacts of a post-utilitarian purpose and as props in ongoing narrative.
Guzman’s narrative, a story assembled in shards- entireties forever incomplete, conjuring like constellations where representation is a kind of connect the dots along the abject periphery of abstraction, is a shamanic storytelling befitting urban myth. His comic book reinvention of self, complete with a tragic-heroic alter ego The Phantom whose painful origin story based off a life-changing incident in which the artist had his face brutally sliced open in an uptown bar, is itself a cipher, a perpetual retracing of the cut, emblazoned as a sign reduced to a logo, Zorro’s mark reconstituted into the vernacular of graffiti, a tag whose very I was here presence connotes a converse gesture of absence.
Guzman is everywhere in his work, just as he seems to be in the city itself, but it is an assembly of personae, the self infinitely split by some social schism, a phantom’s dissembling where the revelation is guised and coded, its truth but an allegorical fiction. And wherever or whenever the Phantom appears in Guzman’s art, he is intangible and ethereal, an echo or memory more than a physical being anymore, what the artist calls his life from the time he was born until the time he was scarred, something past tense yet present still, that knowledge going forward that life can be taken away at any moment. He tells us it is the flag for the survivors of our ongoing Armageddon, brought from his fallout shelter in Harlem and planted downtown where all things are bought and sold.
A century past, when the flotsam and jetsam of society first became a physical material and creative language in the arts through the post-war hysteria of Dada and figures like Schwitters, this art of refuse and refusal allowed the commonplace as something inherently wretched and anonymous, albeit spun into gold by the glory of modernism. With Grave’s dedication to the discarded however one gets no sense of the forlorn. His are not the lost mementos of our attics and dustbins but the found treasures of our commercial design aesthetics, collapsed and collaged as composite mediations of our hyper-mediated landscape. Built of the incidental, the elements themselves are far from accidental, each loaded with the artist’s keen sense of the attendant brands and stores that were their original source. Describing his assemblage as a way of “building narratives for the people,” what is uncanny is how for whatever randomness his art embraces there is always a discrete deliberateness in composition and content. “Everything is on purpose,” he tells us, “I like to make mistakes, but never by chance.”
This abiding sense that Guzman wanders, seemingly lost but always with an internal map of where he wants to get to, functions as a kind of frisson within his art, a method to the madness that invisibly directs his collaborations and guides even his most informal and spontaneous of gestures within the syntax of a populist democratic spirit of communication. And though I was fortunate to meet Grave first as an artist, it is as this wanderer that I more frequently encountered him, a post-modern flaneur of the 21st Century whose orbits through the madding crowd mark the distance between today’s city of the spectacle and the metropolitan entropy of yore, while echoing the intoxication of 19th Century flaneur swept up in the masses, as Baudelaire described in Crowds as “this ineffable orgy, this divine prostitution of the soul giving itself entire… to the unexpected as it comes along, to the stranger he passes.” Rather than merely some bewitched itinerant of the streets however, Grave strikes us as an urban commando whose engagement with the urban is far more critical than acquiescent. His art stems from the Situationist’s navigation of our consumerist spaces, be it the derive (or drift) by which this notion of the flaneur enters into a psychogeography of discovery, or their strategy of hijacking and redirecting signs, called detournment, from which Guzman takes the name for this exhibition. Discursive and without apparent direction, these travels mapped in Guzman’s art are nonetheless pointed and purposefully problematic, a record of wishful and wistful wondering written in the wry tones of self-reflexive identification.
“DÉTOURNED” | Solo Exhibition by MELVIN “GRAVE”
EXHIBITION ON VIEW: THURSDAY, JANUARY 17th, 2019 – SUNDAY MARCH 22, 2019
Location: ABXY LES | 9 Clinton Street | New York, NY 10002
Artist ig: @grave_
ABXY presents “Détourned” a solo exhibition by Harlem-born artist Melvin “Grave” Guzman. “Détourned” marks the artist’s second solo show with the gallery following “A Grave New World” (2018). The immersive installation at ABXY showcases a new collection of the artist’s monumental mixed media work as well as an eerie soundtrack, a short film featuring Guzman’s performance art, and a projection on display in an artist-designed theater within the gallery. The exhibition will be on view from January 17 – March 10, 2019. Exhibition essay by Carlo McCormick.
Détourned : (noun, from the French, “détournement”) an artwork resulting from the practice of appropriating or altering existing media artifacts in order to give them a new subversive meaning, often shifting the original meaning to one with revolutionary significance.
Known for his irreverent mixed media works, Guzman’s object-based artistic practice aptly connects with this avant-garde tradition. Working exclusively with found materials like torn magazine ads, shopping bags, posters, and ticket stubs once discarded by consumer culture, the artist creates sculptures and sprawling collaged tapestries, which satirize the psychological intensity of our image-driven world while highlighting the fluid relationship between environment and identity today.
Popularized in the 1960’s by Guy Debord and the Situationistes Intérnationales, the term “détournement,” (roughly translated meaning: derailment, or overturning) is a form of “cultural jamming,” an elastic category of artistic practices taken up in subsequent decades by anticonsumerist social movements aimed at disrupting media culture to expose political and corporate manipulation. However, in contrast to the finger-pointing characteristic of the Situationists and their more militant creative descendants, with “Détourned,” Guzman presents a collection of work that asks us to examine the reflexive effects of contemporary media on our own value systems while bringing awareness to the manufactured state of human desire in the Digital Age.
The exhibition includes paper-maché piñatas, simulated pinball machines, hand-painted flags, and doll-sized houses. Star-spangled in luxury logos, these objects invoke our sentimentality and brand-lust simultaneously in a combination of artistic gestures, which confound contemporary American conceptions of value. By resurrecting the refuse of consumer culture as his source material, Guzman juxtaposes the state of the planet to our obsession with luxury and celebrity, relating our conflicted relationship with the physical world to our illogical reverence of commercialism. Transforming the branded debris of capitalist society into fabrications of youthful, vintage pastimes, the artist subversively implies that our desires have long been artificially shaped by American media.
Looking on, the viewer soon realizes that each rebelliously droll plaything in Détourned engages in a world of retro representation – arcade games, piñatas, flags – all symbols, stand ins for the religious, fantastical, and civic worlds they respectively represent. Like the internet, these objects invite human interaction in a language that requires we subscribe to their symbolic significance. In this context, Guzman’s whimsically absurd constructions convey the vulnerability of blind faith, in imagined realms, in an empire of signs. Their preposterousness parodies the irrational fantasies contemporary media culture effects on our own ideas of beauty, value, truth and relevance.
In his seminal work, “The Society of the Spectacle,” (1968) Debord argued that in pursuit of accumulated wealth, capitalist society aims to alienate us from ourselves and our desires, and that “the spectacle” (mass entertainment, news, and advertising) had replaced the commodity as society’s mechanism to do so. The philosopher predicted that eventually, media would become so pervasive, we would not be able to distinguish between real life and its representation. Amidst a misinformation crisis, a time when we are judged less for the content of our character than of our Instagram feeds, when virtual social networks compromise the integrity of real elections, the works in this exhibition ask us to look again at what we might throw away and shine the neon glow of nostalgia on the past, before the commodity had been replaced by the spectacle, the object by its representation, reality by its virtual equivalent.
In re-appropriated pastiche, Guzman creates resounding layers of meaning within each work in “Detourned.” An ode to organized chaos, this hypnotic artistic language often obscures the viewer’s sense of time and place. The transporting works in this exhibition sentimentally suggest the importance what Debord called “lived time” retrieving our attention from the domain of the spectacle and returning to the world of human interaction. They serve as an omen for contemporary naivete surrounding the future psychological, political, and social consequences of media in the Digital Age. And like a fun house mirror, reflect the distorted image of our own false appetites in real time. In an effort to provoke the audience out of their complacency, with this exhibition, Guzman artistically transcends space and time to bring us something holy: an entirely recycled environment, where each work endeavors to reclaim the realization of dreams and the possibilities of a transformed life from the spiritual vacuum of contemporary capitalist media.