MELVIN (GRAVE) GUZMAN (b. 1989) is a Harlem based artist working in photography, video, collage, and mixed-media. While Guzman pursues a range of distinct technical practices, his artwork consistently explores the oscillating relationship between city and self, environment and identity. Whether he’s sneakily snapping a photograph or carefully assembling found materials into a sprawling tapestry, the artist creates abstract portraits and landscapes, which convey the experience of city life today. To experience his work is to feel the familiar jolt of the subway heaving to a start and the landscape beginning to rush by, quickly blurring through dirty windows as the train picks up speed. His photos, videos, collages, and mixed media works are reflections not just of urban spaces, but our experience of those spaces, distilled by the passing of time.
If your life were to flash before your eyes, it might appear like a Snapstory of Grave’s photographs. In images that depict the fleeting, high impact visual moments that characterize city life today, the artist captures the osmosis between urban jungles and their inhabitants. The world’s capitals shine through Grave’s portraits of urban youth, while his cityscapes tell the stories of the communities that built them.
Whether working in digital or analog photography, the artist always edits his images to achieve the same goal: by eliminating any gray tones in a photograph, he transforms his subjects into pure black and pure white articulations of form. To preserve the full force of this gesture in the final work, the artist prints his images using a radiology machine (unlike typical printers, radiologists don’t skimp on black ink). The effect is both evidentiary and nostalgic. In Grave’s eerily dreamy images, glimpses of his landscape appear like urban x-rays and unsuspecting human subjects emerge like portraits of friendly ghosts.
Monumental Mixed Media
If Grave’s photos give the impression of flash-backs, his mixed media pieces have the effect flash-forwards. The artist begins this work by collecting source material – stickers, posters, flyers or discarded luxury advertisements found in the debris of cities around the world. Whether he compiles these elements into a collage or emblazons an individual advertisement with the painted drips, splatters, and happy accidents signature to his graffiti style – Grave takes great care in embellishing, arranging, and layering his materials. He sees any existing rips, tatters, or smudges he might encounter in his source material as deliberate aesthetic contributions to the composition and he considers them attentively when adding his own marks to their scrappy surfaces.
Each an ode to organized chaos, these pieces often confuse the viewer’s sense of time and place, probing one to ask: where, when, why, and how a given image came to be constructed. What has been contributed by the artist? What’s original? What’s natural?
It’s a disorienting encounter. Grave’s mixed media work has the transporting effect of beholding an ancient relic: each piece feels immediately close in time and place – then, almost as suddenly, far away, otherworldly, and just out of grasp. Standing in front of his largest works, the viewer can imagine they’ve been transported to the ruins of some contemporary urban center. In this post- human future, the footsteps of a lone teenage alien break the silence. Shaking a can of spray paint, our imaginary extra-terrestrial prepares to tag the crumbling monuments of consumer culture with his dystopian graffiti. And a clinking echo bounces across the rubble.
No matter the medium, each of Grave’s pieces elicits the romanticism & idealism, anxiety & depression experienced by a generation of young people looking into an ominous, once distant future, now rapidly approaching. As technology’s continuous development thrusts us into the future, our time to save the environment dwindles and cultural tensions escalate across micro and macro communities around the world. In this increasingly small moment we call “the present” we find ourselves soaking in a kind of “nostalgia for now” however tense, or conflicted it may be. By employing the ennobling quality of time as an aesthetic, Grave romanticizes contemporary human life into a drama of Baroque proportion taking place in real time. With work that seems to foreshadow our inevitable demise, the artist suggests that if we can’t find a way to save ourselves – (and quick) – whatever fragments of civilization we leave in our wake, will tell the future’s archeologists the story of our collective self-destruction.
Artist ig: @grave_
“A GRAVE NEW WORLD,” Solo Exhibition, ABXY Gallery, Manhattan, New York
“Shopping Complex,” Elm Restaurant, New Canaan, CT
“ Change for Kids Benefit Auction,” Capitale, Manhattan, New York
“NOW WE HERE,” Group Exhibition, ABXY Gallery, Manhattan, New York
“Dolce Vita,” Group Exhibition, Fabio Scalia, SoHo, New York
“FOTWENTY,” Group Exhibition, Orchard Street Pop Up, Lower East Side New York
Filling in the Blanks Benefit Auction, GlenArbor Golf Club, Bedford, NY
“This is NOT a Safe Space,” Group Exhibition, A&E Gallery, Tribeca New York
“Presidential Punk Posters,” Group Exhibition, Soho Arts Club, Soho, New York
“Foreward Forward,” Wallplay Gallery, Lower East Side, New York
“Experimental Photography,” Group Exhibition, The Bronx Art Space, Bronx, New York