Reality Reframed: Recent Works by Todd Gray @The 8th Floor

JTF (just the facts): A total of 15 photographic works, installed against white walls in a series of connected gallery spaces. (Installation shots below.)

The following works are included in the show:

  • 5 sets of 2 archival pigment prints in artist’s frames and found frames, 2019, 2020, 2022, sized roughly 25x38x2, 28x42x2, 60x49x2, 60x82x3, 63x51x5 inches, unique
  • 5 sets of 3 archival pigment prints in artist’s frames and found frames, 2019, 2020, 2021, 2023, sized roughly 43x60x3, 47x58x4, 51x58x3, 66x81x5, 66x81x6 inches, unique
  • 3 sets of 4 archival pigment prints in artist’s frames and found frames, 2021, 2022, sized roughly 36x37x4, 72x49x7, 81x53x6 inches, unique
  • 2 sets of 5 archival pigment prints in artist’s frames and found frames, 2019, 2021, sized roughly 62x99x5, 81x113x3 inches, unique

A video interview with the artist, from 2021, is also on view in a darkened side room.

Comments/Context: Over the past decade or so, a growing sense of artistic momentum has begun to gather around Todd Gray’s work. Of late, he’s quickly ticked off a number of notable art world accolades, from a Guggenheim Fellowship in 2018 and inclusion in the Whitney Biennial in 2019 to a string of gallery shows (in 2021, reviewed here, as an example), artist residencies, and various museum group shows and exhibits. What this all points to is an artist whose voice and vantage point are resonating with the moment, whose work is wrestling with contemporary questions that feel urgent, complicated, and thoughtfully considered. There’s always plenty to conceptually unpack in a Todd Gray work, which forces the viewer to both attempt to decode the puzzle and to construct a sense of aggregate meaning from the artist’s carefully arranged visual juxtapositions. In many ways, he’s putting us to work (as viewers) far more than most photography that can be seen and consumed more passively.

Gray’s approach is firmly rooted in the conceptual ideas of photocollage, where disparate images are brought together, creating formal echoes, layered and composite arrangements, and contrasts and re-contextualizations of ideas and resonances. But while most photocollage takes place intimately, using cut-and paste techniques (paper-based or digital) on a single backdrop, Gray’s works are instead unexpectedly sculptural, layering large framed images on top of one another with bold physicality. The resulting assemblages have an undeniable presence, with two, three, four, or more photographs placed in controlled (and often interrupted or conflicted) dialogue with each other.

The individual component photographs in Gray’s works tend to come from a handful of subject matter themes, which he then reuses and remixes in different combinations to generate alternate narratives and intellectual questions, largely surrounding the legacies of European colonialism and the African diaspora. Ornate European architecture is a consistent anchor point, with cathedrals, palaces, and government houses (often financed by the proceeds of slavery) providing visual touch points, particularly in the details of columns, statuary, and vaulted ceilings; a few of these buildings are found in the Americas, further emphasizing the global spread of the ideas embedded in these structures. Formal European style gardens are similarly present in Gray’s work, with geometric layouts, precise pruning, specimen trees from foreign lands, classical pavilions, and ornamental sculpture offering a methodically managed (or appropriated) version of nature.

With these places as a baseline, Gray then deliberately creates visual frictions and conversations in his works, using a handful of additional image motifs. He inserts portraits of Black artists, musicians, and thinkers (some of which were made in his days as a music industry photographer). He adds images from his life in Ghana, including views of the beach and the Atlantic Ocean (which represent the final view of Africa that many slaves saw), landscapes and built details from places near his home, and candids of friends and passersby. And he introduces dark cosmic starscapes from the Hubble Space Telescope, bringing in a layer of otherworldly spirituality and celestial context. He also plays with various kinds of frames, from smoothly polished examples in different woods to gaudily gilded objects with intricate detailing, providing yet another set of options for tuning the visual consonance or dissonance.

This museum-like show in a non-commercial space surveys a number of works made in the past five years, offering a mini-sampler of Gray’s current line of thinking, and happily, extensive wall label texts offer some clues to the layered references embedded in the works. Several works riff on “Euclidean Gris Gris” titles, where the ordered geometries of the classical world are juxtaposed with looser, more expressive spiritual traditions. The works feature images of manicured greenery at Versailles and at the Luxembourg Gardens in Paris, including neatly trimmed hedges and conservatories. On top of these images, Gray has layered images of seated sculptural figures from the same locations, particularly a 1682 work by Antoine Coysevoix, where the allegorical figure of Abundance rides atop the figure of Famine. These combinations consider the implications of both the rational controlling/categorizing of nature as well as the inherent disrespect for the colonial poor implied by the statues. One additional work “Jungle Garden (Solar Study)” similarly plays with the futility of attempting to control nature, laying a lush wetland image from Ghana over the twisted geometries of a formal garden in Portugal.

Several other works introduce a central figure to the sculptural compositions, adding a more overt personal presence or protagonist to the implied narrative. In “Cosmic Train of Tears (above/below)”, a black-and-white portrait of the the R&B singer Keisha Jackson rides atop images of the waves of the Atlantic as seen from the shores of Ghana and the pathway to the slave port through the thick forest. Above her head, Gray has placed a portal to the dark cosmos, creating a flow that runs through a talented and successful Black performer and connects elements of past and future. And in “Atlantic (Keisha’s Redemption Song)”, Gray sets up a similar hierarchy, with Jackson now placed above two ornate architectural examples (one from Lisbon, the other from San Francisco), with the sea once again underneath her and the stars above, again charting the connection between entrenched colonial history and aspirational possibility.

Gray then extends these ideas further, placing various Black artists in positions evoking royalty. In “Nike D.O./Versailles”, he places the Nigerian textile artist Nike Davies-Okundaye atop Marie Antoinette’s private quarters at the Petite Trianon; in “Sketch (There Be Monsters Lurking in the House Within)”, the writer and poet Dr. Derek Gilbert hovers over the gardens near the National Palace in Brussels and the insistent geometries of a sports stadium in Nigeria; and in “the hidden order of the whole”, Gladys Knight looks down on nested images of ornate cathedrals, as well as a formal garden in the Hague. In each case, we are presented with a celebrated Black figure wrestling to overcome the histories evoked by these colonial monuments, with hints of freer natural landscapes tantalizingly nearby.

The newest work in the show (from 2023) twists the hierarchies in a slightly different direction. In “Golden”, the photographic foundation is provided by the ornate interior of the Capella Palatina in Palermo, which is then topped by an image of the flaking ceiling at St. Mark’s Cathedral in Venice, creating a sandwich of religious allusions. The work was conceived after Gray had spent time researching the role of the Catholic Church in the colonization of West Africa. The artist then places a obscured portrait of himself in the center of this arrangement, his face covered by layers of shaving cream and bronze paint, its gestural dabs of color mimicking the peeling paint in the image underneath. The result is a resonant reordering of status, with a Black man now placed atop the church that played such a significant role in the colonization of people like himself.

What emerges from seeing more than a dozen of Gray’s recent works all in one place is a strong sense of intellectual resistance, where the artist is actively pushing back on the histories and mindsets that lie underneath Black life. His works smartly balance complexity with critique, using the selection and positioning of his photographs to dynamically ask questions and open up conversations. When he gets the combinations just right, the works crackle with unresolved tension, the layers of uneasy coexistence refusing to let entrenched cultural legacies go unchallenged.

Collector’s POV: Since this is a non-commercial museum-like exhibition space, there are of course no posted prices. Gray is represented in represented in New York by David Lewis Gallery (here) and Lehmann Maupin (here). Gray’s works have little consistent secondary market history at this point, so gallery retail likely remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.

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JTF (just the facts): Self-published in 2023 (here). Hardcover, 285 x 235 mm, 112 pages, with 55 black-and-white reproductions. Includes a short afterword by the artist and a list of ... Read on.

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