Todd Gray, the hidden order of the whole @David Lewis

JTF (just the facts): A total of 8 large scale color works, framed in black and unmatted, and hung against white walls in the main gallery space and the entry area. All of the works consist of between two and five archival pigment prints in artist’s frames with UV laminate, made in 2021. Aggregate physical sizes range from roughly 61x41x2 to 110x146x5 inches, and all of the works are unique. (Installation shots below.)

Related works were recently on view at the Wadsworth Atheneum (March 4 – July 18, 2021, here).

Comments/Context: Todd Gray’s photographic assemblages have a muscular presence that isn’t normally associated with collage. His juxtapositions aren’t of the meticulous cut-and-paste variety, where images are carefully sliced, diced, and recontextualized, nor are they rephotographed gatherings or arrangements of archival imagery and ephemera, in the mode of a scrapbook. Instead, the scale and physicality of his works broadens their deliberate visual harmonies and dissonances, trading out crafty intricacy for something more pointedly dramatic.

Gray’s assemblages are made up of large scale framed photographs installed on top of one another, in telescoping piles of circles and rectangles, or in overlapped friezes, where the visual ideas can interrupt or communicate with each other in a more horizontal sweep. Not since Brendan Folwer’s framed pictures smashed into each other have we seen such sculptural energy been applied to the interaction of imagery.

The individual images that make up these recent works document a variety of subjects: European palace gardens, with their specimen trees, classical stone pavilions, and ornamental sculpture; candids of friends and landscapes from Gray’s life in Ghana; black-and-white portraits from his days as a music industry photographer (including cameos by Iggy Pop and Gladys Knight); images of the Atlantic Ocean; and cosmic starscapes from the Hubble Space Telescope. This visual raw material is then remixed into interlocked combinations that incisively probe the legacies of European colonialism and the African diaspora.

The simplest of the compositions on view combines just two photographs – an image of a smiling Black family from Ghana and another of an elaborate urn in the formal gardens of Versailles, with the circular family portrait placed atop the urn, almost like a bouquet of flowers. The introduction of the happy Black faces from Africa immediately recalibrates the feeling of the highly ordered garden (with its shaped trees and straight pathways), reminding us of the traumatic colonial histories embedded in such places.

This broad theme is then explored and amplified in many of the other works in the show. In one assemblage, the waves of the Atlantic Ocean and a tumble of dried palm leaves are housed inside the vaulted archway of an ornate building, which itself is underneath yet another elaborately decorated façade, punctuated by roofline statues. The nesting effect places the connections across the ocean at the center of the luxurious setting, reordering the way the history is typically told. In another work, visual echoes are drawn between the columns of the Temple of Love (again at Versailles) and the vertical supports of a beach house in Ghana, and between a dancer in an MC Hammer music video and the sculptural neoclassical forms that adorn the gardens. The composition moves back and forth between competing cultural frameworks, linking them together across time and space.

Gray extends these ideas even further in a work featuring a version of the Rape of the Sabine Women. A repeating colonnade and the reaching woman trying to escape in the sculpture provide flanking edges that surround a light dappled view of a swamp, with the trees and the columns connected by their vertical repetitions. A round disk of stars against the blackness of the cosmos lies atop this grouping of images, seeming to both open a portal to outer space and elongate the timeline from the Romans all the way forward to the limitlessness of the heavens. With each image, Gray adds another layer of potential meaning, building up to a complex web of juxtapositions and “the hidden order of the whole”.

As seen in these new works, Gray’s approach is getting stronger and more nuanced, with more potent energy thrumming through his image connections. He’s gone beyond simply upending or disrupting the European gardens to packing (and unpacking) more parts of his artistic life into his compositions. The results make his active rebalancing of history more resonant, with looming statues and rock stars facing off as storytellers with different vantage points.

Collector’s POV: The works in this show range in price from $35000 to $120000, based on size. Gray’s works have little 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): A retrospective exhibition, hung against white and black walls, in a series of three connected spaces (and their exterior walls) on the museum’s main floor. The ... Read on.

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