Jacolby Satterwhite’s exhibition at Gavin Brown’s enterprise transformed the gallery into a kind of nightclub—that ultimate escapist’s paradise. Visitors entered a hallway where they could pick up glow stick necklaces from glass jars on the ground, after which they emerged in the darkened exhibition space. Playing on both sides of a screen suspended in the middle of the room was a trippy animated film, Blessed Avenue (2018). A purple neon sign reading pat’s, meanwhile, beckoned visitors toward a back area and gave the room a soft glow.
Satterwhite is known for futuristic, dance-infused animated works, and Blessed Avenue is no departure. Accompanied by a dreamy, electronic soundtrack, the twenty-minute video features dystopian factorylike settings populated with too many characters to keep track of. Various avatars of the artist himself appear on-screen, often at the same time. We see Satterwhite voguing, receiving a lashing (with oversize braids instead of a whip) from Juliana Huxtable’s avatar, and engaging in various sadomasochistic acts. Leather-clad characters occupy hoverboards, revolving wheels, and various platforms. Tentaclelike ropes descending from ambiguous sources loosely tether the figures together, becoming devices of both connection and restraint. There is no clear narrative in the video, just repetitive movement. Though the characters interact, they look past one another: a sense of alienation prevails. Many are, ostensibly, involved in pleasurable activities, but there is rarely a sense of joy. If these people are sexually liberated, they are also confined to a mechanistic world. The natural environment has all but disappeared.
For the soundtrack, Satterwhite and Nick Weiss, of the electronic music duo Teengirl Fantasy, remixed vocals that Satterwhite’s mother had recorded on cassette in the 1990s. Patricia Satterwhite suffered from schizophrenia and died in 2016, leaving behind a cache of drawings and recorded songs. In her drawings, she designed products ranging from everyday items to wild, visionary constructions, and dreamed of having a line on QVC. These drawings were the basis for some of the video’s imagery. And “Pat’s,” the installation in the back of the gallery, was another homage to her—a shop selling various items printed with her designs. The border between madness and creativity blurred, as did that between elegy and collaboration, mournful tribute and celebration.
Halfway through Blessed Avenue, the animation ceases and we see the real Satterwhite vogueing in an alley; a boy peeks his head out a window. The scene closes with the artist on the ground, looking directly at the camera with his cheek on the pavement and his hand on a sewer grate. After additional animated scenes—with the characters finally leaving their confined spaces and flying on machines and winged creatures over dark and ruined landscapes—the video ends with more footage of Satterwhite dancing alone, this time in a restaurant and an outdoor market. These non-animated scenes were unexpected and disorienting, with Satterwhite appearing at odds with his settings. Escaping to Satterwhite’s artificial world, however unfulfilling it might have seemed, felt suddenly appealing.