There is a long lineage of artists working with collage, though it can sometimes seem that all roads lead back to early experiments by Cubist artists that were later refined by members of the Dada movement, who began to recycle and recombine materials in response to the absurdity of World War I. “Revolted by the butchery of the 1914 World War, we in Zurich devoted ourselves to the arts,” Hans Arp once wrote. “While the guns rumbled in the distance, we sang, painted, made collages and wrote poems with all our might.” Latent in all was a kind of violence that was in some way a reflection of the carnage all around these artists.
Around a century later, artist Troy Montes-Michie began searching for a less violent form of collage—one that could, in its own unusual way, be generative. He started reflecting on his childhood in El Paso, Texas, where he was born in 1985, and considering how close that border town really was to Mexico. “There was such an overlap with Mexico, and I always remember feeling that at a young age, that there is this division,” he said in a recent Zoom interview. “I could see Mexico—the river and the bridges. It’s literally just right there, less than a mile away.” As he was maturing as an artist, he started to think of a collage as a means to mirror this lived experience. “For me, the cut isn’t about violence, but it’s more about thinking about our own contours,” he continued.
The fruits of Montes-Michie’s experiments were memorably seen at the 2019 Whitney Biennial, in works such as Los Atravesados/ The Skin Of The Earth Is Seamless (2019), in which photographs of lounging men wearing striped garments are cut in such away that they appear crosshatched, their images receding into and emerging from the background. (Its title is a reference to Gloria Anzaldúa’s 1987 book Borderlands/La Frontera, a formative text for Montes-Michie.) Works from the same series as Los Atravesados are now included in the artist’s first major survey.
Titled “Rock of Eye,” the show opens Wednesday at the California African American Museum, which organized it in collaboration with the Rivers Institute for Contemporary Art & Thought in New Orleans, where the New York–based artist was a research resident (albeit a virtual one, given the pandemic). This exhibition’s name refers to a tailoring term used to denote when a garment is cut without careful measurement—an apt name, given that Montes-Michie considers his own process is “intuitive.”
“It wasn’t always that way,” he said, “but I think now that I’ve been working on this medium for so long, I just kind of know what needs to happen with my process.”
Many of Montes-Michie’s collages make use of images of Black men that are found in magazines of bygone eras. In some of his earliest works, pictures of nude men that seem culled from pornographic publications were mixed and matched to a point where the human form verges on abstraction. These images were produced by photographers who “objectified men of color, bodies of color,” Montes-Michie said. In the artist’s hands, the images’ sitters are rendered more complex through elisions and additions that cause them to double and seem slightly imperceptible.
Around the time of the 2016 U.S. Presidential election, Montes-Michie’s methods began to shift. In response to Donald Trump’s rhetoric, he began to think back on his own family history. He spoke to his stepfather, who claimed that the zoot suit—a high-waisted form of dress popularized predominantly by African Americans, Mexican Americans, Filipino Americans, and Italian Americans during the early 20th century—originated in Mexico. Intrigued by that misunderstanding, Montes-Michie dove into the archives in an attempt unravel the zoot suit’s lineage, and found that it came out of Harlem. “I didn’t know that it was the first American suit,” Montes-Michie said. “I didn’t know it was worn by men of color, and also by women.”
His research brought him up against a longstanding history of racism within the U.S. In 1943, a series of riots began when a Los Angeles City Council member attempted to outlaw the suits, allegedly in response to fabric shortages resulting from World War II. But the ban was implicitly, if not even explicitly, racist, given that the zoot suit was viewed by many as a “badge of delinquency” for the groups that wore it, as the Los Angeles Times wrote that year. White servicemen began to attack Mexican Americans and Filipino Americans in the streets, making national headlines in the process in what was dubbed the Zoot Suit Riots.
The resulting works that Montes-Michie made about zoot suits, now on view at CAAM, took him deep into the holdings of the New York Public Library and far beyond, and brought him in contact with theory about camouflage, which was relied upon by soldiers to scramble the senses of enemies. “It’s meant to cause confusion,” he said. “I kind of equated that to the confusion of white Americans when looking at these insiders who are trying to just kind of create a new identity.”
In mingling pictures that Montes-Michie found, he also began relying on sewing techniques that he taught himself. In some cases, fabrics are even appended to the works. The stitches come to look like sutures that repair a healing wound. For example, in Untitled (Feeling Blue), a 2020 collage included in the CAAM show, two men’s nude bodies merge in such a way that one of their legs emerges from the other’s back. Running across them are vertical lines of zigzagging thread, its fibers neatly bound just as these two figures are.
“I do not experience Troy’s collages as sites for violence, even as they charge historical violence. It’s not the work that they do,” said Andrea Andersson, the founder of the Rivers Institute who curated Montes-Michie’s survey with Jordan Amirkhani, a curator at the New Orleans space, and Taylor Renee Aldridge, a curator at the CAAM. “The work that they do is also to establishing a relationship, and some of that is sometimes an entirely formal relationship—just sheer beauty.”