by Maxwell Heller
JACOLBY SATTERWHITE & The New Human Body
“For like many or all of those who have placed their heaven in this earth, I have found in it not merely the beauty of heaven, but the horror of hell also.”
—De Profundis, Oscar Wilde
In Jacolby Satterwhite’s video “Country Ball 1989–2012” (2012), on view in May 2012 at the Studio Museum in Harlem, real and computer-generated bodies gyrate in a landscape brimming with earthly pleasures. Deformed objects based on sketches by the artist’s mother clutter the ground, each labeled with floating neon-hued script: carousels, wallets, credit cards, a Tower of Babel-sized cake. Footage of a cheerful family cookout veers into view at times, clashing with images of cat-suited male dancers. It’s a vision of plenty, but it borders on nightmare. Everything here is desirable, but there’s so much of it that it all collapses under its own weight. The scenery plummets into a massive funnel, forcing its way down the throat of a muscular nude man—until he vomits.
Satterwhite investigates new ways of looking at the body. At 26, he is already known for combining 3D renderings of his mother’s sketches with voguing dancers, ballroom beats, and video game imagery in multimedia installations that both celebrate and torment the human form. At the time of writing, Satterwhite has written and performed scores for Clifford Owens’s much discussed “Anthology” (2011) at MoMA PS1, completed a residence at Headlands Center for Arts, and is preparing to open a group exhibition at DC Moore as well as a two-person show at Monya Rowe elaborately entitled Jacolby Satterwhite & Devin Troy Strother at the Hieronymous Bosch & Beyonce Giselle Knowles Carter Foundation. Both are on view through July 2012.
Sitting down during a May studio visit, Satterwhite discussed these upcoming exhibitions in the context of his past work, which explores desire, consumption, fantasy, and the new social realms that are changing the way we see our physical selves. He remarks that, while growing up in isolated rural South Carolina, his visual world was informed by two powerful influences: the addictive role-playing video games that provided him with adventure and escape, and the diagrammatic sketches of household objects produced en masse by his mother, who lives with schizophrenia. These influences remain powerfully present in his work today, shaping the visual language he uses to dissect the themes that obsess him. Adopting Surrealist and Fluxus strategies, Satterwhite produces nonsense narratives that address topics ranging from motherhood to consumer culture and social media’s commodification of the body—but his works almost always include avatars reminiscent of video game characters and objects referencing his mother’s ongoing artistic output.
Fully accessing Satterwhite’s video and performance art requires us to look past the hot topics he addresses. Pieces like his “Country Ball” feature men in erotic embraces, male figures with prosthetic female parts, and black bodies. But Satterwhite’s work cannot be reduced to a visual working-out of anxieties about gay sexuality, gender, or racial identity. Knowing these topics would be attached automatically to his output, he addressed them head-on years ago in works like “Adam for Adam” (2009). This early piece features the artist clad in a bodysuit bearing both male and female features, dancing to a musical ode to love previously recorded by his mother. A film projected on the wall behind him depicts the artist undergoing pleasures and pains: He kisses a man wearing a glittering do-rag; he is beaten by Hazmat-suit-wearing strangers, and baptized in muddy water by a naked black woman with natural hair. From its titular nod to the gay hookup site adam4adam.com to its Southern Baptist allusions, this piece is what Satterwhite describes as a “low blow” to the audience, an anticipation of the subjects that viewers would expect a young, gay African-American performance artist to tackle. The artist’s presence, however, encourages us to look beyond these easy interpretations. Dancing extemporaneously between the audience and his rolling video, Satterwhite communicates the emotional impact of these images through his expressive body. What might have been confrontational and purely topical becomes instead a complex and personal statement about desire, violence, and transcendence.
Satterwhite’s tendency to bait and then evade viewers has grown stronger throughout the rapid expansion of his oeuvre. His pieces offer small footholds, fleeting clues as to the artist’s intention, before collapsing again into nonsense. “Forest Nymphs” (2009), for example, features music sampling Eddie Murphy’s pseudo-African ululations from the 1983 movie Trading Places, and so one might expect the video to address racial stereotypes or cultural ignorance. Not so. On one screen, a solo figure like something from a Mortal Kombat video game whips a ponytail-like extension against luminous blue orbs, while on a separate screen a duo engages in an improvised pas de deux evocative of voguing, capoeira, and lovemaking. If racial issues are under discussion here, they are sublimated. The dancing figures are concealed by body-socks that cover even their faces, as well as by shifting fields of digital color that Satterwhite added in postproduction. It is difficult to determine their skin color or gender, or even to distinguish one figure from another. In fact, when their dancing/battling/copulation ends in exhaustion—or perhaps death—their bodies are united by a single swath of pulsing pattern. The political topics raised on the surface are overwhelmed by the underlying exploration of sex and death.
In Satterwhite’s current work, he develops these themes further. The human body is treated as a fleeting thing, easily dissolved into the landscape, casually destroyed by violent or passionate encounters. This is especially true in his series Reifying Desire (2011–12), the latest installations of which will appear at DC Moore and Monya Rowe this summer. Shifting between a computer-generated netherworld reminiscent of “Country Ball” and the beautifully filmed banks of a tranquil waterfall, the video’s first chapters feature two strange species, respectively: CG nude men (smooth-crotched, like Ken dolls) resignedly engaged in fetish play or pantomimed sex acts amid phallic monuments, and Satterwhite’s signature nymphs, releasing buoyant gelatin from their breasts. The waterfall-world is evocative of a primal paradise, the nymphs playing and fashioning objects with the spray emanating from their breasts. The computer-generated world, on the other hand, speaks of the body as it is treated in new social realms today—objectified, fetishized, commodified, anonymous. Satterwhite illustrates desire’s destructive side: the male bodies embrace impassively, deteriorating as they intertwine and exchange fluids. Whether desire itself or disease causes this decomposition remains unclear, but physical satisfaction and death seem linked here. If the images on Satterwhite’s studio computer are any indication, the next chapters of Desire will go farther down this dark path.
Beasts of Revelation will be on view at DC Moore Gallery until August 3, 2012. Jacolby Satterwhite & Devin Troy Strother at the Hieronymous Bosch & Beyonce Giselle Knowles Carter Foundation will be on view at Monya Rowe Gallery until July 27, 2012.
DC Moore: 535 West 22nd St. // New York, NY
Monya Rowe: 504 West 22nd St. // New York, NY