Dave McClinton’s solo exhibition “Absolute Relativism” is currently on view at the Ivester Contemporary gallery. With 16 digital collages made entirely within the last year, the Austin-based artist and graphic designer has had a busy quarantine.
In 2015, McClinton began a series called Black Life “to illustrate the life-cycle of the inner life of a Black person,” he writes in his artist statement. The works on view at Ivester are a continuation of this series and they highlight contradictory sensations within Black lives, folding in questions about what histories these figures carry and how they manage to hold them.
McClinton brings hidden and often torn psychologies to the surface. Three of the collage portraits include multiple Black figures frozen in disjunctive postures in procession. Each figure faces various directions and leans at a different angles. At varying degrees of legibility, excerpts from William Faulkner’s “The Sound and the Fury” fill the background. Together, the text and the figures dramatize the interior battlefield of the psyche. Which direction do we go, and what actions may we take in the name of justice?
Pushing and pulling from a generational divide, the artist represents the struggle between a desire to stand up in protest of injustices and an uncertainty of whether one’s actions are making the progress one wants to see in the world. Remarkably, despite the indecision this struggle can yield, the figures in McClinton’s collage are still profoundly activated by their postures. The artist suggests that any movement is a disruption worth making if even it only brings you back to where you began.
In contrast, the single figure portraits show people in typical portrait poses but with defiant gazes. These figures carry cultural signifiers that meet the viewer where they are. Regardless of the viewer’s cultural background, McClinton’s layers of meaning provide ample opportunity for a way in to the work. In “Dey Knew Moan,” a female figure dons gloves that Coretta Scott King wore to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s funeral. Her hands are folded at the waist while she willfully only gives the viewer her profile. Her eyes gaze up at the sky. Despite her posture of respectability, she explicitly denies the gaze of her viewer, purposefully leaving connection just out of reach.
In an adjacent portrait, a male figure wears similar gloves and holds the same posture, but his eyes pear to the side directly at the viewer. In contrast to his companion, “The New Man” gives us a side-eye. Symbols of U.S. currency make up his eyes, begging the question of commodity in the Black body. Further, his clothes are imprinted with actual runaway slave ads, marking the man as wanted. The image juxtaposes the matter-of-factness of a Black man who historically might have been a vehicle for the wealth of White owners, all the while receiving no payment of his own. His eyes, fixed sharply in the corner, nearly humiliate the viewer for looking. Speaking to McClinton’s artist statement, the figure in this collage reminds us that it is not enough to witness, but we must reckon with the truth of what we witness so that we may act.
Another striking portrait, “Indigo II,” punctures the sense of commodity in the human body. The male figure’s Afro hairstyle is collaged with a U.S. coin. Eagles fly within the crown of his head, yet he is not lifted by them. Laced with all the historical inclinations of Black hair as a statement, a weapon, and an industry, McClinton takes those notions further by embedding the hair with the cultural significance of currency and the symbols of freedom they carry both literally and figuratively. The goal of wealth is made unattainable for some by the very same circumstances in which it sets others free.
In this dazzling show of collage, McClinton expresses the messiness of interiority with sharp lines and even sharper commentary. Bringing artistic expression of Black selfhood to new waters, the artist achieves his goal of starting conversations in an art world hungry for action beyond the frame.