How do you change the power structures of history? Bronx based artist David Shrobe’s take on portraiture does just that. His paintings resemble collaged, textured rethinking of classical portraits. Here assemblage is not just a technique to create images of a new history but also brings the past itself into the work. The results are artworks that rework our experience of historical, social and political experience.
Shrobe began drawing and painting from a young age, exploring the graffiti scene as a teenager and then becoming involved in fashion and music through a cousin’s production studio. He took this seriously at university. “I began sitting in on MFA lectures at NYU, where I underwent a kind of mentorship, and that’s when I knew I wanted to pursue my formal training,” the artist recalls.
Pushing the opportunities of materials is something central to Shrobe’s approach. In the desire to create his own visual language, he experimented with found objects and textiles; “more textural and sculptural in ways that stretched the possibilities of painting”. Initially, his style was more abstract and influenced by heavy weight mid-century artists like Frank Stella and Robert Rauschenberg, and the graphic abstracted pop of Elizabeth Murray. The objects he incorporated in his work were often inherited or things amassed over time, which sat in corners of his studio waiting to be used. “One of the first items I inserted into a painting was a bright yellow subway conductor’s paddle that a friend gave me from the graffiti-on-train days,” he recalls. “Now I tend to gravitate to found furniture parts, frame and architectural molding, and other discarded items.”
Shrobe works in Harlem, and draws from the neighborhood’s unique cultural significance. “Harlem is an epicenter of black culture and history, and holds a sense of mysticism that attracts visitors from across the globe. My studio is located in an apartment that has housed generations of my family. I continue to be interested in ways to tap into this rich history and lineage,” Shrobe explains. The remnants and artifacts he uses insert Harlem directly into the work, without limiting the results to the specifics of location.
Frames are integral to Shrobe’s work. He transforms vintage furniture, doors, windows, mirrors, floor tiling and table tops into his makeshift multimedia frames. He embeds the domestic in the image. These elements contribute and shape the narrative of his paintings. They feel lived. They emphasize ideas around memory. “The items I find often have a unique craftsmanship, and speak to a sense of home, or even to social status; there’s a lot embedded in them; they have their own stories to tell as well.”
His frames are often transformed into ovals, echoing the tropes of classical portraiture. Shrobe questions the subjects, composition and structure of objects of status and power. “Portraits were once a sign of wealth and nobility, and of a family’s royal lineage. I want my work to challenge portraiture’s elitist roots and singular perspective, through creating identity and self-hood within the mode of portraiture,” he points out. “I think of many of my works as portraits of sorts that depict different archetypes and entities, rather than the likeness of a specific sitter.” His work draws from his personal archive of imagery and research, which includes archeological and family photos, art historical references, and literary sources.
For the artist, the references to history also provide a way to query the concept of time, “to suggest portals into liminal spaces and imagined futures.” There is a desire to create works that resonate with historical memory but also reflect contemporary social context and thinking. “A lot of my work is about bringing together a combination of ideas that raise questions and offer new possibilities in the real world and in reimagining our dominant historical narrative.” Shrobe inserts people of color into the historical and art historical conversation. In a way, it is a way of rethinking history – placing those who were omitted in the past back into a continuum. For the artist this is vital, “in this moment, we are all collectively experiencing—the Black Lives Matter movement, the continual unjust killing of Black people by the police and the many other insidious tentacles of white supremacy. Our sense of humanity needs to be reclaimed.”
There is a clear influence of someone like Betye Saar on Shrobe’s approach. She is also an artist who has mixed biography and intimacy with politics and history, notably addressing representations of racism in historic objects. “I want to tweak and update the old things I find and reuse them in ways in which they can still exist and function in the new narratives that emerge in my work and have relevance today. The objects themselves already have a lot of history which commingles with other historical references, personal experience and memory of my family living in the neighborhood where most of my found material comes from. Assembling a variety of material and a combination of ideas into a work becomes a political act.”
“A lot of my work is about bringing together a combination of ideas that raise questions and offer new possibilities in the real world and in reimagining our dominant historical narrative.”
The figures and faces in Shrobe’s fictional portraits are often made of and surrounded by pattern. These elements have incredible variety, color and texture. “The use of line and pattern creates gestures that can be suggestive of cartography, spatial elements, an object, or the body. Pattern is also symbolic of many things, such as cultural traditions, survival strategies, royalty, liberation,” the artist highlights. Much of the patterned elements emerge from the found textiles, architectural elements and motifs which the artist photographs and reinterprets in his paintings. At times, there is something almost Neo-Rococo or gothic about these textured elements. “A lot of Harlem’s architecture is based on architecture in the Renaissance revival,” Shrobe’s works layers this sense of double history.
These are objects that tell stories, meeting the viewers gaze with confidence. “My work is invested in narrative and the strength in giving voice to our own stories as people of color. I’m also interested in the narratives both implied and those unintended that come out of my material process. The narrative is often to some degree unfolding during the making. I don’t always know what the end result will be.
Following inclusion in a group show from their permanent collection at the Brooklyn Museum, Shrobe is currently working on his contribution to an exhibition on contemporary collage taking place at the Frist Art Museum in Nashville in 2023 alongside artists like Tschabalala Self, Rashid Johnson, and Ebony G. Patterson. For his booth at Independent with moniquemeloche, he will be showing a selection of new assemblage paintings, depicting his “imagined universe”. “These works use everyday experience to make reference to traditional healing practices and family life and involve figures engaged in a kind of harmonious coexistence with their environments,” he explains. Under Shrobe’s approach to montage, are motivations that are positive and even at times utopian.