Suture and sew share a root in the Latin suere, which means “to join” or “to fasten together.” Although both words express a certain primacy of precision, they are generally employed in different contexts—the first having to do with medicine or surgery and the second with the making of garments and the accentuation or obfuscation of one’s physique. In Rock of Eye, however, the artist Troy Montes-Michie seeks to reconnect them, exploring what it means to fashion oneself out of stultifying objecthood, emphasizing the materiality of experience, feeling, and instinct in his collage, portraiture, and painting.
“I am interested in the idea of redirecting the circulation of these images [of Black men] by reanimating the past and confronting the present,” Montes-Michie explains. This aesthetic impulse animates his preoccupation with the bodies of Black queer men, which opens up the possibilities of different intimacies, terrains, and visual experiments while remaining acutely attuned to fraught histories and violence.
Rock of Eye accompanies Montes-Michie’s upcoming solo exhibition at Los Angeles’s California African American Museum. (It will run from February 16 to September 4, 2022.) The book is a stunning and ambitious assemblage of repurposed and revised images, among them reproductions of ephemera and historical artifacts, taken from sources including vintage erotic magazines and collections of French tailoring. The result is a series of collages, sensuous portraits, layered embroidery, and skillful stitching patterns that distort and reframe the ossifying gaze we turn on Black men. “Each gaze is poised as an invitation but my critique is in the consumption of idealized body types, fetishization, and the performative aspects of masculinity,” Montes-Michie notes. The very act of looking becomes troubled, meant to make us confront our expectations and how we are implicated in that gaze.
Some of the images here, for example, present nude Black men covered by vertical white stitching patterns, which may be interpreted as the bars of a cage or the suturing of a wound. The men face away from the camera, their backs to us, anonymous but not unknown. In many images, Black men look directly at us, as if in curiosity or invitation. Still more show Black men with their genitals covered through painting or stitching or drawing; some touch themselves, but we are able to “see” this only in how they position their bodies—through implication, in other words. “By choosing to hide or remove the phallus,” Montes-Michie writes, “I am hoping for an alteration to the stereotypes placed on the Black male solely being reduced to their endowment and to notions of hypersexualization.”
For all that, the erotic potential of these images is never quite diminished; it lingers and is refracted, moving our eyes in different ways. Juxtaposing photographs of queer Black men with other images, Montes-Michie’s collages commingle disparate contexts. That creates a nexus of affect, blurring the line between refusal and cohesion, disunity and liberation. To encounter this work is to experience feelings of wonderment, enthrallment, ambiguity, and anarchy.
Rock of Eye includes an essay by Tina Campt, a professor of modern culture and media at Brown University, that emphasizes the materiality and experience of seeing these images in person. “Viewing Troy Michie’s work as a series of PDFs on my computer did not in any way do them justice,” Campt writes. I would argue that looking through the physical book, which resembles a scrapbook, is just as important: Montes-Michie’s project is not only deeply visual and intimate but also tactile. You are meant to hold the book and confront the scale, depth, texture, and complexity of the artist’s work here. You are meant to engage with it on both conceptual and physical terms.
This emerges in a different way in the second half of the book, which delves into geography. Some of these paintings and collages are set against desert and river landscapes; they feature stitching work that mirrors topography. The pieces reflect how the circumstances of Montes-Michie’s early life—growing up in El Paso—have infused his work. “The whole environment is an amalgam: two very separate cultures colliding on every level,” he explains of the border region. “It really is a kind of third space, a third territory, neither Mexico nor the United States, and yet it contains elements of both. Which is akin to the language of collage, a dialogue that forms out of these disparate elements put next to each other.”
While Rock of Eye is rooted in opacity and seeks to evade a kind of visual capture—the need for Black men to be pinned down or stripped bare—it never obscures the elegance and vivacity of its subjects. Rather, it revels in contradiction, ambivalence, beauty, queerness, time, and place. In joining heterogeneous images and elements, Montes-Michie offers a different kind of repair, a new form of accentuation. The sewing and suturing allow us to bridge new forms of being in history and art.•