Now You See Me; Now You Don't (Installation View), 2020. Plaster body cast, AC motor, steel.
In sculpture and performance, JEFFREY MERIS investigates "the impacts of naturalization, (dis)placement and racial interpellation." He subverts the expected materiality of monuments by utilizing shopping carts, plastic crates, cinderblocks and plastic gallon jugs to draw attention to everyday, overlooked experiences. His recent kinetic sculptures explore the simultaneous invisibility/hyper-visibility of People of Color in American society. Jeffrey earned his A.A in Arts from the College of the Bahamas, his BFA in Sculpture from Temple University and his MFA in Visual Arts from Columbia University. He is a two-time Harry C. Moore Lyford Cay Foundation Scholar (2012 and 2017) and a Guttenberg Arts Artist-in-Residence (2016). In 2019, he attended Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture, and is currently a studio Fellow at NXTHVN in New Haven, Connecticut. Jeffrey's work was recently included in overmydeadbody (2020), curated by Laurie Lazar and Tavares Strachan, at Luggage Store Gallery in San Francisco, and his first solo project in New York will open in June 2020. In Fall 2020, his work will be included in an exhibition addressing climate change in the Caribbean at 4th Space, Concordia University (Montreal, Canada) and a NXtHVN 2020 cohort exhibition. Jeffrey lives and works in New Haven, Connecticut.
OtherPeoplesPixels: Tell us a bit about your artistic trajectory? Have you always made art? What made you start?
Jeffrey Meris: I spent most of my formative years in the Junkanoo Shack (Studio) in my country of origin the Bahamas, where I met my mentor and Guardian Angel, Jackson Logan Burnside. Junkanoo is the premier cultural festival that involves costuming, music, folklore and dance. When I was not sitting in the front of my television drawing sketches of Sailor Moon, Pokemon, or Gundam Wing as a child, I was building my future with the Gaza Boyz. Jackson was the very first “artist” I knew. Formally he was an architect, and he encouraged me to study Architecture. Instead I decided to pursue Art. Through my studies, I received a residency at Popopstudios and this was the definitive moment where I knew that art would take me to my purpose in life. I’ve since attended art schools in the Bahamas and the U.S.
Now The Day is Over, 2018. Shopping cart, square hollow stock metal, nuts and bolts.
OPP: Many works have a monumental quality, but are made with distinctly un-monumental materials. Do you think of your works as monuments? If so, to what? Or to whom?
JM: Monuments in the public discourse have this odd side effect of othering, and it is specifically this otherness that I am interested in. The word monument signals a certain historic trajectory rooted in imperialist grandeur and exquisite materials such as bronze or marble, What happens when these materials are subverted? I often consider the ways I can use everyday objects to refract a different sense of monumentality. Shopping carts, plastics, bottles, vinyl, crates are all more significant in everyday life than an esoteric statue lost in the Ramble of Central Park. I am also interested in what scale shift and visual reorientation does to the relationship between the viewer and the known function of an object.
Mouth to Mouth, 2019. Steel, chaise lounge, conduits, recycled bottles, resin, fiber glass, tubes. Photo credit: Roni Aviv
OPP: Tell us specifically about Mouth to Mouth (2019) and Now the Day is Over (2018), which both evoke grandeur through height.
JM: When I made Now The Day is Over (2018), I was interested in the subjectivity of a shopping cart; it acts as both a site of play, a vessel and a civilizing apparatus, the thing that facilitates an end to a hunter/gatherer lifestyle. Carving out the side panels of the shopping carts and leaving a skeleton revealed the precarious state in which production, consumption and exploitation leaves a fragile global community.
Mouth to Mouth (2019) also uses elevation as a strategy. If an everyday object enters the sublime, are the working class people most commonly associated with that object raised up as well? This sculpture responds to the tragic capsizing of a Florida-bound ship in the Bahamas in February 2019. Thirty-five Haitian immigrants died. Elevated fifteen feet in space by an architectural steel structure above the mass of siphonic objects is a chaise lounge, indexical of the parallel economies of tourism and immigration. I was 27 when I made Mouth to Mouth; my mother was 27 when I was born.
OPP: Light, Medium Dark (2017) is a see-through monolith filled with peanut shells resting on a plastic crate.
Light, Medium, Dark, 2017. Found crate, transparent furniture plastic, HVAC sheet metal: angle iron 40" with 1/4" holes, peanut shells blessed by mother's labor. 54" × 22" × 16."
JM: This work is a monument to my mother and her labor. Sesly would spend hours unshelling peanuts to eventually make dollar sized bags of roasted peanuts. Her hands are chapped, blistered and charred to this day from that labor, yet it is that work that provided sustenance for our family. I felt the epicness of the emptied shells because a poetic sculptural making was happening as she poured her devotion into the survival of her offspring. Her technique of roasting salted peanuts in sand to a light, a medium, or a dark roast was much similar to the way that colorism, xenophobia and sexism intersect to form the most toxic of all discriminations against Black Immigrant women. Misogynoir declares a valuation of a woman's value based on the complexion of her skin making dangerous correlations of education, class and sexuality. Despite everything, her story is one of triumph.
Neither For U.S., Nor By U.S., 2017. Asphalt, passport, Christian bible, clothes on wood with cinderblocks.
OPP: Let’s talk more specifically about the recurring materials you’ve mentioned: shopping carts, milk crates, plastic milk jugs, cinder blocks, metal. Why these objects, over and over again?
JM: Those are the tools that I understand the most visually. These materials act as portals for understanding larger architectural systems. The plastic gallon bottle is about the body. It signals respiratory function or malfunction. I’ve come to know the breath as being one of the most transcendent processes that nature offers. Two years ago, while I was in grad school I took a swimming class—it’s crazy to believe how unaquatic I was despite growing up in the Caribbean. Pool is to lungs as gallon jugs are to fluid. This relationship has stuck with me ever since. Not to mention that these gallon jugs are repurposed in Caribbean countries as vessels for transporting potable water.
The concrete blocks refer to architecture and to the visual landscape in the Bahamas where a house made of concrete blocks meant upward mobility and security. Like many others, my home was constructed of T 1-11 plywood siding covered in a thin layer of concrete. Hurricanes could blow these wood paneled homes away in the blink of an eye, year after year. Like many recurring materials in my work, the concrete block has a double meaning. It symbolizes the life I am building and struggling with and the life my family and many others strive for. It simultaneously carries the legacy of Black youth culture and growing up economically challenged.
Shopping carts are probably my favorite object ever invented! They remind me of the TV robots that mesmerized me as a kid. Also, I worked in Grocery Stores, packing bags and pushing shopping carts for tipping customers. Shopping carts speak to a necessity, to those that have, need and want. The very cart that keeps the nuclear family fed can also keep the homeless sheltered. I also think of carts as elegant post-modernist objects in and of themselves, and I attempt to extend that beauty through augmentation and elevation.
I grew to love steel in my practice because it is rigid yet flexible. Steel functions as steel yet it does only what you ask of it. Case in point: the sleek angled curves for the structure of Now The Day is Over (2018).
OPP: Your most recent work Now You See Me; Now You Don’t (2020) has an industrial horror movie feel, while being totally un-gory. The severed body parts—cast from your own body—in this make-shift laboratory scene evoke violence, but the lack of blood makes that violence less visceral, more symbolic. What kind of violence do you want viewers to contemplate?
The Block is Hot, 2020. Plaster body cast, AC motor, steel, cinderblock, aircraft cable, U-link, pulleys, ratchet strap. 96" x 66" x 32"
JM: Now You See Me; Now You Don’t roots itself both in my own experience being Black in America and Ralph Ellison’s epic novel Invisible Man. Two years ago, I received a ticket for jumping an MTA turnstile in New York City. I fumbled to swipe my card correctly until eventually the machine read ‘insufficient funds.’ I jumped. Two police officers arrested me and recorded my weight as 250 pounds and my height as 6'5," neither of which is true. If you could see me, you’d understand the hyperbole. I’m 6’2” and 175 pounds.
I was acquitted after the judge ruled that I was in "the right" for my actions. Records showed that I had indeed paid yet there was a malfunction in the turnstile. In the waiting-room, almost all defendants were Black-or-Brown, unlike my alma matter where the opposite was true. In the words of Zora Neale Hurston “I felt most colored when I was thrown against a sharp white background.” There I stood, hyper-visible in this judicial arena, yet invisible in the systems of education. Now You See Me; Now You Don’t (2019) tightropes this fine line, using the body as a vessel for the violence of racial interpellation. Through actions of self destruction these works seek to break the bondage of white society's gaze and free themselves from the burden of racist body bias and conventions. Seven sculptures are presented in this body of work. Six of the seven sculptures kinetically destroy themselves over perforated sheet metal. On My Knees (2019) is the only non-kinetic work in this series; it evokes both kneeling gesture and milk crates as monuments.
On My Knees, 2020. Plaster body cast, steel, milk crates.
OPP: It’s been more than 3 weeks since the World Health Organization declared Covid-19 a pandemic. How are you coping? How is your studio practice being affected?
JM: I’ve been super lucky to be a part of NXTHVN, co-founded by Titus Kaphar, Jonathan Brand, Board Chairman Jason Price, and led by Executive Director Nico Wheadon.. NXTHVN actually took an unprecedented approach and has offered us additional financial and institutional support in the wake of Covid. Thank you! Shout out to the entire family of studio and curatorial fellows, apprentices—especially my apprentice Aime Mulungula—staff, board members and supporters
I wake up everyday, and I am so blessed to have a studio next door from my apartment, a 30 second commute. The days get a bit monotonous but I am extremely grateful for that. I am going to hold space for all of those disproportionately affected by this Pandemic, those that can’t afford the luxury of social distancing, those that are ill and have passed. I recognize my privilege, and send my thoughts to those coping with the uncertainty.
I purchased my very first welder back in January, and the freshness of hot welded steel is almost like taking a shot of espresso. I feel invigorated! This also gave me the time to go back to one of my earlier passions of cooking (keep in touch with my Instagram stories @jeffreymeris to see what’s on the menu), and I also made Self-Care-Saturday a thing where I make brunch, listen to my body and inner self and take care of my plants.
To see more of Jeffrey's work, please visit www.jeffreymeris.com.