Devon Britt-Darby: Keepsakes from Several Occasions
My first commercial gallery exhibition opens from 6-8 p.m. tonight at Zoya Tommy Contemporary, 3227 Milam, Houston. Please come if you can. Here is a statement I emailed Zoya about the works on view:
In summer 2010 I ended a six-year layoff from making art by stumbling upon a simple, rudimentary process to produce pictures in which performance, photography and painting could interact. The process involved using inkjet heat transfer paper intended for t-shirt iron-ons to sear images that had been captured on video into painted or unpainted canvas, then, in some cases, isolating figures in the images with more paint.
Due to such an off-label use of the transfer process, the inkjet film adhered irregularly to the canvas and suffered various abrasions, scars, burns, peeling and other “skin conditions” analogous to deterioration of the flesh. From a practical standpoint, the method allowed for both structure and deviation, for both planning and chance, for both reproduction and the handmade, for both autobiography and appropriation. It called for enamel paint and cheap, consumer-grade materials and equipment, the parameters of which determined the size and format of the pre-stretched canvases I used – typically 18-by-24 inches, which could accommodate a simple grid arrangement of four 8.5-by-11-inch transferred images.
Another important quality of the process related to my intended use of the paintings: Initially, at least, I saw them less artworks for public display than as objects to be photographed for inclusion in a fictitious monograph of a fictitious character, a deceased, “rediscovered” artist who had died under mysterious circumstances.
The character was based on who I had been prior to abandoning painting: a San Francisco-based artist/sex worker with a widely read blog that generated not only business but art sales. I stopped painting in 2004 after suffering a psychotic episode induced by a brief but intensely destructive crystal meth addiction and returning to Houston to start over, but I wasn’t sure what would cause my character’s demise. However, I knew I wanted him, like me, to have spent time in a mental hospital, and I wanted a plot twist that involved his persuading some of his clients and admirers to make and sell paintings on his behalf according to his instructions.
That wouldn’t be possible if the character painted the way I did before my 2004 implosion – in the mannered manner of an umpteenth-generation abstract expressionist. He needed a perfunctory process that broke down into simple steps that could be executed by people with little to no skill, especially since, in practice, I was going to be the one making them.
Since I was also “playing” the character, I retrieved old escort advertising photos, some of which had included depictions of encounters with clients as well as non-clients – always with permission – from my long-defunct website using the Wayback Machine. But there wasn’t enough imagery to work with, so I started recording present-day liaisons and making paintings from the stills.
The paintings themselves, which were mostly only seen by men who saw me naked, acted as seductive signifiers for new “sitters.” Guys who otherwise might have balked at appearing in a sex tape were willing, even flattered, to be in a painting that necessitated making one. Occasionally incorporating stills I’d captured at “high-art” performances and exhibitions into the imagery further reinforced its status as art. And it no doubt helped that the often severe image degradation inherent to the process of transferring already low-resolution video stills often gave the participants a fair amount of “discretion.”
This, in turn, dovetailed with the fiction that these paintings were keepsakes clients bought from my fictitious artist/sex worker to remember him by; even if their features weren’t sufficiently obscured by the transfer process, these boudoir pictures were small enough that they could be hidden at a moment’s notice. Clients who didn’t want to be in a painting but wanted one related to their time with the character might buy a canvas that just depicted me or featured related but appropriated imagery from YouTube or XTube.
Conducted in secret due to my semi-high profile as the Houston Chronicle’s art critic and one of its society reporters, the process took on a life of its own as I became increasingly interested in the interaction between the paint, the inkjet and the image. Meanwhile, my interest in the fake monograph was sidelined by real-life developments in late 2011, as my participation in a performance led to a nervous breakdown that prompted me to come out about my once-hidden past as an escort and to reenter the profession to finance a road trip that retraced the steps of one I’d made on meth in 2004. The paintings from 2012 relate to that breakdown and journey but are not meant to illuminate it; they are among the most painterly, least informative pictures in the show.
In contrast to my upcoming group show (ProjeXion with Timothy Gonzalez and Alexandre Rosa opening Jan. 25 at Avis Frank Gallery) and solo exhibition at Art League Houston (opening May 17), Keepsakes from Several Occasions consists entirely of works made before Zoya approached me about exhibiting them. I thank her for unexpectedly giving these fictitious paintings their 15 minutes of real-world exposure. Perhaps people’s real reactions or lack thereof will make it into a fake dead-artist’s monograph yet.