The Brooklyn Rail

OCT 2019

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OCT 2019 Issue

Jacolby Satterwhite

Jacolby Satterwhite, in collaboration with The Fabric Workshop and Museum, Philadelphia, Room for Doubt, 2019. 5-channel HD color video, insulation foam, expanding glue, resin, fairing filler, plywood, faux-leather vinyl, double-faced chiffon, polyester rope, thread, automotive paint, and inkjet print on synthetic cotton, 93 x 96 x 96 inches. Courtesy the Fabric Workshop and Museum, Philadelphia.

On View
The Fabric Museum And Workshop
Jacolby Satterwhite: Room for Living
September 13 – January 19, 2020

On one side of Jacolby Satterwhite’s two-channel installation a fantastical ship flies over landscapes on the verge of transformation, rivers overflow and smoke billows from charred forests. The other side alternates between Satterwhite dancing on the streets of Shanghai— passersby mostly ignoring his fluid spins, drops, and hand movements—and interior scenes from the aforementioned ship filled with shots of flogging, dancing, and fantastical creatures. The question of permanence hovers in the air, activated on multiple scales: what does endurance mean in the context of these desolate landscapes; how to make movement that exists in perpetuity; and how can one stage performance in the absence of the performing body?

Taking the Fabric Museum and Workshop’s prompt to explore a new medium, Satterwhite worked in video, virtual reality, and sculpture—all crystallizations of particular moments from his video work—to create Room for Living. Through the curation of his own oeuvre and the fabrication of these objects, largely made using three-dimensional printers, Satterwhite’s questioning of permanence is layered and dense.

Room for Doubt, which features four versions of a nude Satterwhite rendered in foam and wearing floor length do-rags, plays on Caravaggio’s iconic painting, The Incredulity of Saint Thomas. Instead of viscera however, one of the Satterwhites points to an embedded video that plays an older performance of Satterwhite covered in wet brown liquid (mud?) on a slippery surface. Like the wound, this conjures a mood of abjection—in conversation, Satterwhite indicates that this piece is playing with ideas of contamination—but it also brings us to think about the way the physical body haunts these attempts to create permanence. This prior moment of performance is wrapped inside this more permanent image, its meaning opaque, but its presence asking us to pay attention to the difference between these translations of flesh. One is static, one moves. One calls us toward thinking about the heft of the body and how it takes up physical space—four, here, is a crowd. The other calls attention to bodily processes and the constancy of their changing. Between these two versions of Satterwhite are explorations of how to make something last and whether or not one wants to make that type of commitment.

Jacolby Satterwhite, in collaboration with The Fabric Workshop and Museum, Philadelphia, Room for Cleansing, 2019. Plexiglass, LED, HD color video, silicone, MDF, enamel, latex paint, PLA filament, epoxy, epoxy resin, enamel, bond filler, tile, grout, plywood, and aluminum, 120 x 96 x 48 inches.

This ambivalence around ideas of permanence also manifests through Satterwhite’s explicit play with an art history canon. Picasso’s Les Desmoiselles D’Avignon serves as inspiration Room for Cleansing, which translates the painting of bathing prostitutes into a three-dimensional gathering of multi-colored bald, topless sex workers. The women pose exuberantly inside a bathtub while an LED sign reads: “a watertub sent to soak in.” Room for Ascension’s gathering of shiny figurines, wearing pink plastic conical bras and large plastic shoes, dance atop narrow columns arranged in a small circle, recalling more classical influences on sculpture. Satterwhite’s use of these iconic images and forms is itself a testament to the fact that they have endured, granting us an occasion to contemplate not only what endures, but what it actually means to endure. On the one hand, such explicit references provide a mechanism for Satterwhite to position a Black, queer imaginary at the center of the canon and make an argument for its endurance, especially in these precarious and tumultuous times. Black queerness provides not only the postures, but also the infectious kinetics that percolate under these sculptures’ surfaces. On the other hand, the use of these established forms does not permit exploration of how new forms become incorporated into this canon.

On this question of emergence, which runs obliquely through the show, Room for Levitating Beds features a sculpture of a coupling between Satterwhite and another man (another sculpture of Satterwhite). The tableau is taken from a scene in Satterwhite’s previous series Reifying Desire 6 (2014) in which he has sex with porn star Antonio Biaggi, leading to the birth of a fantastical egg. The sculpture recalls that narrative, but does not present it; instead, the figures are coated in aluminized glass beads which turn opaque under the lights of the flashing video. There is space for newness, but Satterwhite has not committed to showing us what it will be. This is its own performance of Black, queer refusal.

Jacolby Satterwhite, in collaboration with The Fabric Workshop and Museum, Philadelphia, Room for Levitating Beds, 2019. PLA filament, epoxy, epoxy resin, spray mount, aluminized glass beads, HD color video, steel, velour, plywood, vinyl, hot glue, foam tubing, wire, and poly-fil, 48 x 120 x 48 inches. Courtesy the Fabric Workshop and Museum, Philadelphia.

What we do see throughout Room for Living, however, are numerous forms of indebtedness—to the canon and, importantly, to Satterwhite’s mother. Elements of Patricia suffuse the exhibit. The LED texts that surround several sculptures are made from her words and handwriting, the drawings of bathtub, penises on wheels, and shoes are taken from her notebooks. The flayed skins from which Satterwhite’s figure pop up in Room for Doubt are covered in her marks. Satterwhite has produced much work with his mother’s art and this exhibit pairs with one at Pioneer Works that centers on an electronic dance music album (and accompanying videos) of his mother singing. Theirs is a fruitful collaboration, now conducted in the aftermath of her passing. The ambivalence of permanence might also be a way of working with and through grief. If collaboration is movement and life, to produce something permanent might be to render it immediately passé, archival, instead of present. The title of the show, then, Room for Living, asks us to grapple with finding these spaces that can breathe, spaces between the ephemeral and the permanent.


Amber Jamilla Musser

Amber Jamilla Musser is Professor of English at CUNY Graduate Center and the author of Sensational Flesh: Race, Power, and Masochism (NYU, 2014) and Sensual Excess: Queer Femininity and Brown Jouissance (NYU Press, 2018).


The Brooklyn Rail

OCT 2019

All Issues