Why You All in My Grill? 2014
Mixed media on reclaimed paper and medium density fiberboard
42 x 31 inches
Courtesy the artist.
Robert Hodge’s Destory and Rebuild at CAMH
Robert Hodge’s exhibition “Destroy and Rebuild,” on view in the CAMH’s Zilkha Gallery through Jan. 4, features paintings created with reclaimed paper and a mixture of other media, as well as a mural. In conjunction with the show is the off-site recreation of Hodge’s Beauty Box, a temporary event space created by reclaiming an old building in the Third Ward and “transforming it into a community gathering place.” As such, Hodge’s first solo exhibition shows the versatility of the artist both as a painter and as a social architect invested in literally rebuilding and reframing history. The work featured in the show makes parallels between early 20th century imagery and social issues of the present by placing textual overlays of hip-hop lyrics or phrases from popular vernacular over historical paintings.
Although overall the exhibition is immensely intelligent, standouts include Great Electric Show and Dance (2013) and Bert Williams (Tapdance) (2013). The first takes its title from an album by the late blues singer and native Houstonian Lightnin’ Hopkins. The use of texture here is mesmerizing—the burnt yellow background is a heavy, smoothed impasto accented by red lettering and rough, multicolored collaged paper. One is instantly hit with the sensation of looking at burnt skin grafted onto board, a feeling heightened by the thick stitching along the corners of the piece. This idea of skin spread out and on display makes sense, especially when comparing this to the related piece Tapdance, which references Bert Williams, the popular black entertainer of the Vaudeville-era known for his performances in blackface. This painting is circular, reminding one of a stage. The use of glossy, burnt cork paint—a deep, engulfing black smoothed out across the piece—further reiterates this idea. Moreover, since blackface itself intends to flatten out and dehumanize blackness, and burnt cork was the material used by white blackface performers such as Al Jolson to darken their skin, the paint choice is astute.
In the center is the word “Tapdance,” which connotes entertaining at any expense, but can also imply evading a situation or issue. In many ways, especially now, we view entertainers and their actions as being for us— forcing them into objects of consumption. Here, by referencing Williams—whose livelihood was contingent on stereotypes of race being personified for the viewing pleasure of his public who were engaged in the task of evading the issue of racial inequality—Hodge questions the status of Black performance when morality is at stake.
This investigation into Black performance and entertainment is explored further in Hodge’s more recent works, such as In the Mainstream (2014), Anaconda (2014), Before the Limelight stole ya’ (2014). These pieces use historical paintings, revealed by cutout text, as the springboard to further conflate the past and present. Why you all up in my grill? (2014) was particularly startling to me, as it references an 18th century practice of taking teeth from slaves to replace those of their owners. This creates a double meaning for the title: while in most contexts this is an aggressive/confrontational question, here its force is deactivated by the harrowing scene of the aforementioned practice taking place underneath the golden fiberboard top layer.
Robert Hodge’s exhibition asks the viewer to ruminate over, among many things, intention as it relates to entertainment, race, and history. Importantly, it asks us to consider intention in relation to how we choose to engage with history, as well as how we choose to re-present history for the consumption of others.