Breaking rules, to great effect
Devin Troy Strother’s solo debut at Richard Heller Gallery is a double-barreled doozy that establishes the 24-year-old artist as a force. His cut-and-paste pictures of people dancing and dying zero in on life’s high and low points to say a lot about race in the U.S. today.
In the first gallery, 14 collages make up “Please, Don’t Act a Fool in the Club: A Memory of the Sugar Shack.” Most depict dance floors packed with men and women strutting their stuff. One shows a blood bath, no less harrowing for being a cartoon.
In the second gallery, “Stuntin’ Like My Daddy” consists of 13 generally larger works that depict street scenes. Drug dealers, gangsters and police predominate. But vendors, artists and love-makers steal the show.
A highly original artist, Strother transforms scraps of paper into whirlpools suffused with all sorts of stories. Think Kara Walker, but less precious. Or Laylah Ali, but messier, more ambiguous.
Strother cuts all of his little paper doll figures from ordinary sheets of construction paper. He adds glitter and paint and glues them loosely so that they overlap and extend beyond the edges of his works. Most of the people he depicts are black. Almost all have huge afros. And almost all are smiling.
This simple fact makes Strother’s works stand out from much contemporary art, particularly pieces made by the African Americans who have made it into the most prestigious museums. Representations of joy and happiness have been effectively off limits since racist minstrel shows.
It’s heartening to see a young artist break the rules by embracing the upside of life without dumbing anything down. Richard Heller Gallery, 2525 Michigan Ave., Bergamot Station, (310) 453-9191, through Oct. 9. Closed Sundays and Mondays. www. richardhellergallery.com