MELVIN GRAVE GUZMAN
MELVIN (GRAVE) GUZMAN (b. 1989, Harlem, NY) works in photography, performance and monumental mixed-media. While Guzman pursues a range of distinct technical practices, his artwork consistently explores the oscillating relationship between city and self today. The artist often collaborates with fellow cultural revolutionaries like Onyx Collective, Kiki Kudo and Miho Hatori, His work has been featured in publications including High Snobiety, Hypebeast, and Whitewall Magazine.
Whether he’s sneakily snapping a photograph, orchestrating an otherworldly theatrical production, or carefully assembling an assortment of luxury ads into a sprawling tapestry, Guzman creates images, objects and performances, which explore the relationship between environment and identity in the Digital Age. Made exclusively from found materials like torn magazine ads, shopping bags, boxes, and posters once discarded by consumer culture, his sculptures, costumes, sets and sprawling mixed media works trace the artist’s travels through the world’s urban jungles. By resurrecting the branded debris of capitalist society as his source material, Guzman juxtaposes the state of the planet to our obsession with luxury and celebrity and relates our conflicted relationship with the physical world to our illogical reverence of commercialism. Like a fun house mirror, his work reflects the distorted image of our own false appetites in real time - each whimsically absurd construction a parody of the irrational fantasies contemporary media culture effects on our ideas of beauty, value, truth and relevance.
By repurposing the refuse of contemporary culture in his work, Guzman invokes our brand lust and sentimentality at once, bringing awareness not only to our material desires, but also - to the inevitably tattered demise of what we consider “valuable” today. Invoking the ennobling quality of time as an aesthetic, the artist represents everyday life as it is felt, eliciting the romanticism & idealism, anxiety & depression experienced by a generation looking into an ominous, once distant future, now rapidly approaching. To experience the products of Guzman’s creativity is to feel the familiar jolt an airplane taking off or the subway heaving to a start and the landscape beginning to rush by, quickly blurring through thick plastic windows as we are cast toward some inevitable destination.
As technology’s continuous development thrusts us forward, our time to save the environment dwindles and cultural tensions escalate across micro and macro communities around the world. In this increasingly small moment called “the present”, we find ourselves soaking in a kind of “nostalgia for now” however tense or conflicted it may be. Transforming the evidence of our agency in the end of the world into entirely recycled environments capable of inducing a meditative detachment from our consumerist cravings, the artist endeavors to liberate the realization of dreams and possibility of a transformed world from the spiritual vacuum of contemporary capitalist media.
Artist ig: @grave_
If your life were to flash before your eyes, it might appear like a Snapstory of Guzman’s photographs. In images that depict the fleeting, high impact visual moments that characterize city life today, the artist captures the osmosis between urban jungles and their inhabitants. The world’s capitals shine through Grave’s portraits of urban youth, while his cityscapes tell the stories of the individuals who have passed through them.
Whether working in digital or analog photography, the artist always edits his images to achieve the same goal: by eliminating any gray tones in a photograph, he transforms his subjects into pure black and white articulations of form. To preserve the full force of this gesture in the final work, the artist prints images using a radiology machine (unlike typical printers, radiologists don’t skimp on black ink). The effect is both evidentiary and nostalgic. In Guzman’s eerily dreamy photographs, glimpses of the landscape appear like urban x-rays while unsuspecting human subjects emerge as portraits of friendly ghosts.
Monumental mixed media
If Guzman’s photos give the impression of flash-backs, his mixed media pieces have the effect flash-forwards. He begins this work by collecting source material – stickers, posters, flyers or discarded luxury advertisements found in the debris of cities around the world. Whether he compiles these elements into a collage or emblazons an individual advertisement with the painted drips, splatters, and happy accidents signature to his graffiti style – the artist takes great care in embellishing, arranging, and layering his materials. He sees any existing rips, tatters, or smudges he might encounter in his source material as deliberate aesthetic contributions to the composition and he considers them attentively when adding his own marks to their scrappy surfaces.
Each an ode to organized chaos, these pieces often confuse the viewer’s sense of time and place, probing one to ask: where, when, why, and how a given image came to be constructed. What has been contributed by the artist? What’s original? What’s natural?
It’s a disorienting encounter. Guzman’s mixed media work has the transporting effect of beholding an ancient relic: each piece feels immediately close in time and place – then, almost as suddenly, far away, otherworldly, and just out of grasp. Standing in front of his largest works, the viewer can imagine they’ve been transported to the ruins of some contemporary urban center. In this post- human future, the footsteps of a lone teenage alien break the silence. Shaking a can of spray paint, our imaginary extra-terrestrial prepares to tag the crumbling monuments of consumer culture with his dystopian graffiti. And a clinking echo bounces across the rubble.
The phantom: The phantom character often appears in Guzman’s work. The abstract figure was first created by chance during the execution of a performance art piece, which was inspired by events that changed the course of the artist’s life. Since then, the phantom has come to signify the presence of good and evil, dark and light, yin and yang when and wherever it emerges in the artist’s work. “The phantom was created when I got a second chance at life, so the phantom represents that first life,” says Guzman of his haunting signature, “But it’s still a part of me, it’s always with me. Like the good and the bad, you can’t know one without the other. So the phantom is about that kind of duality.” For more on the origin story of the phantom, see interview below.
“Guzman’s narrative, a story assembled in shards - entireties forever incomplete, conjuring like constellations where representation is a kind of connect the dots along the abject periphery of abstraction, is a shamanic storytelling befitting urban myth. His comic book reinvention of self, complete with a tragic-heroic alter ego The Phantom whose painful origin story based off a life-changing incident in which the artist had his face brutally sliced open in an uptown bar, is itself a cipher, a perpetual retracing of the cut, emblazoned as a sign reduced to a logo, Zorro’s mark reconstituted into the vernacular of graffiti, a tag whose very I was here presence connotes a converse gesture of absence.” Excerpted from exhibition essay by Carlo McCormick. Read full essay here.
ReSolute, curated by Caravan Gitane, Group Exhibition | Brooklyn, New York
RAMMELLZEE TRIBUTE CONCERT, Performance with Sporting Life | Red Bull Music Festival | Manhattan, New York
Filling in the Blanks Benefit Auction | Glen Arbor Golf Club | Bedford, New York
Shopping Complex, Permanent Installation | Elm Restaurant | New Canaan, Connecticut
Salon de Printemps, Group Exhibition | Fabio Scalia | SoHo, New York
Change for Kids Benefit Auction | Capitale | Manhattan, New York
Dolce Vita, Group Exhibition | Fabio Scalia | SoHo, New York
FOTWENTY, Group Exhibition | Orchard Street Pop Up | Lower East Side, New York
Filling in the Blanks Benefit Auction | Glen Arbor Golf Club | Bedford, NY
Presidential Punk Posters, Group Exhibition | SoHo Arts Club | SoHo, New York
Foreward Forward, Group Exhibition | Wallplay Gallery | Lower East Side, New York
Experimental Photography, Group Exhibition | The Bronx Art Space | Bronx, New York
Below please find a transcription of a conversation between
the artist and his gallerist, Allison Barker
Recorded and transcribed, February, 2017, ABXY SoHo
AB: You wanna get comfortable?
MGG: I’m comfortable right here.
AB: Ok so, let’s jump right in. When did you start making art?
MGG: I started making art in probably 2005, I was about 18 – I was still in high school.
AB: Where were you living?
MGG: In Harlem. Harlem - born and raised, same place for 27 years. But at the time, I was interning in Dumbo (Brooklyn) for a streetwear brand. It was the beginning of the Hypebeast era, when you saw the emergence of that streetwear, skateboard culture in the downtown scene. So that’s when I started becoming interested in photography and illustrator and designs and life (laughs).
AB: So how’d you get started?
MGG: Well I started taking pictures. Because my mom won a little lawsuit and she was able to give me some money. I never had money. That was the first time I had like $2,000 to spend on whatever I wanted so I bought a camera. I bought a camera and I bought my bike.
AB: What kind of camera?
MGG: It was a Canon DSLR
AB: So digital.
MGG: Yeah. It was a digital camera.
AB: And what did you take pictures of?
MGG: (laughing) I started taking pictures of myself, being cool and shit. At that time there was this little niche in the internet, like [on] Tumblr, Hypebeast, etc - where you could find all the cool pictures and could see all the cool people and I’m like “I’m a cool dude too so….” You feel me?
MGG: There was very few people like me where I come from. They was not into what I was into. I felt like the black sheep. The weird guy, into the weird things. A pariah basically.
AB: Like what?
MGG: Like tight jeans and fruity colored sneakers (laughs). They eventually started getting into what I was into, it all transcends, you know what I mean?
AB: For sure, so how’d you find the downtown scene?
MR: [Malik Roberts] There weren’t alotta other niggas like us where we came from but, everybody interested in that downtown NY art lifestyle, knew that website.
MGG: It’s where they post news about what’s coming out, what’s art. It’s a whole lifestyle thing. Back in the day, Hypebeast had this little map, that showed you where all the stores were. So I took that off the internet and came down to the LES to see what the lifestyle was about. Go and touch it. That’s when I started working for that street wear company.
AB: Do you remember any of the artists you were looking at then?
MGG: I was really looking at the artists of the streets. I didn’t know anything about art history. I didn’t know anything about art. I didn’t study art officially until college.
AB: Where’d you go to college?
MGG: At first I was at BMCC, taking remedial, regular classes. And here I am in college not knowing what to do. I knew I wanted a Bachelor’s degree though so I transferred to Lehman College and that’s when I took an art class.
AB: What led you to art?
MGG: I was studying social work at the time but I took some basic intro to art, just to fulfill a credit. A random credit. It was music or art. I chose art. It was the first opportunity I ever had to take an art class. Ever. But once I took that class I changed my whole major to art.
AB: What’d your parents say?
MGG: They were like you have to get an office job, how you gonna make money? That was their big question. ‘How are you gonna make money?’ And I was like ‘I don’t care.’ I wanted to study something I’m interested in. I’m not interested in social work I was just doing it to get a degree.
AB: So you just went for it.
MGG: Yeah. After that first class I took an intro to photography class, because was interested in photography already. That was a digital class but after that, I took the next course, which was Photography 101. And that was darkroom photography. Black and white. That’s where I learned to take images with film and develop them.
AB: So you learned it backwards? First digital, then analog.
AB: Was that weird?
MGG: Uh yeah. I actually liked it because it was going against the grain. And I loved the darkroom process. I’m an old school kind of guy, I loved that aspect of darkroom photography, that process is something that’s not really available anymore. People just take the easy way out. And it’s not real. Digital is not really real. When you take a picture in film, when you see that shit develop in the fixer, that’s magic.
AB: Rather than an image that’s simply printed pigment on a piece of paper.
MGG: Or immediately available, like with analog you can’t see the image immediately after exposing the film, you have to wait until you get back to the dark room and go through this whole chemical process before you can see anything. On an iphone, boom, its immediately available.
But…. you know I didn’t have money to buy a lot of film or chemicals so I had to develop my film with this group of girl artists that held me down. And basically I could only get away with developing this one roll of film throughout the whole course so those are the images I had to use, all the images I used in that class were from that one roll of film.
MGG: Yeah, well so, to make them different… I started using contrast filters in the darkroom. I was immediately drawn to that number 5 hi contrast filter. Because it was red, red’s my favorite color. Those super high contrast photos reminded me of abstract art. I guess because I was learning about abstract art at the same time.
AB: What did you like about abstract art?
MGG: That it didn’t have to be something. It didn’t have to be anything. My professor [Terry Towery] showed me a conversation with Marcel Duchamp. That was mind blowing. And Baroque art, that whole gothic thing, I was super interested in that as well. I saw something gothic in my black and white photos. And also at the time, gothic was cool.
AB: You mean it was cool in youth culture?
MGG: Yeah there was a gothic vibe. It was the transition from like skateboard to early asap rocky shit.
And I liked that aspect of the photos I was making. I was making these almost ‘anti’ photographs in my darkroom class, destroying the image in the process, for no reason just because….
AB: Did you have an iPhone as well?
MGG: Yeah, and I was always shooting on my phone too. That’s when Instagram came around.
AB: Ahhh, that’s interesting. How’d you use Insta?
MGG: Well….fucking around with the contrast filters in the dark room, I came to like that high contrast look. But with film, you only had one chance to put a filter. And with my iPhone, I didn’t have to be in the darkroom to fuck with the image contrast. And, and, and…oh shit…
MGG: Ima bout to get into some top secret information!
AB: (Laughing) ok, tell me
MGG: So on Instagram - I learned a little hack - how to apply the filters more than once. So I put my phone on airplane mode while I was making the image so it would fail on purpose. And then I’d put the filter again on that, then make it fail again… I would make it fail like 6 times so it was like destroying the image 6 times. I wanted to make an image that could stand out all the way on Instagram.
AB: What about printing images out? Were you making hard copies of anything?
MGG: Yeah. I made prints. Mostly I started screen printing my images - the digital ones, the iphone images – onto found source material, like telephone books and ads. So that was a new way of seeing them. Images on images on images.
AB: Is that how we start getting into mixed media?
MGG: Yeah. I had this assignment to destroy an image. So I took a shot I had captured of subway signage, the “local’ sign – you know, local or express? I just did local. And I destroyed the film, scratched it up and spray painted it…printed out that image 6 times and I made this collage. It was the first collage I ever made. Local, local, local, local, local, local.
AB: So, photography kind of brought you into collage and mixed media….
MGG: Yeah – plus, at the same time - I was working in Soho. After work me and my friend would just walk around, looking at all the stickers, and graffiti, and posters all over the streets down here - to see how people were expressing themselves…through all these guerrilla tactics. And we started to play this game, well, (laughing) it was more of a competition: who could get the best sticker or poster.
AB: And you started using them in your work?
MGG: Yeah, I started using them in my work. Because you know if I took somebody’s sticker, say a sticker that was on Houston and Broadaway. And 200,000 people passed that sticker and left their energies there, that sticker holds onto all of their energies….and it becomes more than a sticker.
AB: For sure. I agree. How were you incorporating them into the collages?
MGG: Well I working with all these other voices and energies and styles from the streets and integrating them into my style. I was using their voices to enter that conversation… subversively creating a dialogue with my own work. I was saying what I wanted to say, but using their voices. Because that’s what everyone is really. You steal from people and you make it into your own.
AB: Yeah, whether we realize it all the time or not. We’re all sponges, we’re all marked by the things that happen every single day.
MGG: Ever since Adam and Eve
MR: What is this nigga talkin about Adam and Eve
MGG: Takin it WAY back. WAY WAY Back.
AB: Well its true it’s the idea that everything we can see or feel, anything we can sense, we absorb in some way, we can’t help it. In Eve’s case, she saw an apple, and felt compelled by its sight, smell, and touch to literally – ingest it. And, some would say, so began our fall from grace.
We are completely seduced by our environment and we always have been. We can’t stop ourselves from trying to know and touch and behold the physical world around us, but in these pursuits we change that world – and the world changes us - in the sense that we continue to physically manipulate the landscape (often despite warnings of eventual, inevitable danger to ourselves) - and that our experience of our environment still, always becomes a part of us…it has this massive effect on identity. You could argue especially an environment as manipulated as this planet. Our cities and towns, and landscapes hold all of human history. The histories we connect to as New Yorkers or Parisiens or Londoners or any one from any place with any history ever. I think what Grave is trying to say is that there has always been this osmotic, back and forth, relationship between humans and our environment since the birth of humanity and it’s high time we take a look at what our environments are saying.
MGG: Word. That’s what I was looking at. You know, I was being bombarded by all of these ads in SoHo and everywhere else I went…. And when I collected them and put em together….it was an explosion. It was LOUD. Like BAM right in your face and you see how them niggas is just tryna get your money. Tryna tell you how to live your life through ads.
AB: That reminds me of an Early-Pruitt piece from the 90s – I’ll show it to you. There are two: Artwork for Teenage Girls and Artwork for Teenage boys. Anyway – what were they all screaming at you? What was the overarching message of all the messages you collected?
MGG: What was it screaming at me? Buy buy buy, sell sell sell, live your life in this fucking hedonic treadmill. It encouraged this never ending cycle, telling people you need to buy happiness when happiness is really always right in front of you – for free. But you know, that inspired me, that inspired my life. When I woke up every day I wanted to go see whatever was new out there. And every day I would come to SoHo there was something new. It was very active. People was out here. Making shit.
AB: And things were changing.
MGG: Yeah things were changing. Soho started getting super commercial. This shit is crazy. All these buildings [in SoHo]. This was a place where niggas [artists] worked. So all that was happening, and at the same time, I had a life or death experience.
AB: What happened?
MGG: I don’t want to get into details, it’s not important. What’s important is how it affected my work.
AB: Fine, we’ll save the juicy details for the movie. (laughing) How did it affect your work?
MGG: I started taking my art practice more seriously. I thought - I have a second chance. I’m talented so I have to put my talents to use because I saw how easily your life could be taken away from you. You can’t take life for granted.
AB: Is that when the collages got bigger?
MGG: Yeah, word, the collages got gigantic. I was making em out of my brothers third bedroom, that he was fortunately letting me use as my studio. It’s still filled with materials that I’ve hoarded that he’s still telling me to throw away. And I’m like dude these are still important, I need these.
AB: It’s mostly like huge luxury ads right?
MGG: Yeah, you know, that’s what you see here in SoHo now. Everything commercial. When I use these brands (as source material), I like to make my own campaign with their name. Something positive. Because there’s a bad side of fashion, an ugly side of fashion that I’m trying to uncover.
AB: What’s that side?
MGG: How expensive it is, how much waste is created. And that just having something with the name puts you in some kind of circle, that’s a fake circle. And it’s that same message, buy buy buy, sell, sell, sell. When we’re exposed to that message so much, we become a part of it. It’s becomes easy to lose who you are.
AB: But…you also acknowledge the beauty in these things, right? Physically, aesthetically you have so much respect for design.
MGG: That’s the thing - because brands use the best artists in the world, not just for the clothes, but the logos and shopping bags and… everything. They do it on purpose. To catch your eye, they use a certain color, image, text – a combination of all these art things – so it’s like - this is good art but it’s not always good for you. You know, I want to be subversive. I just want to have my mark on it, make my mark on fashion.
AB: I think you’re doing a great job.
MGG: Thanks. (laughing)
AB: Ok so, after this life or death experience, the collages turned into these monumental mixed media works, and what was going on with the photos?
MGG: I was still shooting actively.
AB Did the subject matter change?
MGG: No because the subject matter was always life. The outside. I would say the photography became more documentary. It was documentation of the things that people overlook. Little things in the streets. Like a little crack or a little paint spilled. I’m always attracted to that stuff because it’s like somebody left their energy there.
AB: Yeah there’s something very…evidentiary about your photos…like its evidence of something that happened.
AB: Ok - so – but where does the phantom come from? I thought the phantom came out of that life or death experience….
MGG: It did, it did. The phantom was created in one of my last classes that I took at college. Which was a theater class. Performance art / theater
AB: I have a hard time with performance art.
MGG: Nah, performance art is so cool ma nigga, it’s just challenging. People don’t know how to express themselves. People are so in a shell. I excelled in that class because I’m so open. But even for myself…it was hard.
AB: Ok so, you’re killing in your theater class ….and….
MGG: So we had an assignment where each person had to create a performance that expressed a life changing event – without using your words or your voice at all. So I used my life or death situation as inspiration for that. Basically, with my performance, I wanted to explain how time was valuable and how you have to appreciate time and not take it for granted. So, I made a performance that was making myself into a clock.
MGG: So I was standing there right, with this Givenchy folder at my feet.
AB: The one we just got back from the framer?
MGG: Yeah, that’s the folder, so, I’m standing with this folder and I had this long piece of vine charcoal. And to represent each hour on the clock, I would break off a piece of charcoal, that I would place on the floor in the position of say - 1’oclock, 2’oclock, 3’oclock. And then I would make a mark on the folder. So at the end I had a circle of charcoal and I was in the center. And I was like a clock with my hands. So one hand was moving slow and one hand was moving fast like the hours and the minutes. This song that inspired me was playing. It’s called 8 Hour Religion by this band called Gray. And that was me transcribing time, expressing time. I couldn’t speak, so I had to show time with my body and my movements.
AB: Ok, so….where’d the phantom come from?!
MGG: Well - BANG I look at this Givency folder I had been marking up during the performance. I had no intentions while I was doing it, I was just making lines on this folder. But at the end, I looked at it and I just get this image, and it was the phantom. The phantom appeared itself. It’s like when you’re doodling and then you see something in it. And you’re like ‘ok ima make it this.’ Youre just doodling and you just see something in it.
AB: I was noticing today, I was looking at this one. It looks like a little kitty cat.
MGG: Oh yeah yeah that’s one thing. When I destroy my images, I create other images, or other images appear. Sometimes they can be very demonic, you know what I mean… I be scared.
AB: You think these ghostly figures are coming to get you for destroying the original image?
MGG: No no. It’s all there all the time anyway. The good and the evil is always with you. They’re always around. So that’s one thing that I try to represent. The yin and the yang, the good and the bad. You gotta live with both. You don’t know what’s good without the bad you don’t know what’s bad without the good.
AB: And now the phantom is everywhere. Does the phantom mean that time is valuable?
MGG: No, The phantom means – the phantom is like my past life. It’s something that was created when I got a second chance in life, so the phantom is like that first life. I didn’t even know that, I just found that out right now, talking to you. This is my second life. The phantom is my first life.
AB: Is the phantom haunting you?
MGG: Nah, it’s not haunting me, it’s another part of me, it’s always with me.
AB: What part is that?
MGG: That young Melvin. Reckless Grave….
AB: Well it’s interesting to me because it does a bunch of things…. One – I think it’s like a tag.
MGG: Yeah I put that shit all over everything.
AB: So to me, tags, like in graffiti culture – were conversation starters. You know, you’d write your tag on the train, and you did it enough people would start to know you, and they’d write back to you, near your name, and you could write back to them – graffiti tags = twitter handles – but it was the subway, not the internet, where that conversation was taking place, so while the subway is physical, not virtual, its ability to move and transmit messages from one end of the city to another, made communication and conversation possible across all of these communities filled with creative spirits trying to connect with each other. It’s so beautiful I could cry (laughing) but – what I’m saying is, tags to me are conversation starters. They don’t need an immediate response, but they say I was here, now you are. They’re comforting to those who recognize them. But tags also say – ‘your turn’ - to make a mark. They invite conversation. Attention to the environment they adorn. We’ve done this as far back as the cave paintings – 40,000 years ago. And I like the conversation you’re trying to start. I like that in a time when life feels so polarized and contradictory, your work reminds me that there’s always been dark and light. And that they necessitate each other.
AB: AND I think phantom is a memento mori
MGG: What’s memento mori?
AB: Art history term. It’s a symbol, most often a skull, became really popular in Dutch painting in the 1600s. They were meant to be kind of allegorical.
MGG: I like that…allegorryyyy
AB: Yeah, meant to teach you a lesson. So say a nobleman went on a trip. When he got back home he would have a painter paint portrait of him surrounded by all the treasures he’d acquired on the trip, and he’d be wearing the fun hat he got and holding the exotic animal he got – you know – these very sumptuous, busy paintings where the still lives would be almost as important in the painting as the subject of the portrait - and nestled in all of those things would be a skull. And the skull was meant to be a humbling thing, a reminder that everybody dies. A reminder of your humanity. And now you can’t really divorce the skull from that symbolism. Think about Damian Hirst – he took memento mori viral with his skulls. But I think the phantom is way cooler because instead of a symbol from Christian iconography you’ve created your own memento mori - this abstracted ghost developed out of a performance art piece which transcribes the passage of time with your body? That’s pretty cool Grave. It’s honestly next level and there’s a space-time-environment thing you’re participating in that I’m really interested in.
MGG: Yeah, spiritual with it.