The first time I saw David Shrobe’s work, it was in images online. My judgment was almost immediate: I thought the pieces were derivative, just amalgamated and ersatz versions of Yinka Shonibare, Wangechi Mutu, and maybe Nick Cave. Then a friend who’s more familiar with Shrobe’s work said I should nevertheless see the work in person. So I visited Thierry Goldberg Gallery for Shrobe’s exhibition Homegrown and came to understand that his assemblages are really his own — not anyone else’s, though there are visual, material, and strategic elements in his work that are evocative of other artists, like flavor notes I recognize for having tasted them before in other wines.
Shrobe’s odd, off-kilter assemblages often contain a figure in colonial period clothing (that’s the Shonibare allusion), though their faces are almost always obscured. The first work I encountered, “Guerrilla Tactics” (2017), features a mixture of tiles, a broken rubber ball, plastic crates of different types, and remnants of wood frames. White paper has been cut to make a set of lips for the central figure, and the same sort of paper is shaped as a ring around his neck, with the design of a 16th-century ruffled collar drawn on top. (Using the paper as both substrate for the drawn image and part of the image itself also reminds me of Tschabalala Self, who has shown at the same gallery.) The result suggests a courtly figure made up of odds and ends, a faux monarch styled in the “fake it ’til you make it” ethos.
In other pieces, found materials figure more prominently, like the doorknobs and frame moldings of “Tight Ship” (2016) — the glass knobs set within metal brought me back to my childhood in the north Bronx — or the tablet that would normally be attached to the arm of a high school chair desk in “Tight Rope” (2015). These objects made me think of Cave’s work, while the raw and slightly disturbing urgency of the figure bending backwards in “Tight Rope” also brought Mutu to mind.
But Shrobe is employing all these images and items to get at something deeper: the Dadaist tactic of mocking materialistic (in the sense of items indicative of social status) concerns, using the nonsensical and irrational as tonics for the relentless instrumentalization of what we purchase and consume to advertise the personas we want to project. In these collages, the who is often hidden. Look at “Protector of Mothers” (2015): it has a figure that’s almost an urban traveler, with Nike shoes, a hand with dark skin, the ubiquitous backpack. But this figure wears a pre-modern white shirt with very wide sleeves and has a head that consists of an African mask seen in profile. More, the shadow it casts is a celestial being with a glowing sun for a head and a body made up of images of outer space pockmarked with galaxies and bright planetary bodies. Yes, Shrobe seems to be saying, we are made of star stuff, but we are holding that stuff together with spit and bailing wire and whatever else lies at hand.
It’s a welcome thing to find not only that my initial judgments were mistaken (so I have the opportunity to learn something new), but that Shrobe is an artist who’s making collage that is alive, useful, and evocative of the complexity of our contemporary moment.
David Shrobe: Homegrown continues at Thierry Goldberg Gallery (103 Norfolk Street, Lower East Side, Manhattan) through February 19.