BALTIMORE — The first image you see upon entering Terrault Contemporary is “Frozen Cup” (2017), a collage made from the usual suspects: colored paper and pencils and photo clippings. At first the piece gives off the insouciance of childish discord, but as your eyes trace the limbs — human and not — extended throughout it, you begin to see the meticulousness behind the bodies. You’re peeking at a consanguinity that you recognize but can’t infiltrate; the small brown hominids are telling one another a story you’re forced to guess, to try to get, and this pulls you deeper in.
Colored pencil on paper and cut-up images invoke thoughts of childhood and long-dormant muscle memory; thus they manage to eschew the pretense of high art by accessing that inherent Rausch — a sort of physiological drunkenness or affective intoxication that makes art possible, referenced in Fredric Jameson’s The Ancients and the Postmoderns — worn down by life’s sandy curves and gradations. This is at least part of why Devin N. Morris’s collages flood their frames with the vibrant pulp of intimacy.
The exhibit at Terrault, titled In a Dignified Fashion, consists of four parts: collages, photographs, a video installation, and some prose printed on a wall between thin lace curtains. The works feature consistent imagery: hands held, tears falling, dukes up, conversations that look low-toned and covert. The photos show young black men — and/or gender-nonconforming persons (I try not to assume gender) — donning negligées, curtains, and stray fabrics, which are strewn across their skin in wrinkled fragments, implying craft paper. At first glance, Morris’s artworks, and his photos especially, seem to start a conversation about identity politics; however, he deliberately avoids this and goes in the opposite direction: the clothing the models wear is de-gendered and unidentifiable, preserving the anonymity of their identities by way of misdirection.
What’s interesting about the first two parts of the show is how they appear of a piece with one another; the photos evoke the collages and the collages, the photos, as Morris attempts to flatten the three-dimensional into some shared plane of existence in which the artificially material and the human merge. Touching flesh doesn’t have to differ from touching paper, he suggests. All materials are leveled. We’ve assumed the (human) body to be the most valuable substance on Earth, presumably due to our sentience, with little self-awareness of how the qualifications of value are determined by the benefactors. In Morris’s constructed world, this hierarchy is dismantled, and it’s up to you to decide if human life is denigrated or elevated in the process.
The video, “If I Were To, Would You” (2017), features a figure clipped from the photos, pasted onto a stick, and multiplied three times, like a small cohort being pulled to and fro among more solid-colored sheets. A new denizen of Morris’s compressed landscape, the video is the only piece that includes some sort of animation. All other movement is implied, especially in the collages, in which figures appear frozen mid-conversation. The models in the video move, dance, and sway, all the while remaining two-dimensional, with the delicacy of petals floating along a riverbed. “I work in marionette because of the odd feeling of a suspended realism that isn’t too real,” Morris explains. “It’s wondrous.” The video uses motion to add an element of reverie to an exhibit of still compassion.
Rounding out the exhibit is the verbal and cerebral material: a small zine library curated by Morris — featuring his own “3DotZine,” Lawrence Burney’s “True Laurels,” and Shannon Wallace’s “BLACKS AND BLUES,” among others — and the aforementioned prose piece. Printed in black on a white background, the latter is a constellation of Morris’s stories: “Retellings of events, fictional tales and domestic warnings,” he says. They read like Hurstonian aphorisms — “Just because you work on your knees don’t mean you gotta look like it” could be pulled from the mouth of a character in Their Eyes Were Watching God — but construct a colloquial narrative that is distinctly black, distinctly urban, and comes from the mouth of a Baltimore boy. “I don’t talk about ghost with white folk.”
In a Dignified Fashion resists propriety just as it states, with dignity. Familiar scenarios are flattened yet stretched across each piece of paper, illustrating the breadth of our smallest moments, those of intimacy and kindness. Morris compresses dimensions and subdues identity without stripping the world of its scope. Through his art, he fashions a collected image of the things we give to one another every day.
Devin N. Morris’s In a Dignified Fashion continues at Terrault Contemporary (218 W Saratoga Street, 3rd Floor, Baltimore) through May 6.
Correction: This piece originally misstated the materials used in Morris’s collages. We regret the error. It has been fixed.