Artist Malik Roberts has conceived a blue period of his own, drawing from the likes of Pablo Picasso to Renaissance sculpture, to undo mythologies and misconceptions surrounding mental health in the Black community. He bathes his figures in blues and blacks, warmed with dimensional highlights of red and orange, to evoke somber revelations of internal turmoil. Roberts is painting people and communities coming undone.
In past work, Roberts used bright, polychromatic color schemes and celebrity figures like Superman and Kim Jong Un, to comment on societal shortcomings and the infiltrating presence of popular culture. But in Blk & Blue at ABXY Gallery, Roberts more astutely explores the universality of anonymity, rendering characters who could stand in for anyone — a cousin, a sibling, a parent, yourself. These people don’t have names or identities, but you know who they are.
Roberts explores the ways PTSD, anxiety, depression, and bipolar disorder manifest in communities afflicted by poverty, racism, broken windows policing, and violence. He recognizes mental health as a communal issue, as well as a personal one, by considering the environmental factors affecting the mental health of entire communities.
Roberts is influenced by the heralded beauty of classical sculpture, crafting busts in black and blue. These figures are meant to be gazed upon, stuck on stands with missing limbs and broken arms. There is a sense of immobility in their beauty, as though they were stuck in distress, unable to escape their own circumstances and minds.
These characters are coming apart before our eyes. Dark, glossy oil paints are at times disrupted by creamy pastels to sew together broken faces. In one painting, a young boy clutches behind his sister, a fierce protector, drawing on the responsibility of Black children, especially Black girls, forced to grow up too soon. In another, a group of men bares their bravest faces, masculine and snarling, as their faces distort and reveal a more sincere reality.
Roberts’s images are oceanic in color and in depth. His chiaroscuro shows figures glowing before vast, rich, and infinite black backdrops. Many of the images feel like purgatory: inescapable, unsettling, and divine.
He uses cultural iconography — like du-rags, satin sleep bonnets, and dreadlocks — to contextualize his subjects despite their ambiguous backdrops, and uses recognizable art historical references to define his distinct artistic style.
When I visited the gallery, Roberts was walking around with blue paint on his hands — there are always touch-ups to be made, he says. His dedication to the work is fierce, likely based in the acute personal connection he draws from it. Roberts says he’s gotten countless emails and messages from young people saying they were touched by his work, and saw themselves and their communities within it. His paintings speak to millennial audiences in their accessible visual vernacular— they are exciting and Instagrammable, but also unexpected. With an iPad provided by the gallery, patrons are invited to view the paintings through VR technology and watch parts of the faces move and dislodge.
Roberts is giving attention to a youth culture often chastised for superficiality and appealing to them directly with affirmation and intrigue. A soundtrack accompanies each painting, playing throughout the gallery on a loop. It’s soothing, as if you’re underwater, yet jarring and jaunty at certain points. As you progress through the gallery, a blue light illuminates beneath the painting that inspired each song, communicating Roberts’s themes of distress, depression, and reconciliation, and immersing you in his intentions.
Malik Roberts: Blk and Blue continues at ABXY Gallery (9 Clinton St, LES, Manhattan) through December 18.