by Zach Frater
You’re strolling through your hood in the early evening. A curated playlist reverberates in your earbuds, your hand digging into a bag of Tropical Skittles. A nippy fall has come early to the city and you’re warming yourself with memories of a summer unlike the others, one spent in trepidation over an uncertain future. You recall glimpses of strange beauty you noticed on your summer walks. Watermelon splattered on the concrete. Deflated party balloons piled up near a trash can. Empty pints of liquor tossed wantonly into the dirt outside construction sites and group homes.
Now it’s October, and some of the stores are still closed. It’s like you’re seeing the neighborhood for the first time, with pandemic eyes. Bronxites walk around smoking cigarettes in mismatched clothes. You pocket the Skittles and pull out your Panasonic to try and capture the audacity. Your finger pauses on the shutter button as Miss Thing starts waving frantically at you with her cigarette hand. Not the time. You angle the camera up and snap a picture of a pre-war building facade instead. You keep walking and end up in Port Morris. You’ve already thrown up posters of your show all around the neighborhood. Images of your disembodied head are wheatpasted to telephone poles. The heads hover ominously above the street like Emerald City wizards would. Fitting. It’s opening night, and you’re about to conjure up some magic.
Michael Paul Britto, Disseminate show poster, Port Morris, Bronx Courtesy of the Artist
Perhaps it is a strange time for an exhibition. Perhaps it is exactly the right time. Like many of us, Michael Paul Britto used his time on lockdown to reflect on his work, his selfhood, his impact on the world. But these musings were not new to him, which long-time friends and viewers of his art can attest to. Throughout his 20-year practice, Michael has consistently instructed viewers on the ways in which the United States produces and packages Black identity to the masses. An ex-comic turned visual artist, Michael uses his sardonic wit to draw us into his worldview while addressing taboos of sexuality, addiction, crime and other forms of social control as filtered by the Black subject. His multidisciplinary approach to artmaking reveals an overactive mind that cannot be contained by a single medium, though they say every parent has their favorites.
Michael Paul Britto began on his path to artmaking with an early interest in video. He paid his way through City College of New York’s undergraduate film program, initially hoping he would end up creating visuals for music videos. In these early stages, Michael showed a predilection for content, even inserting social messaging into formal exercises for class. After graduating in 1999, Michael’s early days as a hopeful career artist consisted of lugging bags of art tapes (on VHS no less!) from gallery to gallery in Chelsea and downtown Manhattan. Unfortunately, the video medium would not prove very lucrative as many gallerists at the time had trouble selling the stuff. Though he continues to work in video, Michael has since expanded his practice to encompass works on paper, photography, performance, sculpture and installation. However, it is his multidimensional collages that are probably the most numerous in his oeuvre.
© Michael Paul Britto 2019, Red, White & Boo!, 8×10 in, Wood panel, acrylic paint, laser cut print
Michael first started experimenting with collage at an artist residency he began at the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council soon after college. He channeled his interest in social content into the medium and began creating works that dealt succinctly with the Black experience. In some of his collages, Michael appropriates and references media myths of Black men as commodity and fetish. Elsewhere, it is the prejudicial treatment of Blacks by law enforcement that arrests his gaze. Oftentimes, his work is inspired by real-life events that family, friends and news outlets relay to him. He depicts painfully familiar stories of police shootings, stop and frisk incidents, Black enslavement and white domination.
L-R, © Michael Paul Britto 2015, Intertwined, 9 in x 12 in, Arches, Cut Magazine Paper, | © Michael Paul Britto 2019, Manding-Oh-No!, 8 x 10 in, Wood Panel, Cut Magazine
When it comes to his collages, Michael likes to work quickly and sometimes serially. He compares the process to making quick edits to scenes in a film and describes the way he “directs” his participant-models. Michael normally invites real people to sit as models for his collages, as opposed to working entirely from photos. He directs his models’ poses and photographs them for reference before committing their likenesses in precise detail as cut-out silhouettes. For works on paper, the silhouettes are often created from material culled from magazines, where the source image contributes significantly to the work’s overall meaning. His collage practice extends to three-dimensional objects as well, namely bottles of alcohol he harvests from the street. When working with bottles, his preferred collage material is vinyl. Whether on paper or bottle, the final product tends to resemble a scene frozen in time, usually featuring a protagonist and/or antagonist and an allusion to conflict, usually along racial lines.
L-R © Michael Paul Britto 2019, Truth Serum/Problem Solver, 8 x 10 in, Glass Bottle, Cut Vinyl | © Michael Paul Britto 2019, Pot Meet Kettle, Variable dimensions, Ceramic Figurine, Glass Bottle, Cut Vinyl
As with the late Keith Haring’s embrace of a universal visual language, Michael’s work purports to be legible to the largest possible audience. Michael is skeptical of artist statements and dislikes artspeak, preferring to allow the viewer their own subjective interpretations of his work. His carefree nature jumps out during our interview as he recalls with sadistic joy how his young niece sometimes sings her own made-up lyrics to popular songs. He giddily recounts to me how she once belted “somebody moved my jacket” in an ahistorical rendition of the chorus to Maroon 5’s Moves Like Jagger.
Like his niece, viewers of Michael’s art are encouraged to revel in their own thought processes. His disregard for definitive analysis of his artwork probably stems from his sense of being an outsider in the art world. Michael did not attend traditional art school and to this day has never been represented by a gallery. He books exhibitions mainly off the strength of his work, by word of mouth and through his associations with like-minded artists he has met at residencies and group shows throughout his career. Despite the artist’s self-described social awkwardness, his work speaks boldly and has been included in shows at the Studio Museum in Harlem, El Museo del Barrio, Rush Arts Gallery and The Kitchen, to name a few, alongside prominent contemporary artists like Mickalene Thomas, Hank Willis Thomas and Kehinde Wiley.
During the month of October 2020, Michael Paul Britto will be featured in a solo exhibition at Hell Gate Arts in the Port Morris neighborhood of the South Bronx. The show is called Disseminate and was so named for the connotation of sharing social messaging and for how delicious Michael thinks it is to say out loud. The show will include several new pieces, including a mounted mixed media work depicting video accounts of racial profiling, as well as a time-based participatory sculpture entitled Less of Them, More of Us.
L-R © Michael Paul Britto 2020, Untitled (Police Involved), TRT 11:47, Digital Video, Cut Wood, Dimensions Variable | © Michael Paul Britto 2020, Less of Them, More of Us (Tribute to Trayvon), Participatory Sculpture, Dimensions Variable
For this sculpture experience, Michael uses limited-edition white Skittles–released, ironically, during Pride Month–to indicate the ominous specter of white supremacy in our daily lives. The candy for many is a form of contemporary iconography associated with the death of Trayvon Martin, it being one of the “weapons” he was found to be holding the moment he was shot.
Visitors are invited to pour their own bags of colored store-bought Skittles out onto the sculpture as an act of remembrance for Trayvon and the many others who have wrongfully lost their lives to police (Rest in Power Breonna Taylor). I interpret this addition of color to an originally colorless mound as a symbolic rallying call for people with melanin to stand up and be counted in a world that would rather ignore our influence.*
While the pieces described above will be on display at Hell Gate Arts, the neighborhood of Port Morris will also play a role in hosting what the artist has dubbed an “urban scavenger hunt.” Select artworks will be hiding in plain sight throughout the area, masquerading as urban detritus within the rich cultural landscape of the Bronx. His arresting collages may be hung alongside bodega window displays, competing with kaleidoscopic advertisements for Arizona-Corona-Heineken. QR Codes on the posts lead back to the exhibit online.
A Brooklyn native who admits he spends little time in the Bronx, Michael found new inspiration in his borough after lockdown discouraged interborough travel. He suddenly found himself walking everywhere, and started photographing the neighborhood. In collaboration with artist friend Johnny Ramos, the two began a photo project in which they started capturing moments of mundane beauty seen in the borough. There is a wistful, romantic touch to the photos, which sometimes depict fleeting moments of connection between people, encapsulating our current era where social distancing and isolation have become symptoms of the “new normal.” In Disseminate, the Bronx is not simply the backdrop; it is one of the main characters, perhaps even the narrator of an exhibition whose work deals unabashedly with community concerns.
© Michael Paul Britto, 2020
Michael views Art with a capital A as a balm for social ills. His own artist statement confirms that his creative process is also a personal one, one that allows him to grapple with past trauma, whether that be inflicted by family, friends or society writ large. His goal in addressing topics that some may find shocking is not catharsis, but an attempt to inspire change. In a moment where people who wield and abuse power can, as Michael says, “trump your truth” (no pun intended) and where the symbolism of Black bodies can be easily morphed by the media machine, Disseminate pleads with us to take a breath. To go on a walk. Play some music on your headphones and really take in your surroundings. Consider this exhibition a grounding exercise in radical presence. Although we have endless things to lament over, perhaps it is even more important to process our complex feelings in community. Don’t worry if you don’t know exactly what to say or do right now. Go buy some Skittles, sing the wrong lyrics to your favorite song if you have to. Then, when you’re ready, head on over to Disseminate. Your neighbors will be there.
*The artist confirms his sculpture is also a literal homage to the late Félix González-Torres’ installation Untitled (Portrait of Ross in L.A.). In Félix’s version, he invites the visitor to partake of a mound of colorfully-wrapped candies and savor the treats’ short-lived sweetness in remembrance of his partner Ross Laycock, who died of AIDS-related illness in 1991 at the age of 32.
Disseminate, Recent Work by Michael Paul Britto is on view at
Hell Gate Arts, 755 East 133rd St, Bronx, New York 10454. Through October 31st, 2020.
Gallery Hours: Thursday- Saturday 1-6PM by appointment
Contact: Eileen Walsh 203.814.6856
Virtual Artist Talk: October 24th 3:30 pm Zoom link
The artist will be in residence on Saturdays from 3-6 pm. Curated by Laura James.