An old box of family photographs can reveal multitudes. When his aunt presented photographer Kalen Na'il Roach with an old chest filled with his grandfather Nat Briscoe's drawings, poems, and letters, it offered a glimpse into how the older man dealt with a divorce from Roach's grandmother in the late 1980s. The ephemera constructed a completely different picture of the man Roach thought he knew.
In a recently-opened solo exhibition, King Within A King at Deli Gallery, Roach uses family photography as a point of departure to interrogate his personal history, memory, and the limitations of a static image. In the exhibition, Roach combines traditional portraiture, collage, and an interactive portrait backdrop installation to explore the performance of family and identity.
After the artist received his grandfather's chest, the first step was to make sense of its contents. "I just started to try and meld these relationships and figure out what this family really looked like, because I don't think the pictures really showed it all the way," Roach tells Creators. "I started to think about my grandparents in relationship to my parents, who were never together but always around. Whether or not I perceive my parents' situation as normal, it is never perceived as normal on a societal level." Though modern understandings of the family unit are changing, when the artist was growing up in the 1990s, he "could've easily fallen into the category of another black boy without a father, even though my dad was there, he just wasn't with my mom. The complexity of these relationships are behind every picture in the show," Roach says.
Growing up, Roach remembers only seeing one photograph of him, his father, and his mother together in a photo, which has since ben misplaced. But in Me, My Dad, My Mom, he creates his own portrait of the three of them on fabric, by collaging two photographs together. "It's investigating what would we look like if I slammed us together. Is it an idyllic scene?"
Roach also constructs images of his father and mother together in My Mother and Father at a Party and Em'Ria & Bernard, imagining what his parents would look like together in their 20s and today. They are images of Roach's parents as an idealized couple against constructed backdrops that evoke his grandfather's painting and his father's party photography, and the artist calls them "happy images" that explore what it means to force an idyllic scene. The works are also a comment on what photography demands of the presentation of family and self. They are images that subtly seek to question why a body tends to pose before a camera lens, presenting a performance of an idealized version of self and family that doesn't necessarily reflect reality.
In Untitled, a series of 48 collage works made from a single "Picture Day" portrait—a family photo in the ways that it is circulated to family members and memorialized in the family photo album—of the artist when he was a kindergarten student, Roach continues his examination of the slippage between photography's ability to capture reality versus performance. The surfaces of the images are manipulated with paint, bleach, fire, and marker to accentuate the flimsiness of the photo paper, metaphorically recalling the ways in which memories and definitions of identity, collective and personal, change over time.
"I wanted to make so many of these to proliferate the gallery with images of myself, so that it kind of deteriorates what this image even means," the artist explains. "I don't know this person, because I can't connect with this person in these images. Is the picture just an illusory surface that plays tricks on us, that brings up emotion and takes us on roller coaster rides? I want the audience to address that."
The exhibition also features a photo backdrop, reminiscent of those used for commercial family portraits, printed with a landscape painted by Roach's grandfather. Contrasting reality, Untitled Landscape by Nat Briscoe is a functional backdrop inviting visitors to have their picture taken in the gallery. "The idea of the backdrop is very funny, because it covers whatever world that exists and allows people to present themselves in completely different ways," says Roach, who included it in the installation because he wanted to see "what people would do, given the opportunity to present themselves."
Before the exhibition opened, I asked Roach to sit for me, and with his point-and-shoot Polaroid camera, I took a picture of the artist in front of Landscape by Nat Briscoe. The resulting portrait is of the artist, hands folded, sitting before a painted forest landscape, expressionlessly staring at the camera. Is it a measured performance? Or the moment captured? The photograph contains multitudes.
King Within A King continues through May 7 at Deli Gallery. Click here for more information.