“My collage work is about this collective experience that we all share with public spaces,” explains Esau McGhee. “It doesn’t matter, you could be a fifty-year-old white Jewish chick or a young Latino male. It’s not my space, it’s not your space, it’s really ours, and it’s going through an evolution as dictated by us and our shared experience with it.”
As an African-American man who grew up as a self-proclaimed “ghetto kid” and ended up a professional artist by way of high-end, private fine art programs at SAIC and Northwestern, McGhee thinks a lot about how people from different races and economic classes relate to one another. He believes that people from different backgrounds can connect with one another through their shared visual experiences. With a studio based in the quintessentially urban East Garfield Park, McGhee’s practice intuitively incorporates the patterns of city landscapes, evoking a mood that city dwellers from all backgrounds could relate to—and with his most recent exhibitions being in the very different Elastic Arts, Union League Club and the Hyde Park Art Center, people from all different backgrounds have had a chance to.
McGhee pursued traditional darkroom photography in college, but a tight budget inspired him to rely less on film and instead construct his images out of found photos and patterned papers—still referencing the same city scenes, but less overtly—completely rearranging the image with razors, using colors and shapes to evoke a place instead of simply documenting it.
The challenge of creating an image from scratch instead of cropping an existing image through a viewfinder intrigued him. “You have to think about the mother of it all, which is painting,” he says. “You have to think about how to work that stroke. I think of the paper in the same way. A lot of these things come from photographs but are reduced to a line drawing, the way I use them.” At the same time, because he doesn’t have the infinite tonal and textural possibilities that you get with paint, he has to work with what he’s got. “How do you take this powerful pattern and work with it? How do you work with metallic blue paper, or pink rubberized paper? There’s this evolution that the paper and the pattern go through as opposed to the easy placement of the paper.”
His newest work references painting, photography and sculpture. He’s departed from rectangular formats in favor of less conventional shapes, breaking off corners and adding them onto other pieces, sometimes hanging the work in vertical columns instead of eye-level rows.
McGhee wants us to reconsider our conventions, our “givens”—which ones work and which ones we want to work around. Sometimes those conventions are cultural, like who we choose to hang around with, and sometimes they’re physical, like where we hang our art. Either way, in McGhee’s world, none of this is taken for granted. (Kelly Reaves)
Esau McGhee shows with Elastic Arts through May 30 at 3429 West Diversey