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Book of the Week: Selected by Laura Larson

Book Review Rock of Eye Art by Troy Montes-Michie Reviewed by Laura Larson "The term “rock of eye” refers to the intuitive realm of tailoring where drape and fit are determined by the eye rather than the calculated measurements of sewing patterns. Let’s call it the eye of the beholder..."

By Troy Montes-Michie.
Rock of Eye
Art by Troy Montes-Michie

Siglio, California African American Museum, & the Rivers Institute. 2021. 128 pp., 8½x11½".

The term “rock of eye” refers to the intuitive realm of tailoring where drape and fit are determined by the eye rather than the calculated measurements of sewing patterns. Let’s call it the eye of the beholder. Troy Montes-Michie’s assemblages and collages in Rock of Eye use images drawn from an archive of 70s era gay porn featuring Black and Brown bodies. In porn’s racist vernacular, Black men are exoticized as studs, sexual objects to be consumed by the reader. In Montes-Michie’s hands, these men become fugitive subjects, radically disrupting the access porn promises.

Montes-Michie cuts, folds, layers, and misaligns these archival images. He paints then sands their surfaces, dressing the men in wife beaters and the voluminous pants of the 1940s Zoot suit. Using a sewing machine, he stitches into the paper: chain, straight, flatlock, running. Lines of stitching shapeshift, swerving between the decorative and the structural. Thin pinstripes on pants turn into a heavy zig-zag, evoking the vertical bars of a jail cell. These sutures recall notions of trauma and repair. The collages also incorporate sewing patterns, layering the light, brown translucent tissue over the photographs — another skin. Pattern lines mark welt for pockets and ease for the measure used to determine the space between the garment and the body. Cut strips of photographs are woven together, mimicking the thread structure of fabric. Fragments of bodies are revealed then concealed, elaborating a formal dialect that echoes and improvises on the techniques of sewing.

The Zoot suit, identified with working-class Latinos, emerged in the 1940s as a style from the simple act of buying clothes that were too large. This gesture was elaborated as design — theatrically concealed bodies a provocation to the notions of fit. Montes-Michie’s phantom garments cover the bodies of his subjects, and this attention makes the bodies feel held, cared for precisely because they are cloaked in this luxurious touch. Mining this connection between the eye and the hand, his work maps the energy between eroticism and affection. Montes-Michie’s tailoring disturbs the economy between visibility and availability through looping acts of repetition and return.

Two pictures. On the right, three men stand clustered together, their arms entwined. One man leans back against a smiling man in the center. His eyes are closed, and his head thrown back with the other’s hand hovering over his pelvis. Hands grasp thighs. The men are caught in a moment of abandon, but their delight remains their own. A man sits, naked, legs in a butterfly position, against a studio seamless. (Zora Neale Hurston: I feel most colored when I am thrown against a sharp white background.) There is no narrative armature or signifiers of wild nature. His body is masked by a sewing pattern with only his eyes and feet exposed in the cut. His eyes return the gaze of the camera. He won’t allow us to look or let us off the hook in this quiet reclaiming of agency.

Montes-Michie’s critical gestures of veiling are both protective and defiant. Desire isn’t banished from the frame, and this is the joyful knot of the work. He beholds his subjects with tenderness and dresses them in their rebellious threads. Midway through the book, the ring pattern of quilting is introduced, a form that resonates with its prismatic sensibility. His subjects peek out from behind the moan of these repeating Os, looking back. My eye slips, ricochets, and halts through the shifting borders of Rock of Eye’s visual somatics. Montes-Michie calibrates invitation and opacity to map the fraught and necessary space between pleasure and resistance.

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Laura Larson
is a photographer, writer, and teacher based in Columbus, OH. She's exhibited her work extensively, at such venues as Art in General, Bronx Museum of the Arts, Centre Pompidou, Columbus Museum of Art, Metropolitan Museum of Art, Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, SFCamerawork, and Wexner Center for the Arts and is held in the collections of Allen Memorial Art Museum, Deutsche Bank, Margulies Collection, Metropolitan Museum of Art, Microsoft, Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, New York Public Library, and Whitney Museum of American Art. Hidden Mother (Saint Lucy Books, 2017), her first book, was shortlisted for the Aperture-Paris Photo First Photo Book Prize. Larson is currently at work on a new book, City of Incurable Women (forthcoming from Saint Lucy Books) and a collaborative book with writer Christine Hume, All the                                                               Women I Know.