Jimmy Robert

Comprising several collages, all named Untitled (Figure de style), Jimmy Robert’s show—the first in this city by the Guadeloupe-born, London-educated, Brussels-based artist—was an exercise in elegance. Meaning either a literary trope or a sequence of dance steps—and, in fact, Robert’s work deftly weaves these terms together as form and reference—the exhibition (titled “Figure de style” as well) also included several constructions that verged on small-scale sculptural installations, and an opening performance, subsequently presented as a looping video on a monitor greeting visitors to the gallery. For that event, Robert—seated on a few pieces of white construction paper placed on the floor—invited attendees to approach him one by one and remove a piece of masking tape from the many that covered his upper body like a T-shirt. While they did so, he gradually recited short quotations from reviews of Yoko Ono’s Cut Piece, 1964, which was performed in London in 1966, and is the inspiration for his own act. As he was gradually stripped, Robert unstuck Ono’s canonical performance from its now automatic feminist associations, in turn animating collage in ways both historically allusive and singularly creative.

To transform—implicit in the use of a figure de style—appears to be the operative verb that captures the graceful workings of Robert’s aesthetic, and it extends as well to the playful passages between image and textural elements in his collages. First offered was a single large rectangular sheet of white paper, dated 2008, presenting a photographic image of a dancer in midballetic gesture, as pieces of roughly torn masking tape magically intimate mellifluously raised arms and, below, a beige skirt. To make this work, a collaged image had been scanned and enlarged from a small notebook page, perforated edge and all. Continuing this game of trompe l’oeil, a band of real masking tape—an unusually thin, translucent kind—bisected the image horizontally; visually connecting the gallery’s front and back rooms, it ran straight along the wall to a second piece. This one (dated 2006), which indeed was a collage on a large white paper support, bore several pleated papers of different weights in colors of coffee, beige, and pink. By suggesting the general shape of a dancer’s skirt, it materialized the previous image in three dimensions.

What distinguishes Robert’s engagement from a detached formalism is the playful and inventive way his work opens up categories of identity—including those of race and gender. One collage from 2007 contains the typed text ÉROTISME NOIR (black eroticism), lending a suggestive theme to the exhibition at large. While a couple of his collages’ images do show attractive black male figures, the very promiscuity of Robert’s representations—their mimetic ability to appear elsewhere, as if ever-changing—renders that racial category untenable in its reductiveness, and its meaning consequently uncertain. Robert’s tropes evoke a dynamic mobility from static images, just as they provocatively reimage the body. In another piece, dated 2005, a piece of light-brown cardboardlike paper supports a small image affixed to its center. Subtle and stylish, it shows a man’s beige suit jacket highlighted with a pink scarf—evidently a magazine image, judging by its thin stock. All signs of the wearer have been excised, yet the jacket still seems to enclose a body. Its collar frames a photograph of a branch of cherry blossoms playing the role of shirt. Robert, too, sitting on those pieces of white paper at the opening, had been a collage of sorts, just as his torso became a décollage—a further step in his transformative life of forms.

T. J. Demos