having something held tightly so
that it cannot move or be freed
Artspace is pleased to present two floor-to-ceiling site specific installations by mixed media artist and social activist Zeph Farmby, Artspace’s 2017-18 Artist-in-Residence. The concept for these works germinated in the 1990s in Chicago, when Farmby took notice of the way graffiti murals around city communicated to anyone passing by. Well-known artists, like Slang, showed next to lesser known artists, like Yashua Klos, a friend whose portrait of Malcolm X holding a spray can motivated Farmby to enter the scene. Farmby painted his first floor-to-ceiling mural in his family’s basement and his practice has since expanded to cover a range of surfaces, including architectural facades, interiors, stretched canvases, found objects, and custom designed clothing.
These new works have grown out of the Brainwash Series, which Farmby worked on over the course of his one-year residency at Artspace. The Brainwash Series debuted during the 2017 City-Wide Open Studios in the drill hall of the Goffe Street Armory, and depicted racist tropes from early animation on eight-foot free standing wooden cutouts of the heads of young black men. For TRAP(ped), Farmby pushes the conversation around race as a social construction, black culture, media-messaging and advertisement into a question about space—who is allowed to show where, how are questions of identity and representation entering the major cannon, and what are the overlaps between the arts and entertainment industries?
Farmby’s installations command two opposite walls, negotiating the ways that we consume language, image and aesthetics. The installation on the left contemplates the word “trapped”, which is mapped out in hard-edged black font, flipped over the x-axis and camouflaged by undulating chevron stripes. The word is simultaneously there and not there. It’s larger than life scale contends with the architectural space of the white-cube, referencing media-messaging and billboard sized advertising, coming out of a lineage of postmodern text based painters that include Barbara Kruger, Kerry James Marshall, Lawrence Weiner, and Glenn Ligon.
The installation on the right appropriates the tradition of trompe l’oeil painting to depict the exterior wall of a weathered building covered with graffiti. Its street aesthetic and theatrical moodiness is amplified by sparse spot lighting. The pastel washes are reminiscent of early feminist painting, but originate from the intensity of neon pink, green, orange, teal, and yellow tags, which pay homage to a tradition in graffiti painting whereby artists pick a bold signature color that identifies their authorship. These tags generate a compositional flow that allows moves the eye around the room, encouraging viewers to pause, focus, and read different areas.
Through the act of reading, Farmby challenges viewers to come to their own understanding of his work. By entering into spaces of creativity, he believes that viewers can unlock the jails that their perspectives might be trapped within.
Zeph Farmby is a multi-disciplined artist, activist and educator whose works spans a range of mediums, including painting, drawing, muralism, installation, apparel design and graphic design. Farmby started his career as a graffiti artist in Chicago, and established a parallel studio practice during his time pursuing an undergraduate degree at The American Academy of Art in Chicago. His work has been exhibited in venues across the globe, and has been collected, used and worn by Kayne West, Jay Z (Made in America Festival), Swizz Beatz, and Pharrell Williams. His work has been featured in several publications, including Complex Magazine, Hypebeast, XXL magazine and Vice. His personal mission for his work is to speak to all walks of life, which he achieves by focusing on anti-greed, anti-capitalism and/or anti-establishment messages tinted with humor and wit. One of his favorite quotes by Dave Ramsey goes: “We buy things we don’t need with money we don’t have to impress people we don’t like.” He is currently preparing artwork for 3 solo exhibits, and mural projects with international clients in Haiti and Japan, and lives and works in Brooklyn, NY.