Eliza Myrie and the means of (artistic) production at Vox Populi

arts / Article

Above: Eliza Myrie, “Building a Wall Through My Father (dress rehearsal).” Photos by Chip Schwartz.

Art and manual labor are very distinct from one another. Everybody knows that, right? One starts with a vision, requires specific sets of skills, involves working with one's hands, and the other... actually sounds all but indistinguishable from the former. Right now, Philadelphia's Vox Populi offers a sampling from four different artists, including Chad States, Joe Bartram, Suzanne Seesman, and Eliza Myrie. But traveling between the rooms at this Knight grantee's busy First Friday opening, it is Myrie's examination of the boundaries between labor and artistry that unearths some of the most fascinating connections.

Myrie calls her project “Building a Wall Through My Father,” and her mix of raw materials, maquettes and documentary photographs builds a concrete conception of a sculpture that remains unrealized. The artist's first exposure to dimension and materiality was her training in masonry, and the works on display here serve as a stand-in for her apprenticeship with her father, a brick mason. In her small-scale examinations, Myrie always keeps the construction/destruction of a 65-foot cinder block wall on her family's property in Jamaica at the center of her mind. Instead of dividing like some walls, however, the idea of this construction only serves to connect.

Eliza Myrie, “Manzie, exterior wall.”

Two photographs set the scene: “new monuments” and “Manzie, exterior wall.” The latter finds a man we can surmise to be Myrie's father as he moves gray cinder blocks into place beneath the shade of palm fronds. Many of the spaces between the sections of the assembled lower part of the wall are considerably darker than the bricks themselves, indicating that the mortar is still drying in the tropical heat. In “new monuments,” an orderly pile of loose concrete blocks stands amidst a dark patch of topsoil, waiting to be put to use. As a monument to a wall not yet built, the hulking pile is merely a premonition of its final form.

In “one frog, two frog” we find two bricks cast with the name ‘Myrie’ emblazoned onto them in all caps. A simple enough image, one brick rests on top of the other, indicating that Eliza Myrie, like all of us, is standing on the shoulders of giants. If not for the artists and artisans, scientists and explorers that went before us, where would we be? As an apprentice to her father, the artist is both a daughter and a student, carrying both her trade and her family legacy toward an unforeseen future. Two bricks do not a wall make, but it is impossible to build a house without first laying a foundation.

Eliza Myrie, “one frog, two frog.”

By far the largest piece in her exhibit, and also the one with the most discrete parts, is “Building a Wall Through My Father (dress rehearsal).” On a long, wooden table that dominates the center of the room, Myrie spreads out a collection of tiny pallets full of 2,340 equally tiny cinder blocks that she manufactured. Each unit is individually wrapped in plastic and exists, not unlike “new monuments,” as a potential wall. In reducing a structure to this intermediate phase between raw material and finished product, Myrie garners a deeper understanding about the means of production and the processes that usually lie outside her realm of expertise.

When art mirrors labor and manual work is acknowledged for its creative potential, we find that these seemingly opposed activities share more than just their hands-on approach. Artists and workers have an awful lot to learn from one another, and Eliza Myrie demonstrates that no matter how refined your craft may be, there's always another way to see it. Vox Populi's current shows will be on view through April 24.

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