And, “wide-ranging” is putting it lightly, as Satterwhite, who is based in Brooklyn, implements 3D animated films, sculpture, prints, virtual reality, and more to create a fantastic audiovisual soundscape, with imagery that draws from art history, video gaming, queer club scenes, and Black culture. The show, now open through Dec. 5, fits nicely with CMU’s culture of highlighting new media in art, as younger generations have increasingly turned to technology, both old and emerging, as a way to bring their visions to life.
For Satterwhite, the emphasis on new media heightens his life story and how it extends beyond its subjectivity by relating to the wider Black LGBTQ experience. The works on display deftly integrate cultural references from the now 35-year-old artist’s childhood (don’t be surprised to see Super Mario Bros. characters in a print) with scenes that nod to his present love of fashion, club music, and voguing.
A less keen eye may find the show messy and lacking in substance, a dizzying mashup of manipulated analog video, searing red neon, and ephemera. Ascending through the exhibit, spread out over the gallery’s three floors, clear themes emerge to string the works together, creating a stream-of-consciousness examination of what brought the artist to where he is now. Most prominent among these are the tributes to his late mother and muse, Patricia Satterwhite, a woman whose own ambitions were hindered by a number of factors, including mental illness.
The first floor hints at the delights to come with Country Ball, a film featuring an ever-moving parade of figures, both animated and human, dancing against a CG background. The projection serves as a companion to Matriarch’s Rhapsody, another projection that, like Country Ball, is populated with rotoscoped images of the many inventions Patricia sketched throughout her life, all accompanied with scrawled, often inexplicable descriptions of their purpose. Satterwhite is quoted as saying, “In her schizophrenic condition, she would talk to herself 12 hours a day while drawing,” hinting at the complicated relationship he shared with his mother, who died in 2016.
The first floor both serves to comment on the role capitalism plays on an artist’s process (Patricia, as it's explained, sketched products she meant to sell on QVC), and announce Satterwhite’s origins.
The second floor proves no less bold, as viewers are treated to multiple video installations, sometimes presented in unorthodox ways. This is the case of “Room For Doubt,” a life-sized sculpture based on 17th-century Italian artist Carravaggio’s Biblical tableau painting The Incredulity of Saint Thomas. In this case, four Black figures are perplexed by tiny screens embedded in their mid sections, all screening footage of a provocative 2009 performance by Satterwhite titled “The Robin vs The Worm.”
There’s also a video hovering on the ceiling above another sculpture of four figures who boast both male genitalia and sharply pointed breasts. The work points to a theme running through many of the pieces, where Satterwhite derives power from queerness, performing as a “multi-gendered nymph-like warrior,” weaponizing his dance moves and whipping braids against incoming objects, or shooting CG bubbles from a pair of breasts.
The music being pumped in floated up to the third floor, following me as I explored yet another phase of the exhibit. Here, the works are more sparse, with the animated neon light sculpture “Black Luncheon” serving as a centerpiece. On this floor, viewers will find the show’s pièce de résistance, a set of VR headsets tucked in a far corner of the space under a neon “Throne” sign.
At the risk of sounding like a complete Luddite, I must admit my experience with VR is limited at best, so Satterwhite’s visions served as my introduction to the technology. And what visions they are, as I was immersed into worlds populated by figures dancing and strong men flexing alongside Ent-like giants and skeletons. Satterwhite’s fascination with bygone pop culture is on full display, as I was treated to 360-degree dreamscapes recalling dystopian cyberpunk, old video games, and throwback CG animation reminiscent of cartoon series like Reboot.
There’s so much more to see and hear at Spirits Roaming on the Earth, which also comes with a companion book How lovly is me being as I am, co-edited by the exhibition’s curator Elizabeth Chodos. While the multisensory elements may initially draw you in, behind all the flash, erotic imagery, and pop culture references exists a tender, non-judgmental tribute to a mother who never saw her dreams realized, and a son who posthumously made them come true.
Spirits Roaming on the Earth. Continues through Dec. 5. Miller Institute for Contemporary Art. 5000 Forbes Ave., Oakland. Free. miller-ica.cmu.edu