The notion that great art comes from great pain is an adage touted by some, but this rather unhealthy approach to art-making is actually, quite wrong. Pain isn’t a necessary component to extraordinary art, but the ability to be vulnerable - to open yourself up to trauma, to invite strife for the sake of something extraordinary - that’s a risk that truly great artists are often willing to take. October’s cohort of Fountainhead artists - Shatha Al Deghady, James Allister Sprang, and Matthew Morrocco - were joined together under this singular theme. Their willingness to explore suffering or discomfort, taking those emotions and interpreting them into work that becomes universal in its specificity, is a synergy forged among this talented group of young artists.
“They’re all from a very different perspective,” says Fountainhead director Kathryn Mikesell, “but they’re each bringing a sensitivity and connection to their work. It’s about being present.”
Each artist’s work has a visible element of tenderness, driven by human emotion and often difficult to separate from their own experience. That’s certainly true for Sprang, whose work examines the experience of being black against the loss of his own father, utilizing concrete as a prime material for this exploration. A Miami native who was inspired to make art at the behest of his father - only to witness his death firsthand when he was just 12 years old - Sprang credits another mentor with the evolution of his process. “When I was coming into my body, there was a man [Fernando Cazadilla] instructing me to consider my body as a material,” says Sprang. “That’s been a folcrum for what I do.”
Working with a variety of medium - painting, sculpture, performance, assemblage, and sound are all present within Sprang’s oeuvre - his process is often archival in a sense, more documentary than boisterously in your face. “I’m either very present or very asbent in the work,” he notes, explaining his alter-ego GAZR - a poet-turned-rapper that regularly makes appearances among New York’s experimental theater set- while reconciling Concrete Color Arrangements (2017), a work in which Sprang dyes, molds, steps on and arranges slabs of concrete in abstract patterns, then photographs the refuse from an overhead perspective as an ode to ancient burial rituals and a symbol of black labor in America.
Back in Miami for a residency at the Fountainhead - Sprang is currently based in Philadelphia - Sprang was inspired by Miami’s vibrantly diverse landscape in formulating new work. Creating text-based paintings that hide poems within their coded facade, while additionally revisiting the site of his father’s death, Sprang’s body of work at Fountainhead is inspired by the “types of code switching he did in Miami, and how it compares to Philly,” he says.
This idea of ‘code switching’ - deftly traversing between two languages - resonated with Morrocco, who feels as though his practice is often viewed through a myopic lens. “Because my previous work showed pictures of me with older gay men, I was always cast as a gay photographer,” says Morrocco. “While I’m not opposed to that, as a queer person I’m always being forced into a conversation on queerness, which is fine, but it often prevents me from entering politics, economics, and science. I feel like my voice is stilted.”
Morrocco’s photographs often portray a quiet sensuality, lending a compassionate, loving eye to ‘undesirable’ nude bodies. One particular series, ‘Complicit,’ was lauded for its portrayal of Morrocco locked in intimate moments with older men. But for the photographer, the work wasn’t about the kiss; it was about his subject’s age. “I’m not trying to hide my gayness, what I’m trying to push forward is ideas of politics of economy and science, that serve as a conceptual grounding for work so I can be heard in those spaces,” he says.
In Miami, Morrocco built upon “Orchid:RGB,” a work in which the artist donned a bodysuit and posed before a gradient backdrop, alluding to Color Field pioneer Ellsworth Kelly’s closeted sexuality and nodding to a form of cryptocurrency that allows one to surf the internet unseen. “The work I’m making is about becoming an abstraction,” he says, “wherein if you’re good at expressing yourself you become the abstraction.” Between a daily ritual of driving to Weston for horseback riding lessons (Morrocco took up the sport on the suggestion of a local collector) Morrocco would take photographs in the Everglades.
“The whole history of photography in America is tied into the history of nation building and establishing an identity,” says Morrocco. “In the 1860s, people like Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln sat for photos intentionally to perpetuate their ideas. I think the Everglades are an important part of the American landscape, but I’m also interested in exploring the social factors that would make a person want to be unseen.”
Al Dhegady, on the other hand, was working diligently to make sure that her subject’s traumas were, in fact, seen. Though the artist had originally intended to make work with street signs, she settled on a project that’s both intimate and cathartic for the participant. "What Fills the Gap" links the healing process of emotional traumas and the physical healing process of wounds to represent an individual's life experience, aiming to simplify life to one of existence rather than suffering.
Asking new Miami acquaintances to tell a story of trauma, then imprinting their belly button with clay and creating a grid-like wall hanging, Al Dhegady intentionally set out to capture their trauma in a single object.
“This project is about how traumas control our lives, and the way we talk about fear is a big part of it,” she says. “So to cross that fear changes you and puts you in a better place somehow. I usually think that if you see the problem, you don’t actually have to solve it. Instead, you’re giving a signal to your brain to focus on it, and you make progress faster.”
In this project, Al Dhegady also aimed to link the trauma humans face to the trauma they are causing on their own environment. Affixing found wood and other ephemera to each belly button casting, Al Deghady is commenting on how human existence contributes to the decay of the planet.
Al Dhegady’s experience at Fountainhead was particularly unique, as the artist arrived between two different cohorts. “Usually when I go somewhere I like to make families,” she says, “and I was very lucky to be with Guy and ML and later, James and Matthew.”
As a group, Al Dhegady, Sprang, and Morrocco developed their own contemplative processes. Morrocco would wake at sunrise to ride horses, a practice he says ‘made him much more emotive.’ Sprang, meanwhile, focused on developing a more meditative process, grounding himself and his thoughts. Al Dhegady spent the majority of her time outside with Miami’s tropical flora.
They also reflected on how being at the Fountainhead residency has changed their perspective. "This experience has really changed me," says Morrocco. "I've become more senistive, more social; I thought I was a lone wolf, but perhaps maybe I'm not." Sprang, in turn, feels that his practice might become more contemplative after his month-long stay. "Learning to be more meditative, being centered; these are all things I'll take with me," he notes. "I am usually quite shy, but developing this project at the Fountainhead allowed me to open up to people, and I think that's something I'm going to be more mindful of now," says Al Dhegady.
With the IKT International Association of Curators of Contemporary Art conference headed to Miami in April 2019, the artists were also fortunate to have 25 international curators visiting the city, and the group spent some time with this month’s Fountainhead artists. “You don’t know what you don’t know, so when other people look at your work and tell you what they see, its essential,” says Morrocco.
Allowing whatever comes their way to infiltrate and mold their process and their practice, Morrocco, Al Dhegady and Sprang proved what we already know about great artists. Vulnerability is an excellent measure of courage, as an artist or as an individual, and making themselves vulnerable in their work is the catalyst for truly profound art.
Written by Nicole Martinez of Culture Conductor