New York artist Melvin “Grave” Guzman enjoys walking. He spends most of his day walking the streets of the Lower East Side, picking up things and chatting with people along the way. This daily ritual is a fundamental part of the Harlem-born artist's craft. Using the things he comes across in the cluttered streets of New York, Guzman creates art that takes on many forms — sculpture, performance, visual. It could be a discarded store-sign, a broken clock on a curb, a withered Casper mattress box, a MoMA store bag, or a fruit vendor making an acute expression that catches his eye. The city's streets are more than just a grid of pavement holding the city together, but a rich reservoir of creativity, community, and hustle.
It was on the street where Guzman met the people that would go on to get his work into a gallery. It was on the street where he came of age. It was on the street where he developed his voice and craft. Through his art, he seeks to celebrate this by “taking the street into the art world to showcase and put it on a pedestal,” he says. Recently, this has manifested through a new body of work, a series of mask-like sculptures crafted with found materials that paint a portrait of today.
Using a lemon squeezer for a nose and the lens of a point-in-shoot camera as an eye, these abstracted faces are comprised of discarded items from our homes, our workplaces, the stores we shop at. “These masks are like selfies. [Representing] different personalities, different powers and different characteristics. Each one is different,” says Guzman.
The masks — littered with things like trendy coffee labels, advertisements, news headlines — provide commentary on how we consume, interact, and even use social media in 2019. Yet, simultaneously, they foster a hint of nostalgia, for when the city was raw, and the do-it-yourself mentality that Guzman’s work posses was a necessity of survival.
Last week, he debuted his masks during a one-night-only event titled “Slim Pickings" which was hosted at 22 Ludlow gallery. Highsnobiety recently spoke with the artist about the streets, his craft, and the beauty of the everyday. Scroll down for the full conversation.
Where are you from and how has your background shaped the art you are making?
I'm a Latin kid from Sugar Hill. I feel like Harlem has shaped me in many ways because it's given me this street savviness. Coming up, it was like the Wild West — graffitied-up buildings, broken doors. Those instances of me growing up have really shaped my taste for this kind of grittiness. When I am making my art now, I look for that grittiness. I look for those textures that remind me of [Harlem]. I connect with them because I was surrounded by them all my life. I remember, as a kid, playing basketball on the side of this building and dunking on the mini court and shattering the door glass and cutting my arm. Those kinds of moments are the things I romanticize in my art.
Most of your work is crafted from found materials. Why is this your medium of choice?
I feel like those things have a lot of power because of the [history] they have. That's why I like to find things in the street to work with, because they come from people's households – things that people no longer use or want. They probably used this TV to watch so many shows... How many fights they've had and that TV has been there, soaking up all that energy.
While those disregarded items hold history, they also say a lot about what’s happening in the present.
The pieces that I am taking from the [street] are like relics from this day and age. This is what is going on now and I am saving it for the future because everything is so ever-changing and nothing is everlasting. That's one of my new things – Grave saves. I am expanding my collection and these things that I am hoarding [are going] into people's homes, collections, and museums. I felt they should be romanticized, looked at, and celebrated. I'm so passionate about the streets, and how I can save these bits and parts and pieces of it.
I'm in the streets most of the time, walking around. I feel like I am so connected to it. I feel like the only way I can save what's going on is by taking these things. Sometimes you have permission and sometimes you don't. I'm taking these monoliths that are very cultural, trendy, [and am] using these trends, labels, and brand names to digest the culture. How are we shopping and what are our habits; asking questions and not accepting things because they are fed to us on the screen.
With your new mask work, you provide commentary on trends, brands, and culture. Can you elaborate on this new body of work and the process behind it?
The mask is a way of building alternate personalities. In this day and age we have so many different personalities – we have these different kinds of presences, [like] a social presence. People post their favorite photos of themselves [...], they are going to present the best version of themselves. These masks are like selfies [representing] different personalities, powers, and characteristics. Each one is different.
I think that sculpture is a different kind of design – I was looking into that a lot. I was inspired by the Partners in Design with Alfred Barr and Philip Johnson, who were into this Bauhaus minimalistic design. This is about design, and showing a new way of saying the same thing, and having the opportunity for the people to be able to interact with the work and walk around it. That is a different way of viewing art than looking at a painting on the wall.
Do the objects and images on the mask illustrate these different personalities?
They speak to the identity of [each mask], even the way it looks. One of my favorite ones is the Makita. He has this red drip of paint where the nose is. That is one of his characteristics; he suffers from a constant bloody nose. People don't post those kinds of things about themselves. It's kind of speaking to the social media way of personifying yourself and how people do it so creatively now.
How did walking the streets become a source of inspiration for you?
It was just like getting out of work and hanging out. It was walking the streets but at a different time, for different reasons. Now I walk the streets because I am looking... well, not looking for things, but living and experiencing it. Before, it was like, I got out of work, I just gave an establishment nine hours of my day, now I need to find something to do that is kind of fun and not go straight home. I started walking around and seeing things, seeing how the people were speaking through stickers and through graffiti and through clothing and dressing. Finding a similar crowd of people that I could connect with that are into the same things that I am into and building friendships and bonds.
Fast-forward 10 years [and] I am in a gallery in the place I worked, because I was in those streets and I met people that got me [the] space, which not a lot of people have. Because I've been able to expand my horizons, the world can see my stuff in a public place, and people are recognizing and seeing it. That's the best thing for the art, to be shown.
When you go out exploring the streets, are you thinking about what you plan to craft beforehand?
That comes after. That comes with [seeing what the items] I collected are saying to me; I use that to say what I want to say. It's my way of writing a poem, or writing a journal entry. A modern-day flaneur. That's what I do, I see what people are doing, what people are saying through the expression of clothing [and] all kinds of expressions [...] — of human life and everyday life. That's one of the things that I enjoy the most, the everyday life.
You are constantly working in many different mediums, from 2D to sculptures and experimental performance art – you even have a band. You seem eager to express yourself in any way you can.
I enjoy making art, and making art in new ways. If you do it the same way, it becomes stagnant and plateaus. That's why I [create] performance art and experimental art.
What's next for you?
I want to do a full-on theater production, very abstracted with costumes, and to keep building on the masks and create an army.