Phantom Limb is a solo exhibition of recent works by Ceaphas Stubbs, a New Jersey-based artist who collapses photography, sculpture, and collage into a singular process that yields hyper-layered 2D prints from 3D dioramic still lifes. The exhibition marks the culmination of his six-month residency at the Paul Robeson Galleries at Express Newark, a community collaboratory that encourages innovation, collaboration, and experimentation. These perception-defying photographs both conjure and resist the sex appeal of advanced imaging technology, marrying analog and digital processes to produce imagery that is simultaneously nostalgic and afro-futuristic. Stubbs’s eclectic and erotic ecosystems—which he fashions from repurposed detritus and ephemera such as fabric scraps, adult magazines, and found objects—unleash symptoms of yearning in their viewers that can be likened to those of phantom limb pain. In this otherworldly exhibition, Stubbs navigates the innate tension between desire and pain, and unpacks the phenomenology of loss by giving visual language to the persistent tingling, itching, burning, and aching that accompany want.
His creative process is an experiment in itself, a performance that tests the understood limits of photography, perception, and patience. First, Stubbs sets about scavenging materials, which often hold traces of intimacy yet embody only a fraction of a greater whole—colorful, patterned swatches that belong to a larger garment; scenes clipped from photographs rooted in someone else’s memories; and limbs dismembered from sex acts depicted in pornographic magazines. These are then refigured, suspended, anchored, or overlaid into parallel universes using string and wire affixed to a wooden armature. In a final gesture, Stubbs places this armature against a vibrant and textural backdrop, and photographs the tableau to generate a single image, where only shadows remain as remnants of his trace, and the multi-step process.
These flat yet loaded prints toy with viewers’ perception and orientation by eroding the distinction between background and foreground, gravity and anti-gravity. The longer one spends falling head over heels into these works, the more existential questions arise. How can we comprehend desire for something we never in fact held? Do the social and cultural constructs of trauma engender collective suffering? And if life is pain, and love is desire, then what is death? Are we all fated to live, love, and die as masochists? In this meditative space, the works themselves somehow come to embody an expression of deep loss, as dimensions evaporate in the translation from worldly context to artistic studio, kinetic sculpture to static photograph, and static photograph to the wandering eye. However—as with the scientifically inexplicable sensations associated with phantom limbs—even these voids generate unfathomable dimensions and rearticulated relationships in their wake.
Many of Stubbs’s works achieve a delicate alchemy of love and loss, and at times fuse these elements together to summon the heartbreak and rage of unrequited love. In . . .A Touch Here, A Tickle There. . .The Full Lengths of The Bodies Pressed. . . (2018), a hand reaches out, grasping at what appears to be a literal and a metaphorical straw, while nearby backs and necks—arched in ecstasy—never seem to quite connect. In his statement, Stubbs expounds, “First, losing the physical contact of a lover. Eventually most people accept the relationship ending and find ways to move on. That is until we have reason to hope again. The fragmented bodies become the catalyst for hope.”1 Perhaps it is this belief in something beyond the other side of sorrow—be it independence, reconciliation, or acceptance—that allows us to shed the pains that haunt and moor us, and ascend into a vast and limitless future love.
If French is the language of love—and love is central to how we perceive ourselves in the world—then let’s turn to the revolutionary French philosopher and writer Frantz Fanon to comprehend this cosmic romance between hope and reason, the mind and the body. He writes “I am black; I am in total fusion with the world, in sympathetic affinity with the earth, losing my id in the heart of the cosmos [. . .] I am black, not because of a curse, but because my skin has been able to capture all the cosmic effluvia.”2 Here, black magic and black excellence are embodied, and blackness becomes another form of gravity. In works like . . .Stripped of Everything. . .Waiting to be Drained Again. . . (2018), Stubbs suspends a torso amidst a galaxy of stellar debris like a resilient, black star unmoored from the fate of an event horizon and surrounded by a galactic luminescence of its own creation.
Stubbs weaves this push and pull between fantasy and reality through the titling of his works to drive home these underlying tensions: . . .Disappearing Act. . . (2018);. . .His Eyelids Fluttered Down. . .His Heart Floated Away. . . (2018); . . .Easy Come, Easy Go. . . (2018); and . . .To Heal the Troubled Mind. . .The Center Must be Found. . . (2018) to name a few. Stubbs’s poignant use of ellipses subverts the conventions of linear narrative, and instead imagines alternate and orbital endings that leave space for the viewer to transcend their own realities, slip through the trap doors of memory, and revel in the space of infinite possibility that seems only achievable in dreams. In the worlds Stubbs creates, these are wet dreams, where Black intimacy drips from every object and surface. What Stubbs achieves in these strikingly liberated and devastatingly distant worlds is a prototype for living with desire, dismantling the trope of hyper-sexualized black bodies, and inviting unabashed, orgiastic, and radical love to join us down here on earth.
From a conversation with the artist, Friday, July 13, 2018.
Frantz Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks, New York: Grove Atlantic, 1994.