When he was 7 years old, Angelbert Metoyer had his first art show in his father’s office.
His father had adorned his office walls with a collection of his son’s drawings and invited his colleagues in to appreciate the artwork and purchase their favorite pieces. It was a simple gesture he arranged to help Metoyer earn money to buy his mother a special gift for Mother’s Day, but an influential moment that led Metoyer to the epiphany that he could create for a living.
“I found out later that he gave everyone $5 to come buy my work,” laughs Metoyer. “I don’t know why he did it, but it changed everything for me. He taught me that I could live off my mind, my effort, and the things I feel and believe. He brought another layer to it.”
The Houston-born artist’s career took off after his first official solo exhibition in 1994, when he was just 17, at Rick Lowe’s Project Row Houses, a community-based arts and culture nonprofit in Houston’s northern Third Ward. Since then, Metoyer’s work has been prominently displayed in exhibitions around the world, in places such as Paris, Lima, Venice and Shanghai. Art critics agree his work offers profound artistic commentary on the human experience.
Metoyer, however, doesn’t call himself an artist.
“Art is the way I engage with who I am through a human act,” says Metoyer.
Creating, he says, is his religion; it’s where his passion lies. His patient pursuit to understand his work is his doctrine.
“If all of your passion goes into what you’re doing, that is your religion; and if you don’t recognize that, it becomes your obsession,” Metoyer says. “Obsession is subconscious, while passion is more intellectual. My art doesn’t come from painting every day, but rather, what I’m experiencing while I’m painting. My thoughts create all these little images that soon connect to offer new understandings.”
The “little images” add an incredible amount of detail and depth to his finished artwork. Some pieces have equations scribbled on the edges; others layer glittering gold dust between sheets of glass. Much larger sculptures arrange tchotchkes from Metoyer’s past next to cultural totems, and splashes of color or chunks of charcoal draw attention and bring new meaning to otherwise simple objects.
“It’s just like a human body,” says Metoyer, explaining the complexity of each piece. “All of your interests are stored in a small space above your eyes, and the volume of electricity your brain produces is overwhelming. All of my thoughts and interests make up what I am and what I create.”
Metoyer’s ideas about religion, philosophy, quantum physics and astronomy color the walls and floor of the John L. Warfield Center for African and African American Studies’ Christian- Green Gallery, in an exhibit on display through the fall semester: Wrestling History: Points Along a Journey of Dis/covery Hidden in the Temple, curated by Rice University religious studies professor Anthony B. Pinn.
“The theme is transformation on both the individual and collective level. It’s about identity formation and processes of transformation,” says Pinn, who met Metoyer at an exhibit in Houston a few years ago. “It encourages people to wrestle with certain questions about identity, history and race in a way that words fail us.”
In 2015, Metoyer was invited by the Warfield Center to mount a solo exhibition in the Christian- Green Gallery — which opened in February 2016 — and participate in an eight-week residency program during the summer. Metoyer’s work is the second exhibition featured in the space and has been on display since May.
During his summer residency, Metoyer was able to use an on-campus studio and university resources to further his creative practice. He worked with students and recent graduates to photo-document his time in the studio, which Metoyer plans to culminate into a unique art piece in the form of a book.
“The Christian- Green Gallery is a space for creativity and social expression,” says Lise Ragbir, director of the Warfield Center Galleries. “It is a space where visitors are encouraged to contemplate notions of social justice, identity and collective memory. Angelbert’s bold work accomplishes this. It’s not often art, math, science and religion are used in an interpretation of social history.”
All of the works displayed in the exhibition have been loaned from generous art collectors in Houston and Austin, apart from one piece that Metoyer created for the gallery, titled Untitled 123 and 4. The work, he says, is a reflection of his thoughts about landing and producing in a new environment. It’s a message about reflection, which is symbolized through his use of 3-dimensional space, cultural imagery and mirror-printed photographs. It now hangs in the corner of the exhibit, drawing visitors in with its vivid hues and unique use of materials and space.
Pinn, who plans to include a chapter on Metoyer in a forthcoming book that explores the “quest for complex subjectivity” as a black religious impulse, was struck by Metoyer’s philosophy of art and life, how his art challenges viewers to recognize and engage with the tensions in life, to be comfortable with discomfort.
“I find in general his technique and philosophy compelling,” Pinn says. “There isn’t a particular piece that speaks more profoundly than others. Each piece deals with notions of identity and history in their own way. They are compelling in light of what they bring to that conversation.”
The message, Metoyer says, can be found in the materials he uses. He works across all mediums – drawing, painting, sculpture, performance, and video and sound art. While his use of multiple mediums makes his work interesting, the way he combines them makes it captivating.
Simple objects become heavy with themes of waste and destruction when covered with gold dust or charcoal, materials he describes as “excrements of industry.” Other objects, such as African figurines, become spiritually symbolic when dipped in Metoyer’s unique indigo pigment, which he says is representative of the sky and religion, as well as ancestral memory. He began using indigo as a child because he was told it was one of the crops his historically Creole family grew.
“But now I’m adapting an indigenous pigment and giving it my own meaning. It’s been an experiment making it my own, mixing a blend of materials. I find meaning in the formula,” Metoyer says. “If the medium is the message, then create the medium.”
He chooses his materials based on images, thoughts and objects that “strike” him, noticing that if it evokes an emotion, it’s worth exploring why. Metoyer says he looks for things that have their own potency, or a meaning he can learn and build on.
His collection of materials — or his “research”— is available at his fingertips during his studio practice, which he refers to as an “undisturbed incubation.” Metoyer’s process is simple:
“If I’m thinking about something as I’m pouring paint, that’s what’s going into it. I’m not trying to make something. I’m not doing anything but waiting and tending to what I’ve already created,” he says.
It’s “tending” as one would do in a garden, he explains. Each piece takes time, thought and care. Nothing goes to waste —pieces that don’t turn out are recycled into new works.
“I go into my space, and I tend to it — water it, paint it, glue drawings down, until I slowly build this garden and plant possible compositions in place,” Metoyer says. “I’m strategic in how I use it because I am thinking about the end result.”
He’s quick to add that he doesn’t overthink the end result; rather, he allows his thoughts to guide him. Metoyer’s artwork teaches viewers as much about the human experience as it teaches him about his “personal dwell,” his physical and thoughtful presence inside of his studio space.
“Sometimes you see things and you’re not ready to understand it. It’s your brain processing something that it cannot add to your reality,” he says. “I’m working beyond the physical place, and my images begin to converse in different ways. Then I wait to understand.”