Texas artist Troy Montes Michie was born in El Paso, which left a deep impression on this queer 37-year-old man. Those formative years resonate in nearly every aspect of his reflective creations, some of which are now on display at the Contemporary Art Museum Houston (CAMH) through January 29, 2023.
Visitors can expect to be enveloped in items of clothing, collages, drawings, sewing patterns, and sculptures—many portraying the contours of the masculine body. Both visually stunning and socially disquieting, anyone who enjoys the epiphanies contemporary art can offer will want to see this exhibit.
Using an array of media, Montes Michie meshes Black consciousness and Latinx heritage with a queer artist’s candor. Through his use of textiles—including military camouflage material—the artist explores the ways in which the bodies of marginalized people can be erased, fetishized, and even criminalized.
“I think [my point of view] came from an interest in the amalgamation of cultures in my childhood,” Montes Michie reflects.
“A huge part of my work includes camouflage; I grew up seeing camouflage my whole life. When I first left El Paso, I didn’t realize how different my upbringing was in this highly militarized zone with the presence of Fort Bliss, the border, and border patrol. When I was in Connecticut, I was shocked at how quickly you could get to other states. I was like, ‘Where’s the checkpoint where they ask us if we’re Americans?’” he recalls.
Another recurring theme in Montes Michie’s work is the all-American zoot suit. This pre-World War II icon of men’s clothing is a natural choice for inclusion, as it, too, is an amalgam of 1930s urban cultures. Style-conscious ethnic youth of that era began wearing loose-fitting suits that drew attention to their dance moves while allowing for physical expression. The pants were baggy and the jackets extremely long, with heavily padded shoulders and wide lapels. Accessories usually included draped watch chains and hats ranging from porkpie hats to sombreros.
The suit soon became a symbol of marginalized Americans. In June 1943, what is now called the Zoot Suit Riots took place in Los Angeles. A violent clash erupted as US military men, police officers, and regular citizens brawled with Mexican American, Black American, and Filipino American youth. Many of the riot’s victims wore zoot suits, but news accounts reveal that the conflict was motivated by racial tensions rather than fashion.
“I think the first time I encountered the zoot suit was in El Paso. It was prominent with lowrider culture. Certain friends and family members that would go to quinceañeras would be wearing a zoot suit. Today, it’s a suit made for a special occasion,” Montes Michie explained with a smile.
CAMH visitors will see the iconic suit appear in several forms. A collage may include a sample of zoot suit cloth, a drawing of the suit’s drape against the body, and an erotic pose illustrating its appeal to the youth who wore it.
Much of Montes Michie’s expressions are confrontational—old juxtaposed with new, soft with hard, pleasant with disturbing. Utilizing published materials ranging from ordinary newspapers to pornography, Montes Michie subverts comfortable narratives by placing them in conflict.
The exhibit’s title, Rock of Eye (or Rock of the Eye) is an expression used by tailors as far back as the 1800s. It means “to be guided by the eye” (rather than by precise measurements) and creating clothing using intuition, observation, and experience. In this case, Montes Michie stitches stories together for the viewer through his “rock of the eye.”
“When I was young, I was interested in erotic men’s magazines from the ’70s and ’80s [that featured] predominantly white men. Then I discovered other magazines that featured men of color, [but they were] very stereotypical. I wanted to do something where it was a gesture to break their static placement throughout history,” Montes Michie explains.
This artist from a dusty corner of West Texas has garnered much attention in the art world. He holds a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree from the University of Texas at El Paso and a master’s degree from the Yale School of Art in Connecticut. His works have been included in exhibitions in Belfast, Northern Ireland, and The Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City, to name only a few. He is currently a lecturer on the visual arts at Princeton University.
CAMH, located in Houston’s Museum District on the south end of Montrose Blvd., has a mission to present extraordinary, thought-provoking arts programming and exhibitions to educate and inspire audiences. Admission to the museum is always free.
What: Rock of Eye: The Vision of Troy Montes Michie art exhibit
When: Through January 29, 2023
Where: Contemporary Arts Museum Houston
Info: 713-284-8250 or www.camh.org