Born Detroit, 1982 / BS, Eastern Michigan University; MFA, Cranbrook Academy of Art / Lives in Detroit
Tiff Massey is an artist whose explanations for her work often defy your overeducated readings. The recurring motifs of head-wearables and hair, for example, are not something the artist relates to Carrie Mae Weems, but rather Massey’s wide-ranging experiences of Detroit. After a few of these negated readings, you learn to keep inferences to yourself, rather than risk being corrected.
Massey wears many of her own pieces. Her Cranbrook Academy training as a metalsmith includes the craft of a fine jeweler. While out at Detroit galleries and in her signature videos for her 2015 Kresge Arts in Detroit fellowship and the Society of North American Goldsmiths, Massey can be seen wearing a large brass ring on her right hand. The ring looks a bit like an architectural model of a skyscraper. The Joe Louis fist and the Renaissance Center skyline—two metonyms for the city of Detroit—now dialogue with each other in my mind
This is the effect of Massey’s work. Scales jump, materials that are heavy and cold become liquid and abstract—bodies, sculptures, words, and adornment shift in sequence and significance. For instance—is a large woven piece more of a sculpture, or is it large jewelry, or clothing? This is the case for Mashoi Pathway I Part II (2017). The answer changes as one puts the piece on. Massey gestures you toward a mirror. A large swath of precision-cut leather is draped over your shoulders. The artifact exists somewhere between lace and body armor. You are surprised by the physical weightiness. In the reflection, the extent of patterning and the broad fit impart a formality. You square your shoulders.
All of these effects are calibrated by the artist. As Massey says of the weight of her metal objects and wearable pieces, “I want you to feel me.” Like her work, this statement vacillates from the physical to the colloquial use implying empathy or agreement (See Anthony Hamilton’s “Do You Feel Me?” or YB Keem’s “You Feel Me, N*gga?”). From physical material to the interpersonal, the work modulates between these two modes of ‘feels’. Whether planning a performance and weaving costumes, crafting bracelets, or designing a public sculpture, this interplay is a repeated operation in the artist’s practice, especially around embodiment and the gaze.
Her piece Ain’t No Future in Your Front (2017) consists of a mirrored face sculpted in relief with the 13 stripes and stars of the American flag. Placed amid the stars and stripes is also raised text in all capital letters reading “THIS IS NOT FOR YOU.” One could trace the lineage of this artwork to Jasper Johns and Glenn Ligon, but, like much of Massey’s work, it can also be read as an amalgamation of everyday urban space—an American flag, a mirror of the scale that could be encountered in a restaurant bathroom, text that could be a street sign or block lettered in the spirit of NO PARKING.
The confluence of the flag and text in the mirror of Ain’t No Future in Your Front is twofold. One imagines a subject of the sort that W.E.B. DuBois elucidated more than a century ago—the Black American as a person negated by American forms of citizenship and participation. The American flag is NOT FOR YOU if you are this subject, encountering this artwork and reflected in it. Alternatively, a viewer who regards the American flag as a neutral symbol of citizenship, one who recognizes the flag as symbol without being negated by it, still encounters the same message. “THIS IS NOT FOR YOU.” Seeing one’s own reflection and the sculpted pattern of a banal flag, one is rejected by the artwork. This artwork is NOT FOR YOU. The piece is then a negative, or double, of itself.
Massey’s work objectifies the double consciousness that DuBois unpacked in The Philadelphia Negro and Frantz Fanon explicated for a post-colonial world. Many of Massey’s works appear twice, changed in material or surface treatment. The seriality performs as a reflection or a negative. Massey’s titles are often highly coded and specific, becoming almost small performances of wordplay, in addition to how a piece may directly engage text in the art object.
Massey was educated and trained as a scientist before entering art school and learning the craft of metalwork. Don’t sleep on her. She’s currently working on a bracelet so large that it makes a public space you can walk through and a 1980s Cadillac that generates its own filmscript. In her own words, this is “finally some shit for us.”
V. Mitch McEwen, August 2017
Copyright 2017 Essay’d