In Come Again, two russet brown lines bifurcate the image of a man, extending from top to bottom of the photograph and cropping the man’s face at his left jaw. Visually, these wax lines function as compositional elements, breaking up the picture and introducing a new third dimensional plane. Yet these vertical elements also work to conceal. Shadowing both cheek and chest, these dual streaks obstruct our capacity to fully perceive this image. Alanna Fields’ recent body of work continues her engagement with appropriated vintage photographs, culled from sources that include the deep, digital trove that is eBay. With colored wax, Fields variously blocks and lines the mounted images, joining other artists and scholars who intervene upon the archive to reimagine our relationship with marginalized queer Black subjects from the past. In orchestrating color and line at increasingly varied levels of width and opacity, Fields’ new collages both restrict the viewer’s gaze and pointedly direct and draw it forward in exciting, generative new ways.
In Still Ain’t Studdin’ You (2020), a besuited man sits comfortably on a patterned ochre couch, his right hand fondling a cigarette. This time, it’s a mustard stripe of wax proceeding down the image, partially obscuring the subject’s face and a good portion of his body too. The wax covers more than a third of the overall composition, preventing us from seeing his facial expressions or any other
details of his comportment. These maneuvers recall a larger project of refusal that conceptual artists such as Carrie Mae Weems and Lorna Simpson have carried out, all recognizing the specific vulnerabilities Black (and
especially Black queer) subjects face in their resuscitation during archival (re)discovery. In Miss Elijah (2020), the yellow wax line is thin and thus not particularly impeding by itself. Instead, cropping the photograph below
the head and shoulders is what sharply interrupts our view of the figure. A gaze summarily refused.
Yet, other images in this series prove that this is not simply a project of protection or refusal. We can see this body of work as more vulnerable, perhaps even more forward. In Take Me With You (2020), for example, a thick, completely opaque, powder-blue block cuts across the image’s entire width, thus obstructing the information beneath it. But here Fields chooses to cover the chest, not the face, leaving us a clear view of a proximate bust—the man’s shoulders, and especially his face. The effect is one of distinct illumination. Our eyes are further drawn to his through the wax’s fragmentation of the compositional plane and tonal contrast with the image itself. We meet his gaze with an increasing intensity. We can understand these wax interventions as accomplishing surprisingly wide conceptual work: variously functioning as tools of refrain and pronunciation. A work like Crushed Velvet (2020) reads as playing with this dual capacity. Here, Fields duplicates the
image of a stylish, afro-coiffed, and bejeweled sitter—the one on the right covered in wax, the one on the left uncovered. The same composition undoes any refuge from the viewer’s gaze; this “protective” wax is precisely what crops and frames the man in the end.
Across the series, this wax placement often isolates and highlights both whole individuals and specific, significant gestures. Come Live With Me Angel (2020) replicates the seductive, reclining figure from Crushed Velvet in quadruplicate. An auburn-colored wax overlays the far right and left panels, but the two completely unwaxed center panels render their disguise more or less moot. Distinctly colored though thinly applied, the wax calls attention to individual aspects of his demeanor: a confident, curled wrist, a strong yet relaxed left-hand grip. This draws us closer
to details of the images we may have missed from another view.
Returning to Miss Elijah, we can understand Fields’ wax line and image crop both as means of protection and revelation, emphasizing elegant fingers and nails at one’s hips, or the sliver of a bare belly, brushed by a top’s loose threads. The streak in Come Again cuts the cheek but importantly outlines and highlights the lips too, sharpening their beauty and all they symbolize. Revisiting Still Ain’t Studdin’ You, we see that obscuring the man’s face and suit also offers a distinct clarity to the handling of his cigarette.
Such is the “audacity” that Fields names as the aim of her project: queer men delighting in the particularities that define themselves and their communities despite efforts to quell or erase them, in life and archive alike. Fields’ additional use of mica gold glitter in particular—celebratory and glistening—announces her intent most pointedly: there is joy in the archive and in one’s engagement with it. The artist can help us visualize the gleam.
Ashley James is associate curator of contemporary art at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York City. She holds a PhD from Yale University in English Literature and African American Studies.
Alanna Fields lives in Harlem, New York, and completed her residency at Light Work in February 2020.