“You enter into the piece without knowing who the body is. All you know is that it is grotesque.” Felandus Thames pursues the grotesque or, what he calls, “things that should never have been born.” The simultaneity of seductiveness and repulsiveness inextricably involved in any conceptualization of the grotesque permeates Thames’s oeuvre. Looking at images of medical traumas, and heavily influenced by Hans Bellmer’s “dolls,” Thames contemplates the possibilities inherent in the grotesque as well as the opportunities that archival sources offer to his artistic practice. He doesn’t simply mine the archive; he engages the narratives held within it, discovers fissures or erasures, and redefines significations through the insertion of another artist-funded narrative. The encounter he engenders is an undetermined one that allows for spectatorial wonder. It is, for all of its openness, however, a barbed encounter in which, no one remains innocent. His preoccupation with the grotesque ties artist, work, and spectator together into a collective pendulum that sways between the poles of seduction and repulsion or rather exposes the connectivity between them.
Thames consistently tests established racial categories by asking, “What is black?” The pedestrian notion that pigmentation denotes character, though based upon faulty premises, endures as a definition of race. It is part of the everyday logic of existence and thus, though it is a conception rather than a concrete substance, lends itself to Thames’s Duchampian handling of its everydayness. He transforms mundane racism into a notable phenomenon by placing it within the gallery. The pervasiveness of a narrative that attests to the existence of an authentic blackness, which persists in our contemporary moment, provides fodder for Thames’s visual investigations.
The notion of the commonplace not only finds itself in the content of Thames’s work, but also in its form. This is most manifest in his utilization of a pop aesthetic. He uses pared down, fragmented and repetitive forms as well as text types and materials that conjure contemporary commercialism. Photography is a central component of Thames’s work and, continuing his contemplation of the fragment, he exposes the incoherence of photographs, which pose as objective wholes possessing intrinsic truths. But, rather than the search for some imagined truth to be found within the photographic image, Thames uses them as a way of speaking about the postcolonial body as a “mined” cultural signifier. His “painterly exposition of photography [and] deep interest in spatial relationships,” reveals his formalist leanings. He works to activate spaces. Thames employs pop because of its inherent accessibility providing an opening into his works for the spectator.
Thames provides the means for us to enter his works by quoting the familiar. Still, through his processes of collage and assemblage, erasure and insertion, Thames edits the edit. In one instance, he removes Bert Williams’s face from a Vaudeville still. Williams’s performances explicitly tied blackness to buffoonery and Thames forces us to address the editorial rationale for Williams’ initial presence in the archival photo before we can commence contemplation of Thames’s act of deletion. Thus we become participants in the creation of meaning while any notion of stability in that meaning is consistently undermined.
Thames endeavors to create images that “compel you to look further” but, can looking truly serve as a means of knowing? Not entirely. By manipulating what can be seen, Thames’s artwork forestalls any intellectual closure that could be named “knowing.” Rather, he orchestrates an open space of exploration wherein each moment of knowing is thwarted by a new question.