Devin N. Morris: Assemblage Poetics
I first encountered Devin N. Morris’s work in 2019 as part of Soft Scrub, a group exhibition at The Luminary in St. Louis. The exhibition explored the nuance of Black domesticity through the Black male perspective. Immediately upon entering the gallery, I was drawn to the far right, where a carefully considered set of repurposed doors, windows, gates, and fences formed the exterior ruins of a home. Within the faux walls, chairs of varying sizes rested on carpet squares and freshly bloomed white lilies sat atop a worn copy of Richard Avedon and James Baldwin’s 1964 collaboration Nothing Personal.
Melancholy weighed heavily here: a window is shattered but covered by a small black curtain; in time, the lilies will die; the chairs, empty and facing each other, declare the absence of a family and echo an argument unseen. An elaborate, poetic tableau of reframed domestic materials, Then I Strained to Hear You Above the Noise Out There (2019), engaged many processes and themes that are still central to Morris’s practice today.
Rather than simply consigning collage to a medium, Morris utilizes it as a guiding concept in his practice. His installations, paintings, and works on paper feature found objects metamorphosed in context. When removed from its hinges and thrown to the street, a door loses its intended function. However, brought into the studio, worked on in fabric or paint, and juxtaposed against other objects, the door is given a new life while still signifying its past. Leaving his work vulnerable to the free association of viewers, Morris rearticulates quotidian life in the United States through poignant terms of affect and wonder, freeing his figures and scenes of the limitations imposed by popular readings of identity.
Morris was born in Edmondson Village, a predominantly Black neighborhood in Baltimore, Maryland. He grew up voraciously reading the novels of E. Lynn Harris. Depicting the lives of down-low, closeted Black men, Harris’s books introduced Morris to the lived experiences of queer people in large metropolitan areas. While attending Baltimore Polytechnic Institute, he fell in love with the nineteenth-century realism of Edith Wharton, the fast-paced thrillers of James Patterson, and the incisive wit of Truman Capote. In his early adult years, Morris developed a sensitivity to craft and writing through his work as a journalist and fashion enthusiast. With a desire to cultivate community, he began hosting a series of salons and dinner gatherings called “Social Sundays.” A diverse creative cohort of artists, writers, actors, mixologists, and others coalesced to discuss relevant social issues.
This community, coupled with his own will, pushed Morris to create 3 Dot Zine, a collaborative publishing platform featuring collage and writings on the concerns of Black and brown people. The success of 3 Dot Zine prompted a pivotal shift in Morris’s life and career. Following a tarot reading foretelling good fortune, Morris applied to Residencia São João, an artist residency in Rio de Janeiro. After six weeks in Brazil, he returned with a newfound understanding of his role as an artist and what making could be. Morris spent the next six months using unemployment checks to fund an art-making practice in a makeshift bedroom/studio, producing forty works and publishing the second issue of 3 Dot Zine: “Grey Areas.”
Eight years after the publication of “Grey Areas,” and nearly four years after first meeting Morris at the opening of Soft Scrub, I visited him in his studio at Studio Museum 127, where he currently is a 2022–23 artist in residence. Four months out from the residency’s culminating exhibition in November 2023, Morris was deep in making. He and a studio assistant glued wood veneer panels to the bottom half of a large wooden board covered in a grid of reusable Target bags painted purple. A painted empty bed covers the lower half of the grid; warm light stretches across the bed covers; a dented pillow implies the recent presence of a body. The fragments of a broken headboard frame the painting, drawing viewers into the scene. Titled A Little Above the Head (2023), the work reflects Morris’s interest in the “soul” of a space— a word echoing his devout Christian upbringing. Like in Felix González-Torres’s “Untitled” (billboard of an empty bed) (1991), upon its introduction to the public realm, the bedroom, a site of seclusion laden with personal memory, projects the intimacy and solitude traditionally resigned to privacy.
While such a connection to Gonzalez-Torres is not intentional on Morris’s behalf, the ethos of the late Cuban American artist’s practice is quite evident across Morris’s own. Speaking on Gonzalez-Torres, Morris states, “He helped me align with the idea of using these pretty things that you pick up from the ground. I love that his practice is participatory. I love that it references this forgotten era of wondrous loss, strange new concerns about life and death, and how much creativity is shifted by it.”
In recent months, Morris has been collecting several small, bright, multicolored plastic casings. Colloquially known as “trash cans,” these casings are used to store powdered drugs often laced with fentanyl. Morris’s intention with the containers is to mirror the flow of a brook, with the vials winding through the gallery space. Titled A Confident, Pretty Stream, this work draws a parallel between the natural and urban worlds, shifting the situational context of its central material. Morris is not interested in making a statement on morality. Instead, A Confident, Pretty Stream is a “signifier of the city’s morale,” directing our attention to the people and things “right under our feet” in Harlem.
Morris critically engages the outdoors as a multi-hyphenate relational site. With use for cruising, exercising, using drugs, and hosting community picnics, public space is a site out of bounds. It is also where the structural instabilities of society, particularly houselessness, are rendered visible. Morris alludes to this dissonance in Not in the Bible (2023): a figure, reminiscent of Morris himself, opens a door buttressed by a tree made of real bark. The figure steps through a portal that takes him from a neighborhood sidewalk to an impressionistic landscape where he finds another man sleeping. For the central figures of this work, although beauty and wonder abound, home is hard to access.
This compression of space is of considered importance to Morris who, for the culminating exhibition of his Studio Museum residency, And ever an edge, seeks to engender the marvelous expanse and ecstatic possibilities of the outdoors within the compressed space of a gallery. To this end, Morris has several sculptural works collectively known as “High Grasses” (2023). Consisting of large reed-like rods sprouting from a wooden base covered in vintage vinyl flooring, the various “High Grasses” extend five to six feet into the air. Each blade is topped with objects, whether a doorknob or painted foam, that evoke the form of a flower. Contiguously installed throughout the gallery, with A Confident, Pretty Stream running throughout, they suffuse the subjective nature of the paintings, making them not simple addendums to the installation but living inhabitants of the environment.
When asked about artists and writers of recent interest, the sculptures of Anne Truitt loomed large. “She has a piece at the Baltimore Museum of Art that is a white picket fence of just three wood slacks. When I was looking at it, I was like ‘Oh! That’s the thing!’ That’s the American thing in so many ways. It’s like a painting. She’s literally a sculptor yet considered a painter. I just love games like that.” Truitt’s work, titled First (1961), is less austere than what is typically known as “Minimalism.” The work’s subtlety is stark but deeply nuanced. Its rigid yet familiar form embodies her mental and emotional disposition as a mother, wife, sister, and working artist. While Morris rejects any sort of Minimalist impulse, like Truitt, he transmutes familiar objects, breathing a subjective spirit into them. Each encounter with his work is an act of communion. The purpose of the object—whether a door, sign, window, or weave— never reveals itself in the taking, but in its making endlessly reshapes itself.
Flipping through a notebook, Morris stops on a page with an ink sketch of a door. It will be the newest addition to a series of sculptures Morris has been making for the last two years. Found doors dressed in their Sunday’s best, the works stand with a distinct humanity. “They’re a family,” Morris says. The drawing features a lit wick at the top. Morris explains that this work will be a candle, cast from a real door and hung from the ceiling. I imagine its translucence, its fragility, and seeming weightlessness—a ghost holding onto a memory of itself.
I love that it references this forgotten era of wondrous loss, strange new concerns about life and death, and how much creativity is shifted by it.