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Cyle Warner: Weh Dem? De Sparrow Catcher?

Jun 05, 2023

Brooklyn-based artist Cyle Warner never met his great grandfather, who started moving their family from Trinidad to Brooklyn in 1962. Warner interweaves photography with textiles in his debut exhibition “Weh Dem? De Sparrow Catcher?” at Welancora Gallery in Bed-Stuy. Some works cascade from empty frames in draped fabrics of diverse textures, like gruff burlap and linen with flower appliqués, even the iridescent polyester of a curtain, grommets intact. Warner sources materials from his family’s archive of textiles, sometimes recycling previous artworks. In other instances the works are smaller, more densely woven. Interspersed throughout are photos from Warner’s family history, printed on jacquard his godmother offered.

Two patchworks of fabrics varying in hue and texture and woven in collaged layers across a stretcher stand nearly two meters tall atop minimalist square risers. Together a vessel a jam slow and not mi mudda's but a mudda's home (both 2023) anchor the exhibition’s first room on the first floor of a stately brownstone featuring a mirror that reflects The True Sovereign and Mighty Jaguar, also both from 2023, across the way. The fabric falling in elegant torrents from their frames animates these works with the illusion of waltzing about a family function, and leaving a charged negative atmosphere that gives them breath. Loose threads hang from them, easily swaying beneath the gallery’s wooden ceiling fan.

Warner has sourced materials from his family archive ever since taking up this manner of working. Now he honors clothes in a new way, making art instead from the stores of fabric that his mother and grandmother have amassed as textile collectors. But Warner’s family archives hold photographs, too, equally punctuating the exhibition. A photograph titled After Sunday's Pelau (2023) is another standout in that first room. At first it’s obviously the scene of a family dinner—until the next moment, where Warner’s digitally conceptualized and hand-crafted alterations start to appear. Comparatively minute Hahnemuhle prints of landscapes hand-collaged in the same manner accompany the larger works, resolving into view just moments after that dramatic first look.

The concept advancing Warner’s approach evolved a few years ago, when he devised the driving notion of “dis,” his invented methodology for organizing and assessing the past. Warner ultimately developed eight principles to underpin “dis”: space, place, time, and distance; then rhizomatic entanglements: infinity, family, knowing/unknowing. All those forces organize across his gallery debut as plot devices that materialize with yet further examination of the show. The jacquard outlines of scenery in taupe, forest green, and ecru hues are imprints of false memories. They echo throughout, so difficult to place that they feel surreal to recognize. An actual photo embedded behind a sheer veil on a vessel a jam slow proves their presence.

Narrative confirmed, further components crystalize in the back room—a tighter space stocked with as many works as the first. Its textiles are smaller and denser, a historical record paired with more small photos, and larger ones like In De Road (2023), an energetic scene accented in red where a crowd gathers on an apparent sporting field. These “album pages” accumulate the most jacquard; the tight lines of their weaves, thick enough to evoke a canvas, mimic a lined ledger.

Returning to that first room after seeing the whole show, viewers can begin to ascertain that those draped artworks which breathe are this amorphous story’s characters. The two huge patchworks are scenery. For instance not mi mudda's but a mudda's home evokes Warner’s family backyard in Trinidad—not as it is now, but as it was in a past that never happened. One where his family stayed amongst their sprawling Caribbean community rather than seeking economic opportunity in America. One, perhaps, where Warner knew his great grandfather. The exhibition title Warner chose marks a legend he conjured to actualize his great grandfather. Calypsonians take on powerful alter egos for the sake of performance, often centered around animals. Warner’s favorite is Mighty Sparrow. According to family lore the artist’s great grandfather would catch birds on return visits to Trinidad and sneak them past airport security in his coat sleeves on trips home. Warner’s great grandfather stands patriarchal, spiritual sentry here as The Sparrow Catcher—a remembered man and imagined myth.

Abstraction, specifically across Warner’s manipulated photos, obscures his family members’ identities—and enables the work to commingle personal and universal experience. The exhibition’s wistful aura blurs convictions of a consensual past, posing endless alternative timelines, tapestries of possibility. Family histories are subjective; the same tale can vary between aunts and grandkids. Channeled through the concrete relics of Warner’s lineage, with the fabric and photos’ organic metadata of creases and dust the artist hasn’t cleaned off, these archetypal emotions gain novel vibrancy.

Vittoria Benzine is a Brooklyn-based journalist and essayist covering contemporary art with a focus on storytelling, counterculture, and chaos magic. She is a regular contributor at Maxim, Artnet News, and more.

Welancora GalleryVittoria Benzine