troy michie is making collage art a little more queer
The Yale MFA graduate uses clippings of vintage gay porn images and zoot suits to highlight America's complicated relationship to gender and race.
Art Troy Michie
Identity politics are complex. Need proof? Pick up a vintage gay porn magazine and you’ll find fetishized images of nude black and brown men that simultaneously exalt their physical qualities and silence their identities. These bittersweet images inspired some of Troy Michie’s first collages. The collages the New York-based artist showed at the New Museum’s Trigger: Gender as a Tool and Weapon exhibition last fall stressed how, sometimes, the most romanticized visuals in queer culture can be the most damaging. Troy masterfully turns a collage of a nude, buff male into a tantilizating game of hide-and-seek for viewers. The parts of the model we want to see most are the parts Troy hides. It’s a blatant curbing of the idolization the queer male community has towards traditionally “masculine,” athletic bodies. “I think collage is an amazing medium to approach these kind of issues,” Troy tells i-D. “Society tries to simplify gender and sexuality and collage is about breaking those frameworks apart. Because they’re never really binary.”
Troy says it took awhile for him to develop a critical relationship with gender and sexuality. “When I was around 22, I was just thinking ‘Oh, great, I’m finally free,’ but then I realized there was a whole other dynamic happening,” the Yale MFA graduate elaborates with. “Like discrimination against women in all-male spaces and discrimination against trans people. I’m always thinking about those dynamics in my work.” For his latest works, Troy turned to his memories of growing up in El Paso to dissect race. Troy cuts found black-and-white images of the highly racialized zoot suit (first made popular in 1940s Harlem) into mesmerizing collages. He also turned the actual garment into a collage itself, working with a tailor to create suits he later covered in paint and a variety of colorful objects. Troy highlights something so often forgotten in America: nothing is ever black-and-white.
Here, Troy talks to i-D about researching vintage gay porn magazines and subverting stereotypes about growing up in a border town.
You graduated from Yale’s prestigious MFA program in 2011. What was your experience like?
It was a cultural shock for me, at first. Because I had grown up in El Paso, Texas. I think El Paso is where my collage mentality formed. It’s a border town: people speak Spanglish and there’s always this dynamic between Mexico and Texas. The city feels like an amalgamation and it’s very different from other parts of Texas. It feels like a little Mexico.
The city of New Haven, it was tough. For me, it was difficult to be in a place of privilege and thinking about art while seeing people on the street everyday who have real pressing issues, like housing and food. I treat my artwork very seriously, but at times it’s kind of debilitating to see that dynamic. It took me a year to come to terms with the opportunity I had at Yale and utilize the facilities.
That sounds really tough. How did you ultimately find your place in the art community?
I guess the funny thing is that in art school, no one really talked about how to enter the art world. I’m really happy about that. Because for me, the most important thing was making work that I felt comfortable with putting out into the world and that felt fully realized. Since graduating, I’ve had so many different jobs — from being an art assistant to working in retail. I would work in a bookshop during the day and then apply for residencies and grants.
A lot of the images in your collages are pulled from porn magazines. What is behind this?When I started working with pornography, I didn’t realize that a lot of these magazines were created as fetish objects for white men. Because it’s very hard to find all black male or brown male magazines. Just doing research I realized, “Oh, they’re actually in the ‘fetish’ market.”
So they were niche?
They were. More and more I realized these [kind of images] are actually really hard to find. My biggest goal was to take a static image — which is how these models without a voice or identity were made to be — and I wanted to disrupt their position in the photograph.
You talked about how hard it was to adjust to New Haven. Has your upbringing in El Paso affected your work at all?
I grew up seeing the border wall everyday. I’m a third-generation American, so a lot of the things being said about immigrants right now are just blatant lies. For a long time I thought about how I could create a body of work that talked about El Paso, but was not super heavy-handed or played into the stereotypes of what people think El Paso is. A lot of people will just go, ‘Oh, yeah, they have great food there!’
Your latest work explores the zoot suit in-depth. How did the garment become an artistic interest of yours?
My family and me were talking about the history of the zoot suit and how it fits into the history of El Paso. It first came into prominence in Harlem. The  Zoot Suit Riots [in Los Angeles] were one of the first riots in American history to be called a riot based on a garment, not a race. However, it was basically about race. Because the people who were wearing the suit were people of color, including African-American and Mexican-American youths. I worked with a tailor to make some of these suits. I created them based on my measurements and then made a body of work that merged it with camouflage theory — because El Paso has one of the biggest military bases in the country.
What is camouflage theory?
I was doing research and then this surrealist artist, Roland Penrose, popped up. He and other artists worked with the British military to come with camouflage tactics for war. He had this book called The Home Guard Manual for Camouflage and one of the rules is called “Disruptive Patterning.” The skin of zebra is the best example. Their skin seems so outlandish and extreme, but when the zebra is in his own environment, it works. I was thinking about that in daily life. As queer people, when you move around the city, there is a sense of camouflage that happens as protection. There’s a moment when that begins to break down towards flamboyant and you’re thinking about self-fashion as a way to talk about your identity, regardless of whether you’re gonna blend in or not.