William Villalongo’s current survey at the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art titled “Myths and Migrations” is a twenty-year survey of paintings, collages, and mixed media organized by the Grinnell College Museum of Art. Villalongo’s work, which circulates symbols of African diaspora, tropes of activist art, and neo-surrealist figuration is widely recognized for exploring and configuring the multiplicity of Black histories and the migratory experience. The artist is an innovator in organizing themes that soundly tweak canonical theory and cultural propaganda, and is a producer of dramatic imagery that combines radical painting sensibilities with restless graphic novel title pages.

Installation of “William Villalongo: Myths and Migrations” Madison Museum of Contemporary Art, 2024, Image courtesy of MMoCA

Flexible strategies about identity and language come to the fore in Villalongo’s exploration of the Black experience in Western art and myth. He refers to avant-garde language and theory responsible for sidelining artists of color. His pictures surf the intellectual, sexual, and cultural fluidity of Dada and Surrealism that set the stage for much post-modern theory, destabilizing the driving undercurrent of monoculture and reductivism. Substitutive calculations, formal innovations and subjects requiring a wider cultural reading of art provide Villalongo space for much more than a formal critique. The structural modalities of the art cannon regarding space, text, and collage are absorbed, but with a thumb on the absence of Blackness or the transgressions of cultural stereotypes. i

Villalongo’s antidote for cultural absence and dissonant rhythms of oppression is baked into a quasi-vernacularist dialect and subtly biographical vision, one that’s cross-cultural and cross generational. His skill at decoding previously obscured and biased histories are time fluid and represent the degree to which the history of Black experiences can be uncovered, not merely as memory, but alive amongst us. He deploys richly crafted handmade images they are highly present and require less coded mediation and technology. His dexterity with materials and style are dense, vivid, and poetic, and encourage study as well as praise. Like archeological data, to which his pictures sometimes allude, they have no expiration date.

“Black Metamorphosis, 1452” is a human-scale abstracted figure based partially on the 500-year history of slavery and the extension of its colonialist timeline. A gray web of fractured seedlings swirl throughout the composition, which is also festooned with variously sized ancestral sculptures, precious stones, and butterflies (metamorphosized insects). The charred growth appears as much to be a splintered, interlaced skeleton, suggesting an entombed figure at rest with their life possessions. Emerging from the lower half of the image are two open-palmed hands in the archetypal gesture of a summoning deity. The conversion of consciousness and transmutation of an anonymous, but transcendent being is embedded in a parable of resurrection.

“Black Metamorphosis 1452” 2020, Acrylic, cut velour paper, pigment print collage 80 x 40 in. © William Villalongo Courtesy of Eileen and Richard Ekstract

The artist has produced a series of works that clothe the figure with swirling white fragments like “Black Metamorphosis,” not all as solemn. His “Flex,” for example, is a large paper collage that sits at the more prosaic side of his figurative renderings. Here ashen detritus isn’t swirling around the figure as much as swarming, blinding the subject and making balance and transition a suffocating impossibility. Considered alone, the texture of material is dense and self-reflexive. But in relation to the introspective “Black Metamorphosis” this chapter reads like an allegory of birth that’s unsettling, but whimsical.

“Flex” 2017, Acrylic, paper collage and cut velour paper. 85 1/4 x 44 5/8 in Courtesy of © Villalongo and Susan Inglett Gallery, NYC

Abstraction is inherently critical. Its history is a revolutionary one that can’t be dismissed. Pattern, which Villalongo uses judiciously is not abstraction and isn’t critical. It’s a malleable structural tool, like speech, and integrating design with abstraction provides pop culture voltage. Villalongo has solid instincts for overlapping them with conscious and subconscious themes in animated spaces and art historical contexts. The design of his work is effortlessly embedded with cultural scholarship and aesthetic play. It’s harmonious and open – alluding to the under-recognized multiplicity of Black migration and identity.

While abstraction alone has an inherent, historical, and radical context, it’s fundamentally about negation. Gestural abstraction is an erasure of the classical order. Fracturing the picture plane is a denial of centuries of classical Western narratives, hundreds of royal landowners, scores of Papal decrees, and thousands of conquering Euro-heroes. The history of negation is an acute double-edged sword. Abstraction, mixed media, and hybridity is a compound critique, one that’s self-applied and not without risks.

Villalongo’s pictures allude to puzzles, enigmas, and interrelationships of language, cooptation, and re-appropriation. The inherent radicalism of abstraction and disruption of language is quasi-mimetic with the aid of ornamental histories and pattern. What still makes the work radical? The subject of race certainly, but moreover the assertion of sociopolitical content into hybrid art-forms that not only oppose official art culture but the broader social order. Hybrid art, whether cultivated in former colonies or in “New World” republics, branch off from modernism’s original tilt towards abstraction vs. authentic proto-modern art and craft of non-western populations. A principal in our more activist and racially diverse culture, Villalongo responds with a striking Afro-centrist, craft-adapted, and folklore influenced agency.