Seven Up

Angelbert Metoyer, Artist on the Verge

Angelbert Metoyer has just finished work on his first New York solo show, and his dealer, Paul Rodgers, is at his studio on the Lower East Side to collect 13 drawings. For the past 10 weeks, Metoyer's dizzying drawings of conjoined angelic figures, underscored with indecipherable script, have been dragged around his apartment, pinned to the walls, rearranged in speculative formations, powdered with chalk dust and gold dust. Metoyer prowled around barefoot, crouching to add some lines to one drawing with his right hand while simultaneously doing his automatic writing with his left hand. He'd fall into a reverie for a few minutes before moving on to the next picture. Metoyer wandered around his apartment this way for days, without sleeping. It helped not to think too much about what he was doing, so he could "conjure" more effectively, he said. But now his work is done. After Rodgers leaves, with the bundle of drawings tucked under his arm, Metoyer looks dazed. "I've got nothing!" he only half jokes, looking at the bare walls. "Imagine 13 little pieces of your body being taken away, man. Let's amputate 13 of your little fingers and toes."

Metoyer was born in Houston, Texas, on July 7, 1977 (7-7-'77), a highly auspicious date, he says, since seven is God's favorite number. He was born with six fingers on his left hand—a sign, according to Creole mythology, that he can feel things that aren't there—and a veil of skin over his face, a sign that he can see things that don't appear to others. Both appendages were removed at birth, but what they portend emerges in his otherworldly work.

Since studying at the Atlanta School of Art and Design, Metoyer has exhibited in Houston, Atlanta, Dallas, Germany, and Cuba, and his work has accrued a large and prestigious fan base along the way. Metoyer isn't fazed or overimpressed by praise for his work: He sees it as inevitable. He was proven right when all the work at Paul Rodgers ended up selling out on opening night—with at least one piece on its way to a museum. (The show continues through December 20 at 529 West 20th Street.) Even though he says his work feels like a part of his body, he's not devastated when he sells it. "I don't see the buyers as owning my work. They just borrow it for their lifetime." (Metoyer "knows" his work will be around for hundreds of years.) On the certificate of authenticity that buyers get with a Metoyer, he writes, "Thank you for helping me with my research." Metoyer is working the art world his way, and he's devised a kind of parallel system with its own semantics: borrower for owner, conjuring for drawing, research grant for price tag. And instead of an artist, Angelbert would rather be called an alchemist.

"I don't see the buyers as owning my work. They just borrow it for their lifetime": Metoyer in his studio
photo: Robin Holland
"I don't see the buyers as owning my work. They just borrow it for their lifetime": Metoyer in his studio

Comparisons with Basquiat are inviting but superficial. Metoyer is a phenomenally ambitious young artist, and he paints exuberant compositions featuring text, symbols, and images. But if Basquiat was street, Metoyer is cosmic. "The only similarity between me and Basquiat is that we're both Creole," he says. This is a rebuke to lazy stereotyping—racial and artistic—but for Metoyer it means something more: "So maybe we have the same inner force." He won't say exactly what this means. "Jean-Michel gave me his crown," Metoyer says, grinning easily, because he knows Basquiat's is an influence that he's now fully assimilated. The collage style of some of his earlier works—a rampage of torn pictures of Africans, statue sketches, animal drawings, grids, star charts, and slogans—is jelling into a more unified, symphonic expression.

It was when Craig Massey, a senior vice president of Morgan Stanley, was looking at Basquiat sketches in a Texas gallery that he stumbled across Metoyer's work and was transfixed. He forgot all about the Basquiats, called up Metoyer, and soon became his adviser. For the past two years, Metoyer and Massey have been dazzling the Southern art world with seductive charisma and spiritual work that they claim buyers connect to instantly. They also have a revisionist approach to the gallery system. "This is the first time I've really worked in the art world, and I was shocked at how unregulated things are," Massey says, slouching on a mattress on the floor of Metoyer's apartment. "In business, there are proper contracts and full disclosure of earnings. You can set things up so it's fair. That's what we're trying to do." With his financial expertise, Massey helped Metoyer set up Angelbert's Imagination Studios, LLC, an archive in Houston where the artist retains ownership of and control over the bulk of his work.

The South is Metoyer's creative and ancestral base. When he was 16, Metoyer's father took him to the Melrose plantation in Louisiana and showed him a cemetery. There were 12 other Angelbert Metoyers buried there. It was the first time the 13th one fully realized how famous his family was. "It was overwhelming and welcoming," he says. Several books have been written on the Metoyers, including The Forgotten People: Cane River's Creoles of Color by Gary B. Mills, which explains how, in the mid 18th century, the French plantation owner Claude Thomas Pierre Metoyer freed one of his slaves, Marie Thérèse Coincoin. Under Louisiana's Code Noir, they could not marry, but she bore him 10 children. Using the labor of freed slaves, the family founded the Isle Brevelle colony, which became one of the most prolific plantations in Louisiana, and earned the family prestige that other brown-skinned people rarely got.

Metoyer has used red clay from the colony in some of his work. His New York show is a tribute to the Metoyers, and to Coincoin in particular. "I think I'm like her," Metoyer says softly. "I dream about her all the time. She speaks to me with her eyes." The house in the center of his biggest new painting isn't a hut in a West African village, it's the house Coincoin built in Louisiana. The excavation of roots in Metoyer's work is a complex, layered process, dealing with Frenchness, Americanness, and Africanness, but above all, with the cosmos. "At art school," Metoyer says, "they kept reminding me that I was black and kept looking for blackness in my work. That's fine. But what they found was the blackness of the universe." Metoyer's show is called "Dark Energy Splitting the Universe," a quotation from a New York Times headline about antimatter. With its diagrammatic qualities and mathematical underpinnings, Metoyer's work is something he would rather call a scientific exploration than some vague expression of ethnicity.

It's a science with a surfeit of ingenuity and diversity, and at first it looks beautiful but baffling. As with his approach to the art market, though, Metoyer insists that there is a system at work. Behind every apparently random gesture there is a scheme waiting to be decoded. The number of spots, the angle of the lines, the shape of the constellations, have all been meticulously calculated. If the painting looks beautiful, that's only because it works, Metoyer says, in the same way that an organism or an equation works.

The playing cards stuck to a giant mandala canvas were selected according to one of the numerical and musical systems developed in his piles of dog-eared notebooks. Whether or not that system is coherent and knowable, the playing cards have a hypnotizing effect. The aesthetics of the paintings—and the gentle force of Metoyer's personality—carry the work when the mathematics and mythology underlying it seem inscrutable. But before he stuck them to the painting, Metoyer wrote a blessing on the back of each playing card, which may help to explain the system when his works are X-rayed in 500 years' time.

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