Histories collide with Todd Gray’s photographic portals
At Lehmann Maupin, London, American artist Todd Gray calls on his musical past to consider how culture connects, represents, or controls. Formerly a musical photographer who has shot over 100 album covers, Gray now creates layered photographic assemblages exploring race, power & nature.

Todd Gray shot his first album cover aged 17, while still at school. Since then he has created over 100 more, and also photographed the likes of Gladys Knight, Led Zeppelin, and Michael Jackson. Today, he is more celebrated as visual artist, though there are aesthetic and critical overlaps in the artist’s reading of how the body is captured, presented, and mediated in popular culture with historic systems which follow through from his musical past. It is sometimes overtly present, sometimes concealed, sometimes speaking not only to the artist’s personal history but also poetically overlaying notions of culture and how culture represents.

A fragment of a larger photograph and performance highlights within a circular frame a musician’s legs up in the air, akimbo as they lay on the stage mid groove. These two round frames sit upon a brightly-coloured glitch, while underneath it all is a view of two canon facing from a Ghanaian fort, overlooking the Atlantic Ocean. The crenelated view out to sea is from Fort Saint Anthony slave fortress, the two weapons mirroring the performer’s legs, and between the glitch, speaking to the haze of colonial connection in mind, culture, and territorialisation which connects forms of ownership of the black body over just a few hundred years.

The black silhouette, a classic motif within jazz and pop culture, simultaneously centring but anonymising the person photographed, also recurs. Often, in Gray’s images, the outlined bodies are his own, nude self-portraiting himself into various other contexts: a reedbed, a classical fresco. The particularly ornate fresco is from Fontainebleau, but between his performative self in the top oval frame and the classical motifs of the wall painting is a further concealed frame – the two tip-toes poking out beneath are unmistakably Michael Jackson’s. These layered frames act like portals, offering paths through one history towards another.

These constructions are montages of fragments, the viewer never quite sure if any particular layer is reportage, art-history documentation, contemporary performativity, or found images from Gray’s back-catalogue. Altogether, they speak to a postcolonialism which is fractured and confused, compressing unequivocal beauty – whether landscape, person, or architecture – with the truths and shadows which are present within. Perhaps it comes as no surprise, but Gray’s former tutor was photographer, theorist, and critic of late capitalist geographies Allan Sekula, and it was he who suggested the emerging artist should read James Baldwin, Stuart Hall, Toni Morrison, and Michel Foucault.

The same slave fort in Ghana is centred in another image. Three local men stand by one of the canon, the thick black frame itself supplanted upon another, larger oval frame containing a wider view to sea, and then beneath them both two larger still rectangle images of the theatrical soffit and façade of a baroque church in Lisbon. Compacted within this depth of four frames is the face-off of two landscapes, the colonising, articulate face of Europe – with all its narrative of improvement, knowledge, worldliness, and high-art – and that of Africa, the imposed militaristic defence equally as compressed within the architectural beauty of the façade, and all the work it was doing, as it is in Gray’s assemblage.

In these images, nature and its meaning are compressed. It is wrought in stone within the baroque façade, it is shaped by cultivation and colonial force in the reed beds, it is growing as algae over the stone slabs of the former fortress, and human nature is there in truth and performance. Together, all these meanings are compressed further, into layers and palimpsests which acknowledge each is not only connected upon the others in any critical thinking, but are intrinsically dependent. All histories collide, and it is in that collision that paths through can be seen.

Todd Gray (b. 1954, Los Angeles, CA, lives and works in Los Angeles, CA and Akwidaa, Ghana) received both his B.F.A and M.F.A from California Institute of the Arts, Valencia, CA in 1979 and 1989, respectively. Solo exhibitions of his work have been organized at the Kalamazoo Institute of Arts, Kalamazoo, MI (2021); Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, Hartford, CT (2021); David Lewis, New York, NY (2021); Pomona College Museum of Art, Pomona, CA (2019); Palm Springs Art Museum, Palm Springs, CA (2018); Meliksetian | Briggs, Los Angeles, CA (2018); Museum of the African Diaspora, San Francisco, CA (2017); Gallery Momo, Johannesburg, South Africa (2017); Lightwork, Syracuse, NY (2016); Samson Projects, Boston, MA (2015); California State University, Los Angeles, CA (2004); Pasadena City College, CA (2003); and Cal Poly Pomona, State University, Pomona, CA (2002).


On Point by Todd Gray, is exhibited at Lehmann Maupin, London, until 6 May 2023. More information at:


Todd Gray, On Point (2023) at Lehmann Maupin Gallery.

publication date
03 April 2023

Baroque, Body, Colonialism, Fontainebleau, Ghana, History, Todd Gray, Michael Jackson, Layering, Lehmann Maupin, MusicNature, Nude, Photography, Race, Allan Sekula, Silhouette, Slavery