NB: Congratulations on your most recent shows, and your upcoming solo show at Miles McEnery and concurrent solo show at SUNNY NY. You’ve clearly been very busy over the past years, so how have you stayed creatively inspired during these surreal pandemic times?
TB: Thank you. Yes, this month I will open two concurrent solo shows here in New York, both entitled WAVES. My solo exhibition at Miles McEnery Gallery will open on October 21 and run through November 27. The show will be at their 511 West 22nd Street location and will consist of all large scale paintings, including six 77 x 66 inch paintings. At SUNNY NY, the show will run from October 28 to December 11. SUNNY NY is a very young artist-run gallery in the East Village, so WAVES at SUNNY NY will have a bit of a different feel to the big Chelsea show. There will be seven paintings at SUNNY NY, as well as a site-specific wall painting/installation and five or six works on paper.
Regarding staying creatively inspired during pandemic times: there was definitely a window of time when I simply could not paint. When that passed, the studio was there waiting for me as an escape. I think that as artists, we have a slight advantage over some others, in that we are used to spending long hours holed up in the studio alone. When the world stopped and time seemed to stretch out eternally, I began to slow things down in the studio. As a result, the time in the work changed, and I felt that I could really take my time editing the work. The bug under the microscope feeling was gone. I am lucky enough to have a supportive partner who is also an artist, so we both found comfort in painting.
I’ve always been inspired by my surroundings, no matter what they are. It almost doesn’t matter where I am or how much I can consume. For example, the recent paintings included in WAVES, were initially partially inspired by my daily crossword puzzle habit. I sometimes take a photo with my phone of the finish screen that shows up on my iPad when I achieve a new time record. A weird screen interference started to show up, kind of a moiré pattern overlaid the very orthogonal check graphic. And so, the warped check airbrush layer was born. I am like a Shibu Inu in that I am happiest when I have something to solve. I think about the paintings in this way, also. I don’t plan them out from the beginning. Instead, each move is a response to the current state of the painting.
NB: Can you speak to how you view the processes of collage and paint interacting within the scope of your work? How is the color palette determined for each work?
TB: I visualize the work as almost an illustration of a collage. I want the layers to feel tangible, to feel almost as though you could get into the painting and move things around with your hands. (Please don’t actually attempt this!) The different methods of paint application help to reinforce the virtual space in the work. The sprayed acrylic absorbs into the raw canvas, and the blurred edges help to push it into the background. Certain areas are built up more, whether in acrylic or oil paint, to push those layers forward in space.
Regarding color palette, I usually have a very vague idea of palette when I begin a painting, and then react to that as the painting progresses. Nothing is planned out beforehand. Most of the decision making happens on the canvas. I use color to create tension at the surface as well as optical effects.
NB: How have the digital age and computer software influenced and inspired your practice?
TB: I still think about the work in terms of layers. The shallow space the paintings inhabit definitely has its origin in digital imaging. My first attempt at an abstract composition was on my dad’s desktop computer at a Bring Your Daughter to Work Day. We also had an old Macintosh SE lying around at home with the MacPaint program installed on it. I remember the tool bar with fondness: suddenly I could conceive of using a spray can alongside a gradient and a paintbrush.
Earlier paintings were almost quoting this nostalgia. I think my recent paintings have reinforced their own materiality, while maintaining this entry into abstract composition. To see the works in person, there is so much more than the digital reference. The paintings are human-sized or larger for the most part, and completely hand-painted. I don’t use projectors or digital printing in my work. At this point, I think the digital age is more of a reference point for the work. At heart I am a painter, a grungy studio rat.
NB: I read that you participated in the 2021 group exhibition Her Dark Materials, curated by Philly Adams at the Wolverton Works Virtual Art Museum, Buckinghamshire, UK. Can you tell us a bit about the process of participating in a virtual exhibition, compared and contrasted to your experiences with in-person shows?
TB: Having exhibitions during a global pandemic has changed my relationship to the paintings a bit. I always felt that seeing the work in the gallery space really helped me to see the paintings in a new way. I’ve since had two solo exhibitions overseas that I never got to see.
Her Dark Materials was special in that the space was beautifully rendered virtually by an architect (I believe). There was a haunting video created to move the viewer through the exhibition. It is kind of magical!
It is a beautiful thing to still be able to “exhibit” paintings during a time when shipping could be shut down at any moment and we cannot physically gather or it is unsafe or unwise to travel. However, I fully believe that art ought to be experienced in person. Without going to the place the work is to be exhibited, the paintings almost don’t seem to be finished. There is a big difference to how a painting is perceived by the artist in the studio versus in a gallery space where installation and the venue is taken into consideration.
NB: Would you be able to share any information with us about upcoming exhibitions or projects you’re excited for in the next year or two?
TB: I will have six small paintings as part of a presentation with PLATFORM, David Zwirner’s online initiative, sometime in October. I also have a series of works on paper to be exhibited in my dear friend’s vitrine space in Brussels to open late October: Massif Central is run by the lovely Tessa Perutz.
I will have a couple of two-person exhibitions with my partner and fellow painter Russell Tyler: Mother Gallery in Hudson, NY early summer 2022; and Gaa Gallery in Cologne scheduled for late fall 2022.
NB: What are your earliest memories of interacting with or experiencing art?
TB: I think it was when I was really little, probably my youngest son’s age — four years old. I grew up in Orange County, just south of Los Angeles, in a suburb. My cousin and Grandmother lived in Morro Bay. When we would come up to visit them, we would drive through Los Angeles up the 101. I would see the murals [created for the 1984 Summer Olympic Games] by the Disney Building. It’s the same murals there now as in the 1980s. It’s amazing. In Glenna Boltuch Avila’s L.A. Freeway Kids, there are these little kids and there is one playing basketball. On the other side, there is the mural of Lita Albuquerque, from Kent Twitchell’s 1983 7th Street Altarpiece, across from a work by Jim Morphesis. It’s amazing, and it really stuck with me. As a little kid, I was wondering — what is that?! I ‘got’ the murals and the things that were more obvious — like graffiti — but that piece really stuck me.
NB: Let’s talk a little bit about your work. What are the different themes you explore, regarding identity, belonging, sense of place? Can you talk about how these influence your work?
TB: I was adopted, and that plays a role in my identity issues. I hadn’t really known who my [birth] parents were for a really long time; I never really knew where I came from. It never really struck me, until I started creating art (and talking to my therapist) that these were serious, deep-rooted things that I needed to explore and deal with. Throughout the last 10 years, since I’ve been seriously making art, I have been going back to this theme of death and rebirth. It is an ancient, ‘as above, so below,’ masculine feminine alchemical thing that really, to me, starts at birth and ends at death. The way that I have worked is by starting with abstract paintings that represent various primordial things — focusing on the background in the abstractions — then moving into more common themes like evolution, for example, or astrology or astronomy.
NB: How did you become inspired to incorporate science and nature so centrally in your creative practice? Could you also speak to the different series that you’ve been working through?
TB: Science and nature have always been a part of my practice. I’ve always gone back to the ideas of spirituality, reflecting on the cosmos and the primordial being, the origins of humanity, and evolution. I worked in the abstract for a while, dealing with cosmology, astronomy; looking at stars and thinking about navigation. As it evolved, over the last couple of years especially, I have been moving into more figurative work. This transition has stemmed from my personal experience; my personal journey through life.
NB: I can tell from your work that you’re very interested in the history of painting. Who have you been looking at, in art history, that has influenced the different series of your work?
TB: I am always looking at art and artists. Many, many different artists (and things!) influence me: Sigmar Polke, German Expressionism and Alice Neel, [David] Hockney, Marlene Dumas among others. The artists that I am influenced by have such a wide range — just thinking about the contrasting practices of Alice Neel and that of Robert Smithson. There is so much art that goes into my subconscious and gets cycled around, and then translates into my little formulas that I have when I paint.
NB: Can you speak to those formulas a little bit?
TB: I start out with the abstraction. That comes from different imagery of space explosions, chaos and cataclysms. I have several books in my studio where I collect inspiring images to have them constantly visible and circulating, so I keep them in my subconscious. I’m constantly looking at various things. I have a vast library too. I am always looking at images that reference what I’m painting — even the abstractions. I use that as a background then I move into different techniques. Right now, I’m working on mostly figurative pieces. Essentially, I’m collaging the ideas together.
NB: Could you speak to your series Rainbow Cataclysm? Do you have other projects coming up, or new series that you’re working on?
TB: The Rainbow Cataclysm is, again, a sort of collage of my acquired tropes from over the years. The real core concepts are: human origins, death, and rebirth, which are the overarching topics that I deal with in most everything that I create. Like ‘the chicken or the egg,’ everything starts at some point, right?
Things culminate in one moment, then die, then come back — possibly as another thing? That is the on-going theme. I’m looking at flowers, I’m looking at still lifes; I’m looking at things that decay and devolve. I am also looking at the human experience, as well. These flashes of time that happen over the course of eternity. What I’m exploring in Rainbow Cataclysm is a subconscious flashback, in many ways. The idea of a cataclysm, in and of itself, is that every civilization comes to an end at some point, and then it’s reborn and turned into something else. Those concepts exist on a macro level and also on a micro level. I’m working on the microcosm of this experience now. I’m looking at organic matter that decays over time; the human condition; relationships; things that start, blossom, and come to an end — in one way or another.
I have a couple of upcoming projects. One is a show in Hong Kong called Techno Lust that is curated by Ben Lee Richie Handler and staged at W.O.A.W. Gallery which I’m putting together right now. It’s a group show, and I’m doing an installation. Some of my Star Mappaintings will be presented as wallpaper, covering a whole room — in a psychedelic way — then paintings will be hung over it. I will also show a couple of paintings, alongside many cool artists. That show will be at the end of August. Then, I am going to Istanbul for a residency at Sevil Dolmaci Gallery in mid-September where I will also be exhibiting paintings for a show curated by Dr. Kathy Battista. I’m very excited about that! In the first week of October, I’ll be in Crete for another residency at Elounda Island Villas. The residency is run by a Greek artist named Leda Alexopoulou. I was introduced to her through Viennese curator Anne Avramut – who has a background in archaeology. She contacted me about my new still life paintings. Being that the flowers are painted in these different Greek, Etruscan and Minoan pots, Anne thought it would be cool to connect me with Leda and experience Greek culture and history first hand. With Covid, everything has been locked down for the last few years. This will be the first or second time I’ve been on a plane. It feels like things are getting back to normal a little bit. Hopefully, new art will flow again! Prior to the Star Maps series I had been working on figurative paintings — it was mostly dealing with narratives surrounding history, ancient cultures and archaeology. I was super lucky to have studied in New York and Zurich, where I had access to some of the most amazing museums and collections in the world. During those years I was able to catalogue artifacts and relics that would appear in my work much later. Although in the past five years I’ve been exhibiting mostly abstract paintings, I was also painting small figurative studies for my own enjoyment. It wasn’t until a couple of years ago that I would publicly show them.
NB: Did you find that the time during the pandemic greatly influenced your work, and the type of work that you produced? Did it change the type of work that you produced? Or were you just trying to just survive, with two kids at home?
TB: Yes, I mean, honestly, going back to the studio was like my sanctuary. I felt really fortunate to have had the studio space, and to have been able to keep it. At that time, I had been working with several galleries and I then went completely independent. Around the same time I was having somewhat of a personal crisis, which I also feel very fortunate to have come out of. After that, I started making work that was more related to what I was dealing with, right then and there, such as the loss of personal relationships and friendships. I also looked at my family; my wife and kids — using them as my muses — and portraying them in my work, which I had not done before and that was a big reckoning for me.
It was a confirmation of the things that really do influence me, and my life, all the time; they need to be in my work at this point! I also started painting portraits of friends of mine — people that I hadn’t seen in 6 or 8 months. Until then, we had just been following each other on Instagram, and making do. Usually, I would have people come over to my studio, and invite people who I would want to paint, and do a portrait from life. Since the pandemic began, I wasn’t able to do that. Most people were worried about Covid, and it was just too much for a lot of people. Instagram was really the only outlet to look at art; all the museums were closed. All the galleries were closed for that period too, so I looked to the internet, collecting images; putting together these image archives. I was also painting portraits of people who posted their pictures on Instagram.
NB: Definitely, it’s the way to connect in the absence of human connection. Back to figuration!
TB: Exactly, back to figuration! Now, I am still working on the Star Maps and abstractions, but I am also bringing people into the studio now and doing portraits from life which always keeps things exciting.
NB: You received your MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Montana, in addition to studying English Literature (and Philosophy) during your undergrad years at Loyola University in New Orleans. Can you speak to how your studies in this area influenced your art and your creative practice today?
AM: I was really into the visual arts, and into making art as a kid. As a teenager, I went to an arts high school. I wasn’t a huge reader until the end of high school. I didn’t really know what to study in college, so I just signed up as an English major. Taking English classes in college taught me how to think critically, I don’t think I had ever really thought critically before that time. It really opened my mind up different ways of thinking about language and information that I just had never really considered before. I think it might have been in my first English major class — our professor asked each person in the class to explain the difference between a window and a door. And it’s really hard to do! You can do it in a utilitarian way, or you can describe it physically, but it’s really hard! A lot of times, the way you describe a window and a door it sounds like they’re the same thing. As an 18 year old, that slipperiness of language really struck me. That really opened up a lot of ways of thinking, for me, that I hadn’t encountered before. For my MFA in Creative Writing, my specification was poetry. There is this famous story where Edgar Degas was talking to the poet Paul Valéry, and he said to him “I am going to write all of these poems. I have all of these great ideas. I have so many ideas that my poems are going to be great!” Paul Valéry famously replied: “well, poems aren’t made out of ideas, they’re made of words.” In the visual arts, similarly, a painting or a drawing isn’t made of images so much, or even ideas; it’s made of material. For me, my drawings are made of marks. In my work I try to focus on mark making in the same way that words are the fundamental element of writing.
NB: I never really thought about the artist’s process of mark making as being intertwined with the words of poets, and I see there is a very interesting parallel there. Poetry has been so integral to the visual arts — thinking of artists like Kiefer — it is always there.
A lot of your work examines the process of appropriation. Can you talk a little bit about that, and how the works question the way meaning is either created or lost throughout this process of appropriation? Can you tell us a little bit more about what drew you to investigate this topic?
AM: For my generation a lot of the music I listened to as a teenager involved sampling, taking pre-recorded pieces of music and stitching them together to create something new. Also, a lot of elements of the design world (also around music) involved appropriating film stills, and things like that, in graphic design. Before I knew that appropriation was a thing in the arts — the Pictures Generation comes to mind — through osmosis, I had already accepted these ideas of appropriation that perhaps my parents’ generation would have found questionable, or they wouldn’t have considered a real, original piece of art. For me, it was natural. Later on, when I did find out about the Pictures Generation — Sheri Levine and Richard Prince — it didn’t have to be explained to me, it was just obvious. In my own work, I consider all this visual material, whether it’s photographs that I take, something created from life, or something that I find — it’s all grist for the mill of your artistic process; there isn’t a hierarchy. In my writing and my art practice, I’ve always felt that there should be a democratization of source material. I feel that same way in my own work regarding the images that I choose. They’re all of equal importance, there isn’t one image that is more important than another. It’s just a question of how you use the images, and how — when you present it to an audience — people bring their own experience to the work and interact with it.
NB: In terms of the images used in your work, drawn from outside sources, what attracts you to certain images, and not others? I know you just touched on this a little bit.
AM: A lot of the work that I was making at a certain point in my career was socio-political, or historical. I was interested in different historical moments, and I would then research and look for specific images that represented those moments. For example: using a photojournalistic image from the Vietnam War, cropping out a weird detail from it, and blowing it up. Similar to the Michelangelo Antonioni movie Blow-Up. Expanding the image into something new that isn’t recognizable from the original. Back then, the subject matter was important to me, even if it was somewhat obscured in the final piece, or in the process. Over time, I became a little less interested in the historical placement of an image, and more interested in the immediate aesthetic enjoyment of images. I started thinking about taking Pictures Generation moves, or relationships to images, and connecting it back to more classical art historical references. Using content like traditional landscape, or traditional still life, but instead of replicating them from life, or en plein air, finding old photographs and again manipulating and translating them into drawings and paintings. That is how I interact with the images now. I try to find a feeling that I get from a sourced image. I then scan it and try to heighten it and crop the photo to make it into my own thing; I then further make it my own through translating it by hand.
NB: Is it drawing, is it painting, or is it a mixture of both?
AM: I’ve gone through a few different material processes. The majority of the work that I do now uses watercolor paper that I paint washes on, I will then use carbon and charcoal pencils on top of that — and sometimes pastel — to draw an image. As the final step, the paper is mounted to a wooden panel, so it’s not framed and will instead sit on the wall like a painting. It is in this liminal space between painting and drawing, which I feel lets me have the best of both worlds. I really do enjoy drawing, and I enjoy doing things by hand, but I also like a lot of the material elements of painting, such as texture and form, that you don’t totally get with drawing. There is almost a three dimensionality that you lose with drawing. Originally, when I went from making paintings to drawings, I was making graphite pencil drawings on paper. It was exciting to pare the materials down like that at first, but then I became interested in figuring out a hybrid of painting techniques and drawing techniques.
AM: They were really great. I didn’t go to graduate school for the visual arts; a lot of people that I know, especially in New York, came with a built-in group of people with whom they attended graduate school. I do feel like that is one thing I did miss out on. Doing residencies was my first glimpse into what that sense of community in making your work is like; meeting other people who were making very different work, with very different ideas about art making, and bouncing my ideas off of them in a structured setting. It was really great. At the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council (LMCC), I did this project where I drew a drawing of a different political figure every day of the presidency. It was eventually made into a book called Heroes and Villains. I had some ideas like that, to create conceptual pieces, but I had never really had the means to actually make it happen. And LMCC gave me the space to do that. The Bemis Center was also really great; it’s in Omaha, Nebraska. It’s a really beautiful building with really amazing studios, they give you a stipend, and you go there for three months. At that point, I had been working a lot of day jobs and creating work at night and on the weekends. My time at the Bemis Center was the first three month stretch of uninterrupted art making that I had experienced in years. Right after that, I did a solo show at Geoffrey Young Gallery in Great Barrington, Massachusetts and I had created the work for that show at the Bemis Center. That whole period was a really great time for me.
NB: Can you tell us a little bit about what you have upcoming in terms of shows, residencies or projects?
AM: I just had a solo show close at Rebecca Camacho Projects in San Francisco. And now I am making work for my next solo show, at Lowell Ryan Projects in Los Angeles. It opens in February 2022. They have a really beautiful new space that has these amazing high ceilings. I am making some of the biggest mounted panel pieces that I’ve ever made for this show — they’re around 60” x 80” so they’re pretty big! It takes a lot of time to make pieces that big, so most of my energy is going into that right now.
NB: Can you share with us a bit about your experience with art as a younger man, leading up to your time at the Yale MFA program?
DC: Growing up, I always had a fondness for drawing. Mostly recreating characters that I saw in cartoons or in anime. I was a huge anime and comic book fan. I tried to find every opportunity to draw something. My love for drawing coupled with an incessant need to create something was heightened as I took frequent trips to the St. Louis Art Museum during school field trips. Like most black youth in impoverished neighborhoods, I couldn’t imagine a sustainable life in the arts. So, I decided that I was going to keep my artistic sensibilities to myself, maybe write short stories or write plays and keep them to myself. But I was dating a girl who told me that if I didn’t go to college she was going to break up with me, so I enrolled at a community college where I was exposed to the critical discourse present both in art history and the contemporary art world. I felt like I finally had a space to participate. From there on out, I learned about the Yale MFA graduate program and the Yale Norfolk School of Art residency. I set my sights on those goals because, in my mind, coming from a lower income family in the northern part of St. Louis, there was no middle ground for me to be okay; it was either, you stay where you are, or you go on to achieve the best. Having a naturally competitive and ambitious spirit, I decided that I wanted to be included in dynamic conversations and have my work respected by the artists and institutions that I came to appreciate.
NB: That is impressive, really impressive. Can you share with us a bit about the subjects in your figurative work? If you could also speak a little to your process, it would be great to get that context.
DC: A lot of the subjects in my paintings are all friends of mine. They are mostly friends that I met in graduate school. The idea, in a way, is that the paintings are a timeline of my life; the subjects grow up. There are collectors who have paintings of me with my long hair, then there will be other [collectors] who have [works] of myself with short hair now. So, in a sense, I am a living subject in these paintings. The process is really one of community. I will reach out to my friends and ask them to model for me, they are often enthusiastic to do so. I think that collectively, we have a shared appreciation of seeing ourselves in moments of leisure and rest. In that way my friends are very supportive of my project. I draw a lot; I’ll sketch some things out in my sketchbook. I’ll text a couple friends “hey, do you have maybe five or 10 minutes? I’ll come to you” and I’ll share with them my compositions and ideas. My friends are great, they’re flexible and willing to work with me. An old professor once said something that I never forgot: “the good thing about being an artist is that people assume you’d be weird anyway,” so you can just be yourself. It’s been working out.
NB: What are your thoughts on figuration and abstraction? We’ve seen the two approaches intersect really beautifully in your work, particularly in the After Albers series. It would be great to discuss this from an art historical perspective.
DC: When I first started painting, I took foundational courses which focused on painting from observation. While at the Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design, I made a lot of minimalist, abstract paintings. My paintings were just one color; they were all about my relationship to color. There was no image, the work was all about surface, color and very objective approaches to making a painting. As my process evolved, it made sense that the abstract elements followed me into my figurative work, even if you consider my relationship to the color in my current paintings. It’s certainly a byproduct of my past investigations and love for color and color theory. I understand I can capture a color without too much fuss – I’ve been exploring color for such a long time. With regards to the After Albers series – they take inspiration from Josef Albers, the modernist painter, and his homage to the square paintings, in addition to his theories concerning color. I think that in society, we kind of treat bodies like abstractions anyway, so, for me, there was this beautiful symmetry between our bodies and what we perceive to be our identities — as our identities are contextual. Josef Albers’ investigation with color, and color being a product of relationally; Our understanding of a given color is relational. The idea is, that if you were to orient two colors next to each other, they could influence one another and consequently affect the eyes’ ability to interpret what it is that we’re looking at. The two colors can change; they could even create a third color entirely. In a way, we are like those colors and I found that my body and my identity function very similarly. My Blackness has a particular cultural and social specificity attached to it in the context of America. But if I were to go to Africa, my body would be read in a very different way; because the racial logics and paradigms are different. Art historically, that’s where I was pulling from, but merging the concerns and examinations of Josef Albers’ objective exploration of color relationships with the contemporary concerns surrounding identity politics that we’re all currently negotiating.
NB: I have never heard anyone speak to Albers and identity politics in such an artistic way.
DC: When it comes to the figurative works, too, I am utilizing palettes from Josef Albers paintings. I’ll have a stack of color swatches, I have hundreds of them. I try to get the colors as correct as I can, as close to the Albers paintings as I can. They’re not in front of me, of course, so I have to rely on my own color sensibilities. I’ve studied the history of color, in Marcia Hall’s book Color and Meaning, and brought in different painting strategies that I thought, within the high and low Renaissance, would compliment the modernist aesthetic of Josef Albers, or, as it relates to my paintings. Josef Albers paintings are singular swatches of color, mine are figurative, which means that the use of color would be expansive. I thought to myself “How can I create harmony with color that creates a dynamic image but doesn’t lose the monochromatic flatness of Albers painting.” So I started thinking about different modes of painting such as unione, which is used, historically, to create harmony while not losing the chromatic integrity of a color. It has been good for me to think of the color spectrum that Josef Albers was working with — for example, Albers paintings are three colors. Of course, when I engage with a body, there are different shadows and shapes that compose the body. Utilizing unione makes the most sense for my approach in solving that problem, because you’re creating harmony. You would work from the middle of a color, and you expand out. They are drawing a contrast in those paintings. If the outer rim of a Josef Albers painting is a teal blue, or an ultramarine blue, utilizing unione, I can work from that blue and create a sense of harmony so that the product the viewer sees in my paintings, still looks as though it is a solid, framed color.
Basically I minimize the color spectrum, to a degree so that there aren’t any jarring contrasts. It’s great for getting a huge range of values for something as flat as [one specific shade of blue]. That is one way I’ve been approaching it, along with maintaining a more critical eye for how I am building out the figures as they relate to, or are an homage to, the square composition. Sometimes the figures are sitting down, because I am thinking about their arms, and thinking about how their body can create a shape within the square format, as well. There is also this play between the body itself becoming a form of abstraction. If you consider a painting like After Albers (Seeing Through the Dark), you’ll notice Kevin’s body becomes a triangle, in a sense, because we’re looking over his shoulder.
NB: Is that Kevin Brisco?
DC: Yes, it is! In the most recent After Albers painting I did, Seeing Through the Dark, you’ll notice that Kevin’s body becomes a triangle. There is a play between both the figure and ground reversal, as well, but utilizing the body also to add an extra element of abstraction to the painting.
NB: Could you speak a little bit about how that color theory process also extends to your Wash paintings?
DC: The Wash paintings were born out of my interest in this idea of the ‘veil’ that W.E.B. Du Bois talked about in his book The Souls of Black Folk. In addition to depicting images of black leisure, I am also concerned with critical history, art history and literary narratives. A lot of my work considers surrealism, and its literary counterpart magical realism. Because I often see the Black experience as being a surreal one. When Du Bois talks about the ‘veil,’ it’s essentially this metaphorical illegibility that’s cast over your character. This ‘veil’ is the curtain that separates the black subject from others and disrupts the opportunity to engage with said subject on equal and fair terms. For Black individuals, it is our skin that alerts others that we are different. A similar proposition, I think, can be applied to women: it’s also their body; it’s their gender. Often when men encounter them, their gaze is filtered through a patriarchal lens and consequently prohibits them from engaging with who that woman, as a person, could possibly be. Still, you don’t see the veil; you experience it. But through the lens of magical realism you could see it. That is what the Wash paintings attempt to address. You engage with these paintings that are these depicted scenes, but the splatter and the abstraction that ruptures the overall image is what we are engaging with, so, in a way, we are engaging with that ‘veil’: that illegibility, that curtain, that thin layer. When I make the Wash paintings, I’m using my body. I’ll often fill buckets of paint up and I’ll pour the paint on top of the painting, or I’ll slap them off; they’re much more physical. They have a different relationship with my body than the Primary Magic paintings or After Albers painting, which have a stronger relationship to my mind, because I’m thinking more (in terms of color theory).
NB: Are there any upcoming projects you’re excited about? Also, I understand that you’re a collector. I am curious to learn about your thoughts for the remainder of 2021 in both areas.
DC: I have a solo show at the Luce Gallery in Torino, Italy. The title of the exhibition is “Life and Its Ghosts” and it is about my shift in reality. Over the course of 2020 to 2021 I have been struggling with this dramatic shift that has happened within my reality, both in response to Covid and my growing profile in the art world. I found myself navigating new spaces and engaging with very different people. My external reality has also changed; I never imagined I would have a studio such as the one I have now. But I am still haunted by the ghosts of my past; life and its ghosts. I can’t escape it; I have a lot of anxiety. I use that word ‘ghosts’ specifically, and it’s because a ghost is something that has the potential to be encountered again, there is some kind of veracity to it, there is a body or presence to it; and that’s what my past has been for me. It still somehow lingers within my everyday life, despite my leaving St. Louis; despite being in the later half of my 20s. The show will negotiate those things, amongst other familiar concepts I’ve been working with.
Collecting, for me, is really important. I really think everyone should be a collector; artists are cultural producers. When you are collecting, or when you’re going to a museum, you’re collecting someone’s intellect; you’re collecting that mind. When you go to a museum, you go there to learn, right? You’re engaging with the intellect of all of these great artists across the spectrum. For me, I am a lot less concerned (and I know the market is huge) […] Black figuration, Black portraiture, and more recently Black abstractionists who are starting to get a lot more attention, too. As a collector, I am less concerned with those kinds of trends. For me, I want to know what your research is, I want to know how an artist reads their subjectivity. I want to know how an artist considers their own relationship to the world. When I reach out to a gallery to inquire about a work, the first thing I ask is: can I read the artist’s bio, can I see their CV? Is there any writing around their practice? Because, if I want to champion you, or if I’m going to invest in you, I want to see what you’re capable of doing. I want to invest in your project, that’s my role as a collector. I want to invest in your ideas. For me, that is the thing that fuels my own collecting. I have a very uncompromising eye, so I don’t collect everything. Because I know everything is not great. I also understand that the market is very fast-paced and with the pace the market moves at, that oftentimes forces some artists to produce things they might not necessarily be the most proud of, but they’re trying to feed the market because, you know, we all have lives and bills to pay. A small sacrifice to keep things going? But, as for myself, I really do believe in collecting what you love, but also maintaining a very critical eye to what you’re going to be living with. For me, as a collector, I think about that quite a bit.
NB: Could you share what you’re reading at the moment? What’s on your nightstand now?
DC: At the moment I’m reading a couple of things: On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong, The Daily Stoic by Ryan Holiday and Stephen Hanselman, and Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain. Quiet was recommended to me by a friend and I’ve been enjoying the writing quite a bit. On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous is an incredible read! The writing is so rich. I read the Daily Stoic everyday, or at least I try to. There was a time when I was beginning to feel quite comfortable with my grief and sought out something to read, mostly as a temporary distraction and I came across a book on stoicism called the Meditations by Marcus Aurelius and I fell in love with its philosophical teachings. From there I ordered the Daily Stoic and haven’t looked back.
NB: Could you share with us your story of how you got started working in ceramics? Who and what inspired you?
EK: My start in ceramics was serendipitous. My husband wanted to start making terracotta sculptures. We needed to learn how to use a kiln, and decided to take a class at our neighborhood pottery school. The class didn’t fit my husband’s schedule, so I took it on my own. I had recently been inspired by the beautiful historical ceramics in the Musée de Sèvres, just outside Paris. Light poured into the galleries and the pieces all seemed to glow. I really liked the way the artists painted on the ceramics — the touch was so effortless and fresh. I thought perhaps I would make dishes to use, but I never did. Instead, I made small sculptures and vessels and my work went on from there.
I think a lot about world culture and art history. I am inspired by ceramics and textiles from Central Asia, Turkey, Syria and Japan. I also find inspiration in textiles from Samoa, Roman frescoes and mosaics; Ancient Greek and Egyptian art; Coptic, Indian, and Wiener Werkstätte fabric design; and Ballets Russes sets and costumes. Artists I look at are Matisse, [Aubrey] Beardsley, Annie Albers, Leon Bakst, Natalia Goncharova, Kees von Dongen and Beatrice Wood. Also, for more contemporary art, I admire Nick Mauss, Paul P., Marina Adams, Marc-Camille Chaimowicz, Chris Ofili, Etal Adnan, Kai Althoff and Betty Woodman.
NB: Can you tell us a bit about your studio process, and provide us with some insight as to how you develop the patterns and marks in your ceramics?
EK: I like to travel and go to museums. I have my iPhone with me, and I take hundreds of pictures. When I get back to the studio, I go through the images and make drawings in pencil and ink of whatever catches my eye — mostly abstract shapes and small details I find in pottery and textiles. I also use drawing to figure out shapes for the ceramics.
I make most of the ceramics out of slabs. I put the clay through a slab roller, cut the slabs to size and assemble them into three dimensional shapes.
Most of the surfaces are flat, so once they have been fired (to make them strong), I cut paper shapes the same size of each flat surface of the piece, paint different designs on the paper and tape it on the sculptures, as though I am dressing paper dolls. I keep changing the drawings until I come up with what I want.
After that, I paint the piece with white underglaze and I draw the design once, followed by a second coat of white underglaze, another better drawing, and a third coat of underglaze. Next, I paint wax over the places that will stay white and when the wax dries I put cobalt blue stain and black underglaze on the unwaxed areas. The pieces go back into the kiln; the wax fires off, and the design is set. Then I glaze them and fire on the glaze.
NB: How long does your process typically take?
EK: It took around eight months to make and decorate the eight sculptures included in the show at The Fabric Workshop and Museum. It takes a day or two to roll the slabs for each piece, another day or two to assemble the slabs, and then the sculptures have to dry for a few weeks before the first firing. Finding the right painting for each piece takes as long as it has to. The fabric took several months too, as I did a lot of different watercolor drawings before choosing the three final designs.
NB: Wow, that is fantastic! I’d love to hear more about Fountain with Arches and Nautilus Border (2019). How long did it take you to make that work? Can you tell us a little bit about how the work came to be? And — congratulations, it was acquired for the Whitney, which is very exciting! I remember seeing it in a gallery, and being blown away. I am thrilled it landed at such an important institution.
EK: I have known the artist Tabboo! for a long time and liked his paintings. I went on a trip to Rome and Naples with my friend Jacob Robichaux (who founded the gallery Gordon Robichaux with Sam Gordon, and represents Tabboo!). We went to the Naples Archaeological Museum, which is filled with the Roman frescoes removed from Pompeii. I have done several site-specific wall paintings for exhibitions, and Jacob and I started wondering what Tabboo! would do if he painted a mural. We dreamt up a show that would have a room with Tabboo!’s colorful wall painting on one side and a room with my black and white wall painting on the other side. I made the two fountains for the longer, rectangular space between the rooms, in front of a wall that was covered with Tabboo!’s blue/green drawings of plants with words. It was our version of a Roman garden. Jacob helped me construct styrofoam models to get the proportions right for the fountains. Then I made them, which took a few months.
NB: Who did the plumbing work?
EK: Jacob! I sent away for the pumps, and the plumbing is quite simple. But since ceramic shapes can change during firing, it was a challenge to get everything level so the water could flow equally on each side. Jacob was patient enough to figure it out, using wax and coins to adjust.
NB: Was there ever a time when you were making your fountains that, due to inconsistency in ceramic, you had to start again?
EK: Yes. The big basins at the bottom were the hardest. I tried glazing the underside of one, but when I took it out of the kiln (it had been fired raised on stilts at the corners) it had sagged and bent; it wouldn’t sit level. I had to re-do that piece and leave the bottom unglazed.
NB: Why don’t you tell us a little about your exhibition at The Fabric Workshop and Museum in Philadelphia, Minutes of Sand? And what the title means.
EK: I have the catalog from a really wonderful Alfred Jarry show at the Morgan Library last year (which I actually missed because of the pandemic). I love Alfred Jarry’s woodcuts. The title is taken from his first published book, Les Minutes de Sable Memorial (Memorial Minutes of Black Sand). I had been thinking that I would maybe use some of his designs for my ceramics, but I wound up sticking with Egypt as my source because there was so much more to work with.
The show came about because the curator, Karen Patterson, had seen my work at the Independent Art Fair in 2018. I had done a solo booth with my gallery Canada, including ceramics, paintings on cloth, drawings and wall painting. When she started working at Fabric Workshop, she invited me to come and make colored silkscreened fabric and exhibit it with my ceramics.
I came up with a lot of ideas for the installation. I wanted the color to move through the exhibition. The fabric was silkscreened with three different designs, so there are three wall hangings, and three lengths of fabric placed on low wooden platforms, like rugs. There are also pedestals that I designed, in special shapes. When I arrived in Philadelphia for the installation, I did black paintings on the blank areas of the floor platforms and also on the pedestals. There is also a screen, with fabric on one side and black painting on the reverse.
NB: A lot of your work is in black and white, where did that come from?
EK: I always used color, but I also made black and white ink studies for my ceramic designs. In 2014, I decided to try making the ceramics black and white, and got so interested that I’ve been doing it ever since. There is endless variety as I change the proportions of black to white. I’m also fascinated by reversing positive and negative space. For a while, I made flasks that had the same design on both sides, one black and white and the other white on black.
NB: It’s a really big hit and has become your signature style!
NB: Is there anything coming up that you’re able to talk about, in terms of shows or new bodies of work? Could you share with us a glimpse of what’s to come?
EK: I haven’t had a show at Canada since 2016, so I am working towards a show there in the not too distant future. I’m hoping to come up with new shapes for the ceramic sculptures, and another complex installation.
NB: Congratulations on your show opening in Philadelphia! I absolutely adore your work and I am so excited to be able to share your story and share your works.
NB: You have been working at the prestigious NXTHVN Residency in New Haven, Connecticut for the past year. What has been your greatest learning throughout this process? Can you tell us a little about the ambition and purpose of the residency?
IS: The residency is in year two, so it’s still growing and evolving. The main ethos that seems to permeate is about creating a space where very early career artists can receive the kind of mentorship that is otherwise hard to access. It was founded by Titus Kaphar, he makes a great effort to unlock a lot of the ‘secrets of the trade.’ There are many things that are withheld or passed down only to an elite few in this world and Titus really wants to create an environment where that process is democratised in a different way. I’ve learned a tremendous amount about what it means to engage with the people that give me the platforms to share my work, such as galleries and collectors while retaining my sense of self in my studio so I can continue to think about how I make my work, about painting, and about my place in the history of art, if I get the privilege of having one.
We learn how to engage with people that actually have power in this industry in a way that someone, early in their career, has not experienced yet. It has also been a discovery process for myself and realizing that actually I do have power, and it turns out, a lot more power than I originally thought — that shift was a big one for me. Artists have a lot of power if we just talk to each other, if we communicate our experiences, I believe this is what helps takes the keys away from toxic people. And in a more personal way, I have learned very much about what it means to trust my own instincts, both in my work and with people.
NB: So NXTHVN really provides that supportive environment that can really prepare artists as they transition from the institution of the university to the art world, and it provides that business experience, expertise, and insight to how the art market and its players interact and how you can best work with them?
IS: Absolutely, there’s definitely an understanding that this is your job, and there is no shame in acknowledging that you want to live off of it. For some reason, people like to shame artists out of financially supporting themselves through their own work, and I don’t subscribe to that. To each their own, but I think at the end of the day we all need to pay for health insurance in this country, at the very least, not to mention that making art is expensive. Everybody has a different way of approaching their work. But money is exchanging hands, going into someone’s pocket, I believe in the artist getting to have a pocket. In order to get there though, you have to know what it is that you’re working with — whether you want to make changes to the industry from within, subscribe to it and perpetuate it, or burn it all to the ground. Whatever it is, this is the [art] market and this is how it works, and NXTHVN is definitely a place that doesn’t shy away from the uncomfortable conversations about what you’re walking into.
NB: Last time I was at your studio, I got a glimpse into your powerful new body of work and we talked about how you tapped into your childhood memories. Do you want to tell us a little about that, and specifically about the character that features throughout?
IS: I grew up in Colombia, as did my mother and most of my family, yet nationality has always been a complicated subject for me. My family is all Jewish and from all over the world, so they ended up in Colombia as a result of many different diasporas. My father is Egyptian and my mother is Venezuelan, but her family is Romanian and Polish, and all were expelled or escaped from their respective countries, so I actually have a very complicated relationship with the idea of heritage. I have a very personal relationship, and a very acute relationship, with what it means to grow up in a place, to leave that place, and to have it exist as memory, the uncanny feelings of having home be both familiar and unfamiliar.
The experience of placelessness is a big aspect of my work, and informs how I approach any sort of ‘truth’ in the paintings. My work doesn’t deal with any particular nationality because I don’t really have one— landscapes and geographies do not really apply to me. With that in mind, I was deeply impacted by the experience of growing up Colombian, and specifically growing up surrounded by the Carnaval de Barranquilla, which happens in my hometown every year. Barranquilla is the city that hosts the second largest carnival in the world so while it’s only three days a year, it leaks into the culture of the entire coast. The ethos of the carnival has had such a strong impact on who I am, who I grew up around, and how I approach things. The idea of resisting and flipping social norms, of using the exaggeration of the body as a way to mock, to resist, and to protest oppressive boundaries; the grotesque body and idea of ‘the uncanny’ as an access point. All these things that are true to the carnival feel true to how I approach my work. These are themes and acts that I’ve located myself, my identity and my experience though, and they’ve permeated my work, through color, in a major way. Lately I’ve been working with the features of marimonda, a prominent figure of the Colombian carnival, which always fascinated me as a child. I use the features of the marimonda, which are big eyes, a floppy nose, big lips, which are said to be the combination of a number of different animals but it has this really phallic appearance; it looks like human genitalia, it is really strange. I bring in these features in part to locate figures in the work. The origin of the costume is said to have been a way to mock the oppressive elite of the time. Of course, as with any kind of folkloric history, it is passed down through word of mouth, so a lot of things aren’t historically concrete, but that’s the way it’s said to have been. In recent years it was brought into the carnival, so I am also really interested in its history, and it’s evolution.
NB: Tell us a little about your exhibition at Deli Gallery where you just had a sell out show, congratulations! Can you speak to that body of work, and how everything that you’ve just talked about translated into the show?
IS: My work deals with the body in all its different states, that includes all the things that live on the body. It poses the question of: who gets to have a body? What constitutes a body, and where does it start and end? If we are our bodies, we are also all the things that live on us — we are our viruses, our parasites, we are everything that threatens and consumes us; we are in a constant state of flux. The original idea was for the show to be a series of small paintings, all around 16 x 20, focusing on the microscopic bodies as the real estate in the paintings. As I started to develop this work, I realized that I didn’t feel ready for a show that only focused on that because I’m still at a state where it’s about the simultaneity of all bodies and organisms and identities coexisting and propelling power as they locate home, history and heritage. The show very quickly became about focusing on that process. I’m thinking of the way I make these paintings as creating paths for these bodies, and then derailing those paths. I’ve been thinking about this show as that process of derailment, and really showing different elements and different moments of that process throughout the space.
NB: The deconstruction of the body has been a theme in your work for a long time, since I first met you, including plastic surgery techniques and how they could be incorporated abstractly into painting. The way in which you approach the body is so fresh, and then your use of the color palette on top of that is gorgeous. I have the pleasure of living with two of Ilana’s works.
IS: Yes, that’s true you have two different stages in the evolution of this work! I think this concept is definitely something I am going to work with for a very long time. I don’t know how to exist in the world without being fully aware of my own body at all times. I think it comes from always feeling that I’ve been given a box that was too small, a chair that was too small, or a boundary that was too small. Being told — in the context of my body and my identity — to take up as little space as possible; I am never not aware of how I spill out. I’m going to call that a huge privilege of having a big body: I get to know my environment more, I get to know every space I’m in, and I get to make these paintings from that [experience]. I am always going to break it down. I am always going to break down the body because it doesn’t make any sense to me.
All the figures in my work are multiple figures, and they’re also all the same figure. That is what I mean by ‘untruth’ — the process of one ‘truth’ ‘untruthing’ another, but also never really allowing for that to happen. There is always going to be more than one body, but it’s just a matter of what constitutes a body. But then, at the same time, I consider them all the same body and also all real estate for more bodies. There is a constant in that they all have the same features but aside from that I don’t isolate into a gesture. I try to use as many different ways of thinking about and applying paint as possible, so I don’t separate figures from environments. I don’t separate figures from each other through gestures, so it really becomes about how I like to have [the work] constantly delivering different things the more time you spend on it. As soon as you decide that you’ve found something, it’s derailed, and you’re somewhere else. I want that to be a constant spinning wheel or something.
NB: What’s next for you? You just mentioned that this is an area you’re going to continue to work in for a while, are you planning to expand this series? What does life after NXTHVN look like?
IS: Yes, I am actually working toward another solo show this year. This one is going to be at Kohn Gallery in LA. I am going to say it’s a continuation of this series, for sure, because these are works that I have been doing simultaneously. They are going to be larger paintings. In larger spaces, I am able to expand on the figure much more. I like to think of the body as real estate for more things, more bodies, more gestures and more textures. More space for these bodies, and more bodies for this real estate. So I am excited about that, that is sort of the focus at the moment. So, post-NXTHVN it’s going to be about continuing this work!
NB: Why don’t you tell us about your story up until you were accepted into the Yale MFA Program?
KB: I was born and raised in Memphis, Tennessee, same house 18 years. I grew up in a very religious household, Seventh-day Adventist and Baptist. So I would go to church twice every weekend. From there I ended up going to undergrad in Connecticut at Wesleyan University. I was originally studying Political Science and Arabic and was convinced I would be a Foreign Service Officer. Low and behold I ended up taking art courses and found my passion. This is where I was willing to stay up all night to get the work done. From there I moved to New Orleans, where I worked in the film industry as a lighting technician. It was a wonderful gig, where you’re on set for a couple months and you have enough money for the year, so I could keep painting. I really enjoyed it in Louisiana. I was showing and receiving attention for my work. I had the feeling that “Ok, this could be a successful career.” However I felt that there were still a lot of gaps in my knowledge. There’s the things you know you don’t know and then on top of that there are the things you don’t even know you don’t know. I figured it was as good a time as any to reapply to grad school. It was my second time applying. I applied to Yale after undergrad and was waitlisted after a difficult interview experience. The second time I interviewed and had a much more generative experience. In the span of a 30 minute interview the two professors asked questions about my work that I had never considered. Finally I was excited at the possibility of attending because here was a place that I could undoubtedly learn some things I didn’t know I didn’t know.
NB: What types of themes do you explore in your work? How has your journey of growing up in the South, going to school in Connecticut, and working in New Orleans contributed to your practice in the last two years?
KB: In the most simple sense, I’m interested in figure-ground relationships. Particularly the background of the South, the American U.S., and how written into the landscape is the history and narrative of the figures occupying it. It allows the space of imagination within the landscape. You aren’t immediately given the histories of the traumas but you can sort of see the history or legacy of it through the shadows. Light and shadow are also an important theme, and the conception around light being historically seen as knowledge, safety, and awe-inspiring. I’m interested in the idea that difficult things can still happen in broad day-light. Questions of joy and trauma are all wrapped into one. I think its Saidiya Hartman, a Wesleyan and Yale alum, she was talking about how she wasn’t interested in displaying outright trauma but rather the spaces where celebration and tragedy are so intertwined you can hardly separate them. I’m interested in this idea of light as both a harbinger of safety but at the same time, light casts shadows. You can’t have shadows without light. Light is intrinsically tied to falling out of view or being hidden.
NB: What really struck me in your work, particularly the pieces where the figure is absent, in the “Blue Series”, the freshness of the greens and the brightness of the blues, but the figure is missing. It’s jarring because it’s so fresh and inviting, yet there’s this history through the absence of the figure or through the homes or the landscape that’s gives it a darkness the viewer internalizes. Even though the painting is so vibrant and stunning, the trauma is internalized in the viewer but not on the canvas. It’s very clever.
KB: It’s meant to be a “spoonful of sugar”. It’s beautiful, inviting, bright, happy. But naturally in a lot of people there’s an idea of incredulity. Something’s up, something’s missing.
NB: Are there any writers, poets, or artists you’re looking at right now in the studio?
KB: Most definitely. I’ve actually been reading Dave Hickey’s first book, Invisible Dragon. He talks about how things should be beautiful. I felt that immensely when I went to Venice and visited the Galleria dell’Accademia to see the Tintoretto panels and Tiepolo ceiling paintings. It took me back. I was like “woah” this is inspiring. They’re from hundreds of years ago. From a time when people dedicated their entire lives – generations of lives – to making things beautiful. That’s a paramount goal in my work, I want to make beautiful paintings. It can still be beautiful and challenging.
NB: And it can still be dark!
KB: It can be dark! Again, spoonful of sugar. It helps you swallow some of the darker histories if they’re told in a beautiful way. At any rate I’m loving the book. The way he’s able to talk about how Caravaggio collapsed the space between the viewer and the painting. Even to look is to be involved with Doubting St. Thomas. To look is to doubt. The painting performs its ethos and message in its meaning. Some other artists – Hurvin Anderson, I’ve been looking at a lot. He won the Turner Prize a few years ago. Another person deeply invested in looking at background space and landscape to the point that he’s going over and over these spaces, redoing them, pulling them apart, reimagining them. And Patrick Caulfield, making these pretty paintings about composition and design in a very interesting sort of way. Other than that, I’m still reading Brothers of Karamazov by Dostoyevsky. I’ve been reading it for 7 years now. I’d gotten 500 pages in before grad school and put it down for a couple years, now I’m picking it back up. That’ll be a lifelong journey.
NB: Is there a body of work you’re focused on right now?
KB: I’m still fixated on the” Blue Series”. It hasn’t come to fruition the way I want it to. I want a complete show of these works. I have the title and I already know the organization, but I’m still working on building it up. Other than that, I’ve been working on a series of dark paintings, just playing around with how low of a value range I can work in. I think the two bodies sort of inform each other. In one you have the idea of the outdoors; the precarity and sublime of that outdoors tied to a radical blue sky, which is traditionally meant to connote safety, up against a series of works that are trying to convey intimacy and comfort in dark unseen spaces – which are traditionally meant to be scary or unsafe. It’s an inversion of traditional tropes of light in art history and culture. It’s not an wholly original thought: David Hammonds had that amazing piece where he blacked out an entire gallery and gave attendees flashlights that were impossible to use. To be seen is to be unsafe, and the safest point is in a corner in the dark where no one can see you.
NB: I think exploring the different levels of darkness in a series isn’t something you see all the time. Being able to find ways to interplay shades of darkness with some type of beautiful scene really plays against the notion we have in our minds that darkness is danger. I love how you’re exploring the binary of that darkness and light and how it plays on the viewer’s sense of safety and security and those traditional notions.
KB: I think also of the idea of wanting more, wanting to complete the picture with light. There’s a stoking of curiosity.
NB: And with that dark painting that you have, it invites the viewer to examine it closely to see how the shades are playing with each other to create that dimension. Do you want to talk about recent or upcoming shows?
KB: I was in a couple of interesting group shows towards the end of this year. “Voices” which was curated by Anwarii Musa had a really great collection of artists: Jeffrey Meris, Derrick Adams, Nate Lewis, my good friend Dominic Chambers. I was also in a smaller show in Brooklyn titled “American Socialist Realism” at Rumpelstiltskin gallery. I was shown alongside Martin Wong, Tseng Kwon Chi, Hannah La Follette Ryan and Clark Filio. I think the curators were asking interesting questions about figuration; placing realist figuration within the idea of propaganda. I think we can easily get locked into the idea of figuration/representation as an immediate celebration. Which isn’t always the case. You can represent terrible things. There’s various aspects of human life to represent. There are very important questions about who has traditionally been represented and a necessary redress of underrepresented bodies. But representation is complicated. Multiple poles can be brought into the idea of figuration.
NB: So you clearly have an inspirational story and I believe you’re destined for greatness. But what advice do you give to young artists? As a professor, what advice do you give to your students and to young artists figuring out if they should pursue a life as an artist?
KB: As an art professor, it’s funny how often this question comes up. I’ve had students come up and ask what they can do to become a successful artist. Sure take your work seriously, challenge yourself, but it really boils down to just not quitting. Don’t quit.
NB: What are creative legacies and why is this field of expertise so important to study?
KB: A creative legacy is the sum total of what is left behind in any creative practitioner’s life and career. Most people think about work. Like when Rothko died, you think of all of the paintings that are left. It’s much more than just work, it’s things like an archive. So perhaps receipts, which tell us what kind of paints he bouhth would help with restoration. Or receipts that tell us who his framer was or who built the stretchers. This also includes letters from people. Bryan and I have worked with an artist for example who was quite close with Calder, but he’s much less known. So, letters between him and Calder or experiences like an oral history recorded with his children detailing Calder’s influence on him is part of understanding that artists’ work. It’s also things like real estate and money. Those things are also part of creative legacies because you have the tier of successful artists where they have more than one or more houses or apartments but then also some unsuccessful artists who were able to obtain real estate in the 70s when Soho was super cheap and now that’s worth a lot of money. They were able to sustain a radical art practice without having to be an A list artist, but that’s still left behind as part of their legacy. So all of these things have to be worked out, it’s not just the art. The legacy lives on in their family and in their studio assistants or managers that have a wealth of expertise in their own bodies and minds.
BF: I started working with artists and their estates and families 10 years ago. I was supporting Douglas Baxter in his office. We were working with Judd and Sol Lewitt. I had the privilege of learning with that level of studio practice. These were wealthier artists, wealthier estates. These are artists who have collections of other A list artists. When you’re dealing with significant artists critically and commercially, you can do a lot more. Like Nicole, your experience with Rauschenberg. You can do so many more things with money. You can have internships, you can have foundations, you can have separate businesses within the estate and foundation. The creative legacy is really about what we do with the resources that are left. The idea is to do this before the artist is dead. It’s a two-parter. This is a conversation the artist starts before their death, which continues after they die. It’s about the artist’s intentions. Really, it’s economic. How do we manage the remaining assets of this artist? Whether they are art assets, the body of work, the archive materials, or critical dialogue surrounding the artists. That’s the job of the gallerist. Who’s seeing this work, who’s working on this retrospective? Are we talking to MOMA? The Whitney? The Guggenheim? Pompidou? There’s a critical conversation that’s economic, and there’s an economic conversation that has nothing to do with the body of the estate. There’s two parts of an artist’s estate–the creative estate and the “stuff” left from a life that everyone has. They’re kept a bit separate, but at the end of the day the artist’s studio still has to deal with the body of work.
KB: What Bryan said about their own collection was very interesting because some artit’s also have collections of other artist’s work. It’s interesting to go into someone’s flat files and find a Robert Smithson drawing or a Peter Beard written on in a pile of papers in their desk drawers. Those are the kinds of discoveries that you make because artists are friends and swapping with other artists.
BF: You really start to see the influence then. This was another area of research that came out of this. You start to see studio practice being influenced by various elements other than strict art and art history. What are their gallerist friends saying to them? What are the other artists saying to them? What are their collector friends saying to them? How is all of this feedback coming in and re-influencing what they’re making? Sometimes they chose the color blue not because of something esoteric or ephemeral but because blue sells. You don’t know until you read a note someone wrote that this was a commercial choice that they made. Which is fine, it is what it is, but you have to know.
NB: I do feel like this field has been a relatively new point of interest for the art world. The realization that there needs to be more academic study and dedicated professionals to this area has developed mostly by seeing travesties with artists’ estates. The realization that there needed to be more structure and rigor to this portion of an artist’s life and beyond. There is such a lack of academic writing in this field. Where was the genesis of the book? What kind of gaps were you looking to fill?
BF: I was teaching at Sotheby’s and Kathy asked me to lecture with her in the Estates class. We were looking for readings and couldn’t find anything. I said kiddingly, we should write a book. Kathy turns to me, dead serious, “Darling, we have to do this”. I’m sitting there thinking we’re just pontificating, but it really started materializing.
KB: We were at my corner office at Sotheby’s. We knew Loretta Wuürtenberger’s book was coming out because Carl von Trot had gone to Sotheby’s, and we were in touch with him still. We were waiting for it to come out for the class. We thought of doing our own book. We proposed one to Lund Humphries since it has a relationship with Sotheby’s institute. They were keen on it. The timing was also good because the editor Lucy Meyers, who’s wonderful, was coming to New York two weeks later to talk about a possible book. It was very organic.
BF: It happened very quickly.
NB: Was the intention always to have contributors? What drove your thinking around the format of the book?
KB: It was the fact that we thought we could get different and disparate points of view like legal, archival, or curatorial from getting different people involved. For example, Bryan had the idea to get Alexandra Bowes-Lyon to write about English country-houses and the art in them which was fascinating because that whole structure changed so much in the 20th century. My knowledge was limited to Downton Abbey. We had a person whose family actually lived through it and knew it. That was great.
Then, you know, someone like Natalie Khan, who’s dealing with this quite a lot in fashion. She’s researching people like Leigh Bowery. The idea for us in getting different disciplines was that although there’s no one size fits all even for artists, you can make some structure, there’s something every estate should do, but each one is so unique. You can’t just take a blueprint and put any artist’s estate into it. There are always curveballs. What we thought too is, wow, this is so similar to a film director, architect, fashion designer, or jewelry designer’s estate. There are archives, the works, the oral history handed down in ateliers. We thought it would be interesting to extend the discussion to other disciplines. All of the books on estates so far have been focused on the visual arts.
BF: For me, a few things stood out. Just nuances. The contributor list changed. There’s a difference between practitioners and academics. It’s a different approach to what’s being discussed. That’s what we wanted. We wanted people with granular knowledge who were in the trenches and people who necessarily weren’t but had studied this. They were granular on a different level. Some contributors had to fall out because they didn’t know how to discuss it because it’s such a nascent thing. There isn’t a field of creative legacy practitioners. It’s people who deal with art in different capacities. I think a lot of people are dealing with creative legacies in their own ways. You don’t go to school to do this. You fall into it. Artists say “Hey, can you help me put together an estate plan.” Or “Hey, can you help me liquidate or sell or find a gallery.” Robin Wright, a jewelry specialist who’s a friend of mine at the auction house, was keen to write something with us. She gave us an image from Verdura, the jewelry house. Even Verdura was buying back pieces into their own collection. the image she chose was a work they had bought back into their own collection. It was an early broach. It was fascinating because the clearance sheet I received was signed by a member of the Vedura family. It was ironic because here we are talking about creative legacies and here we have a major jewelry house using this essay as a way of managing their creative legacy. This is a minor thing in how they view their estate, but it was still part of it. They’re artisans, but they’re not conceptual painters or performance artists. You can see the threads to Kathy’s points in the similarities between the modalities. What’s staggering is how different each situation is.
NB: I find it really fascinating when you see how the fashion houses or couture houses take their iconic pieces back into the archives. They realize how incredibly important it is to build up and document that archive through the years. For artists, they go into museums, but outside of the visual arts, where do those iconic pieces live? They can’t be in grandma’s dresser. To bring them back into the ateliers is a way of preserving their own history. Do you see this book as an intellectual resource or a handbook or something else?
KB: We were adamant that we didn’t want to make a handbook. First of all, the Würtenburger book is good at taking you through the different things that need to be done and giving you a time estimate on it. There’s also a book by an artist widow that is sort of like a handbook. Then there is the Handbook For Artist’s Estates that is kind of old now. We didn’t want to do a handbook. We wanted to do something where people could have more freedom to talk about intellectual problems or issues that come up. Like where Mark Morris talks about architectural models and how they are so useful for pedagogical reasons, or the way Tom McNulty writes about appraising libraries or archives. We wanted to give people leeway to write on what they found interesting about legacies. Everyone has their own personal experience with it. Ann-Marie Richard had amazing experiences with celebrity estates, a lot of it that she’s not allowed to talk about. As a footnote to this, it was very interesting to see how estates and foundations are careful about how people write and talk about the work. It is an increasing trend that they want to see everything that’s written by a scholar.
BF: Just the process really taught us a lot about what people are willing to say, what they are not willing to say, which in some cases is understandable. People are just so unsure about how things are going to affect their artist or estate.
NB: How do you see the field of legacy planning expanding into the future?
BF: We talked about this a bit with Loretta Würtenburger when we interviewed her two or three years ago. We were at Art Basel and we happened to meet up. It was serendipitous. There are a lot more students too who are saying that they want to be a legacy planner. I didn’t know that was a thing. I’m like, yeah, you need to go to law school. Or you need to get into investment, which has nothing to do with art and artists’ legacies but then you can work with that. It was interesting just to hear where people are coming from. I think there should be an educational opportunity for a certificate that guides you through the issues at hand. At the end of the day, if you’re an artist’s legacy practitioner, you need to be the quarterback. Or studio manager. You need to come in and be the person who is taking everything into account. Managing the financial advisor, the lawyer, the studio, the family.
NB: And you’re applying the art world knowledge and practices across all of them.
KB: I think what we’re seeing now are more agencies developing to deal with artist’s estates. I think we saw this with Sotheby’s when they went into this. It’s such a boutique industry. Each estate takes so much work and so much finesse, it’s almost better for independent practitioners. For the people who are artists and artist’s families to see the role of the artist advisor to shepherd estates too. It’s very hard to take on ten estates for any company. I think most of these places have a few artists that they maintain very well. I think Sotheby’s plan was to have 12 artists at a time. I think it’s unbelievable how much finessing there is with each estate.
BF: At the end of the day, these are really emotional situations. Whether we’re selling works from a private collection or creating an estate plan, you have intimate knowledge of people’s lives.
NB: It’s not always the conversation that people want to have prior to their death. It’s a difficult topic for an individual and their family members to have to face.
BF: Especially artists. Artists want to live forever, and in a way, their work will.
Derek Fordjour’s paintings, notable for their layered textures and materials, address complex themes of race, inequality and American society. Fordjour has achieved astonishing commercial success and firmly cemented his place in the art world. At Frieze art fair in 2019, he sold 10 paintings to Jay-Z and Beyonce. He often depicts Black athletes and performers–dancers, riders, rowers, drum-majors–characters that “navigate the ambiguities that come with their achievement, and the racial scrutiny that accompanies visibility in the mainstream culture.” With his newer work, however, less emphasis has been placed on these performative roles, and more on memorializing Black lives lost this year.
He explores mourning in a new ensemble painting “Chorus of Maternal Grief”, creating specific portraits of women like Mamie Till-Mobley, Emmett Till’s mother, Tamika Palmer, and Breonna Taylor’s mother. In “Pallbearers”, he features the coffin of George Floyd. The works are on view alongside other installations, including a puppet show, at Petzel Gallery in “Self Must Die”. Accompanying Fordjour’s show is an epigraph from “In the Wake: On Blackness and Being” written by scholar Christina Sharpe. Sharpe writes “What does it look like, entail and mean to attend to, care for, comfort, and defend those already dead, those dying, and those living lives consigned to the possibility of always-imminent death, life lived in the presence of death… it means work.” Sharpe refers to “wake work”, an “ensemble of activities, grand and mundane, that acknowledge and address Black death, and in doing so, affirm Black life”. Fordjour addresses this concept alongside Black liberation theory and studies of Black mourning within his new work.
N: Can you tell us your story up until you were accepted into the Yale program?
C: I’ll start with a story about my high school experience because it’s how I got into embroidery, which is always featured in my practice. I was a senior in high school when I first took art. I had a teacher who would bounce ideas off of me. One day, she showed me a book on this artist, Daryl Morrison, an embroiderer who embroidered narratives about his upbringing. He wouldn’t use image references to create them; they were more imagined and illustrative. She asked me what I’d think about assigning a project like that for the class and having each student bring in a photograph to embroider. That’s how this journey started: I brought in a photograph and was able to embroider it. I was able to do it really quickly and she assigned me to do an entire portfolio of 12 of them. I ended up applying to the Art Institute with that work. It all happened so quickly. I was accepted into the Art Institute and actually studied education instead of art. I wanted to be a teacher and create an impact on someone’s life. I ended up getting my Bachelor’s of Arts Education, so I started teaching in Chicago public schools for 3 years. I taught art full time. It was a nice experience for me, but I didn’t have a lot of time to be in the studio or a practicing artist. It’s something I always had a desire to do. I always had these creative projects and ideas for my students that came from my own interests and wanting to make art myself. I ended up leaving teaching, just to have the opportunity to express and create a body of work. For a year, I didn’t have a job. I worked in the basement creating a portfolio to apply to grad schools to study art specifically and get a master’s. I made this portfolio from 2017-2018 and ended up applying to seven different universities and grad programs. I got into all of them except for one. I went to Skowhegan using the same portfolio. It was so crazy because I didn’t have a lot of exposure to art. I was mainly focusing on education and psychology—so I didn’t get a lot of that background. When I went to Skowhegan, it prepped me for being in a program like Yale. It exposed me to readings and artists that I was super unfamiliar with that actually helped to inform my practice when I started grad school at Yale.
N: Why don’t we talk about some of the themes you explore in your work and how has your journey contributed to this? How do the various materials contribute to the idea?
C: I guess I’ll start at the beginning, around the time I was creating these bodies of work. I came from the interest of working with family photographs. I continued that because I look at family photo albums all the time. I know a lot of people do because it’s different from looking at a digital device. It’s so nice to have something tangible. Something shot in film is so different from being shot on your phone. I look at family photo albums out of pure nostalgia and a desire to be seen as an individual that can aspire to be anything that they want to be. As I was growing into adulthood, some of the ways that I wanted to identify were not accepted or rejected. The pull and distance created in my relationships with my family were making me self-aware of not having a space of belonging. I was craving to have those things I would find in family photo albums and to investigate where they were or where they got lost over the course of time. I started to recreate them in these large-scale embroideries, which I was making in 2017. Everybody loves to look back at their pasts and at their family. Giving people access into Black family structure was something I didn’t realize I was doing at the time. When viewers would actually engage with the work, I could tell they were looking at a world they didn’t have access to before. Even crafting these domestic scenes out of fibers, using things like pillowcases, brought things home to people. They saw how familial bonds were created through families like mine with the tenderness of these relationships and how fragile they are. A fragility is presented in the bodies that aren’t represented as well. People have a level of care and can relate to those images that I make of my family. That’s what that work was about. Even now, some of those things are finding their way into the bodies I make even when I’m not directly showing something that’s pictorial in my work. People can see the humanity—I want the humanity to be present in the work in the way that I’m handling the body. There’s this reconstruction of a being from being constantly oppressed, beat down, misrepresented or projected upon in these misinformed ways. I try to correct this and shift the viewer’s eyes and show a psychological perspective. I bring that through material too, as material has its own history or it’s weathered or not polished. You can see its scarring and how those things occurred through its activities without you being present. You end up finding ways to repurpose it and reconstruct back into a form where it’s not devalued.
N: Allowing the material to almost live like your skin, because your skin is scarred and has bruises and marks. It’s a living organism like the materials you used. When you mentioned your embroidery, pillowcases, fragility and tenderness that comes with that, all I could think about is the smell of someone’s pillowcases. When you put your head down on that pillow and get that “ah, this is my bed” it conjures the nostalgia and comfort of your home, and how you grew up. It’s a beautiful way to look at these things.
C: It’s so crazy how our senses are activated from something we remember. I was watching a TV show I hadn’t seen in years. Over the summer, I just said “Let me find it on Hulu.” I rented it and was watching it in my room in the dark. Immediately, I felt immersed in a setting or time period where I used to watch the show all the time. It overwhelmed my whole experience. I felt like I was back at that age in the room I was watching it in. I hadn’t felt something so intense. I felt so nostalgic.
N: It’s an intangible feeling. Let’s talk a little bit about the last year. I know you were recently featured in the show and subsequent catalogue “Young, Gifted, and Black” with Bernard Lumpkin. You have some extraordinarily talented friends, some that are friends of mine. Who do you look at in the generation before you for inspiration and admiration?
C: I know that that book is going to make an impact on artists. It’s so crazy to even think about. The work in that book is so strong and experimental. Bernard’s collection has a nice, rich variety. It’s such a genius idea. For that work in particular, I was looking at a lot of popular culture. But for composition and color I was looking at this court case illustrator. This woman illustrated the Cosby trials, Christine Cornell. The way that she composes her court case scene are like a scale of individuals enlarged to show exaggeration or give weight to the actual mood occurring with her ability to use color. She did a lot of drawing with chalk pastels. That’s how I translate images: I translate them into pastel drawings. I got that from looking at her drawings. That’s a nice approach to understand color, human anatomy, and muscles. I was really learning from the way that she composed mood. I also sometimes just look at things that pop up on social media or even googling certain words and seeing what images I link to those words in search engines. I get a lot of inspiration from that. Another artist I was looking at was Lauren DiCioccio, a soft sculpture artist that embroiders The New York Times in painterly, fluid ways, allowing the thread to hang freely. She wasn’t just doing that, she was making soft sculptures of things like polaroids, shopping bags recreated out of fabric and fiber. I just thought that was a way to kind of elevate and archive a moment in your history. It is mundane, minute, or overlooked, but you have taken the time to care for this object and give it a sense of importance. I really liked her aesthetic and tried to incorporate some of those techniques into my own practice. I was also looking at Sedrick Huckabee, who is also Yale alumni. He painted these little paintings of domestic spaces that pulled the eyes in dramatic ways, like the foreshortening of an image or a perspective pushed back. He has these images of his grandmother in a bedroom scene that are really painterly. The paintings have a kinetic appeal to them, even though there in the mixed format of paint or whatever material the artist is exploring.
N: Can you tell us about your most recent shows and residencies, and what’s coming up?
C: I’m in a group show in Beacon New York, “Parts and Labor”. I was just in the group show “Myself” at Kohn Gallery in LA, which ended this month. I’m going to be in my own solo show at Kohn Gallery in March. I recently finished Fountainhead Residency. I was there for a month and it was amazing. It was in Miami. Kathryn Mikesell and Dan Mikesell are amazing, they run the residency space. I’m going to be in Art Basel and I’m showing work with P.P.O.W. in New York. I’m showing an embroidery and three drawings. I’m also going to be represented by P.P.O.W. and Kohn. Plus, I have some exciting things coming up in the new year. Lots to look forward to!
NICOLE BRAY ART ADVISOR & APPRAISER, MANHATTAN, NY
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