In “If He Hollers, Let Him Go”, Rachel Kaadzi’s Ghansah’s penetrating essay on “the post-Dave Chappelle” era we find ourselves within presently, the essayist delves deeply into the comedian’s politically conscious upbringing. Underscoring the Pan-Africanist and Black intellectualist roots of Chappelle’s mother and father, Ghansah argues that perhaps the comedian’s racially-charged body of work and infamous 2003 departure from his eponymous show was pre-destined. The comedian has only made small efforts to surface again in the public eye, but his provocative handling of race has remained a huge influence to Black creatives across platforms ever since.
Some ten years later, enter painter, Devin Troy Strother.
Wielding a paintbrush, rather than a mic stand, the visual artist is not your typical professional comedian, nor does he have any desire to assume the perch of the art world’s “Black role model.” However, his growing oeuvre would suggest that he’s just as skilled at tackling controversial race topics with the use of humor. Where Dave Chappelle’s comedic work was rooted in his depiction of what it meant to be Black in America, Strother’s tackles the assumed roles and expectations of such an identity.
Timelier than a punch line, the California-raised artist deems that his work continues where contemporaries, Kara Walker and Glenn Ligions’ stops. Instead of recounting Black American history, Strother documents the present. Since entering the mainstream art world in 2009, Strother’s work has predominantly revolved around the creation of his exaggerated Black & White silhouettes. Through the visual interplay of their bodies, the artist is able to provide biting and graphic critiques of these often awkward, startling, and humorous exchanges.
Drawn with large white scleras, blue irises, wide red lips, and large white smiles, his painting’s feature Black protagonists who both evoke and appropriate established signifiers of black face. In turn, through a kaleidoscopic use of color, they intermingle with Strother’s White characters (who are depicted as physical juxtapositions to their Black counterparts) to outrageous and colorful results. Creating social critiques on power structures, beauty, violence, and interracial sex, Strother’s White characters are in turn featured with black eyes, pink lips, flowing blonde or brown hair. The figures’ physical sameness has, in fact, raised the question for many, ‘Is it White people that he’s drawing overall–just in Black face–again?’
In his L.A. based show, Look At All My Shit!, on view at Richard Heller Gallery through early November, and his upcoming New York show, I Just Landed in Rome, Nigga, opening at Marlborough Broome Street on November 17th, the provocative artist also plays relentlessly with the dynamics of race and language. This is no better exemplified than in the cheeky titles of his very work, they relying heavily on street slang and the language’s innate power to include and exclude. Take for instance, “My Momma’s House is So Abstract, so Contemporary that Shit Look Like a Morandi Tho.”, said Keniecia to Shaniecia, This is my Momma’s House when it was White., or even, That National Geographic Shit: When Things Got Real in Africa, “Run nigga run!” said James to Clare.
As one may assume, Strother’s work has received both positive and negative feedback–sometimes depending on the generation and the racial makeup of its viewer–and Saint Heron had a chance to speak with the polemical artist about the public’s reception, trap houses, Matisse, Rome, comedy, race and post-postness. It was mad provocative, tho.
Your solo exhibition, I Just Landed in Rome, Nigga, is set to debut this November 17th at Marlborough Broome Street: what dichotomies are you exploring in your upcoming show? Are any of these explorations, via content or technique, different than previous shows. If so, how?
The show for Marlborough is mainly a bunch of sculptures. The title goes along with the idea of me working with this established institution, that’s been around since the 1940s, and [the gallery] opening this new space on the Lower East Side, that’s engaging emerging and younger artists. It’s like Rome creating this new outpost, and me showing at this new outpost.
I’m showing nine sculptures and two to three paintings, so it’s definitely a shift for me because most of my shows have mainly been paintings. I Just Landed in Rome, Nigga is sort of an ode to that: to Rome having all of these like beautiful sculptures that stood the test of times, then Roman, Greek, Renaissance-esque sculpture being like one of the first things you learn about in high school when you are introduced to Art History. I’m launching off of that. It’s about the arrival of something new—putting your best foot forward.
If there were a theme for November’s show, what would it be?
Growth. The work is a little more mature than the last couple of shows I’ve done. Even from the show I just did in LA, Look At All Of My Shit!, to this show, there is growth. It’s me taking a different step, so—growth and change.
As a mixed media artist, who navigates through collage and sculpture to create visual narratives: what impact does a collage piece have in carrying out the message in a narrative that is undeliverable in sculptural form and vice versa?
Sculpture is relatively a new way for me to work. I’m limited in my knowledge of the materials as of right now, so there is so much potential for me to do a lot more with it. It’s not so automatic and immediate like making the paintings alone in my studio. Sculpture is more collaborative and explorative.
What are the public’s reactions to your artwork, when viewed in a gallery setting?
It’s usually pretty positive. I’ve gotten one or two negative e-mails from older, Black women. That’s the only problems that I’ve ever encountered. The works that I make aren’t specifically for Black people. It’s not something that I feel like other people, whether you’re White, or Asian, or whatever [ethnicity], they are situations and themes that so many people are used to. I do use stereotypes and different types of language to talk about what’s going on in my paintings with the titles, but I don’t feel like that language is something that only Black people understand. I try to pick a subject that is a little more all-inclusive, that everyone can relate to, and it just so happens that it has Black people in it.
It’s not a Black thing. It is just a thing that happens to have Black people in it. Like a movie: it’s not a Black movie, just a movie that has Black people in it. If it’s a movie and it has all White people in it, it’s just a movie—not a White movie. So, why does it have to be categorized as a “Black thing”? Why can’t it just be an American thing or just a thing? I recently watched, 12 Years A Slave, and it is a movie that equally everyone can take a part in; opposed to Friday. If you didn’t grow up in a Black surrounding there are a lot of cues in that movie that you just will not get. Whereas, 12 Years A Slave, there is so much [historical] information that has been presented to everyone already that they kind of already have that information stored in their brains, so it’s not like something for a particular audience.
At the foundation of it all, artists create what they know; what does your art say about Devin the person? How has your family upbringing, and your localization, influenced your views on race in the US?
I always say that I never wanted my work to be about race—but it is. I guess my work reflects how I grew up in a neighborhood that was predominately Asian and White…I didn’t grow up like a lot of Black people. I’ve always dated interracially, girls from other races, and my mom and dad are mixed, so a lot of my life has been about race. Growing up, I was usually the only Black kid in a lot of my classes, so my work reflects what it is like to be a Black kid, who grew up in the 90s, in the advent of Black [pop] culture, being embraced by people, and it was no longer a negative thing to be a Black person.
I grew up in a time where I was the “cool kid” because I was the only Black kid. It was “cool” to be Black, whereas [for] my grandfather or dad it was probably a little different. [They] probably encountered a lot more racial shit growing up than I did. I think my work reflects a more optimistic outlook with race. It’s like an outlook to grow up Post-Civil Rights, in a Post-Post state, where rap music became American music.
When I was in Europe, one of the first things people would talk [to me] about was Beyoncé and Jay-Z–even before now, it was Michael Jackson. Black culture is American culture, so much that I grew up during a time where it was the thing to be Black. [My view of being Black], it’s this opposite view of [Black] people before me, that have been portrayed as a struggle and of the embarrassment [endured], and my view is like, ‘I understand that this happened, and you guys can talk about it because you went through it, supposedly, so you can talk about it, but I’m going to talk about what I went through.’ I didn’t encounter that much racial shit. I did, a little, when I look back on it now. Obviously I see a bit more things that were fucked up, but overall it was pretty good. It wasn’t as bad, comparatively.
Your work often pulls from pop culture for references, euphemisms, and such: is there a recent moment in pop culture you would love to extract from? What would it be entitled?
I’m doing this solo show in Madrid and I recently did these series of paintings using Matisse’s Dance. I repainted it over and over and turned the White girls, Black, and I entitled the paintings Twerk I, Twerk II, and Twerk III, because Matisse had Dance I, Dance II…and studies for Dance III. I did a couple of paintings of trap houses, abandoned drug houses; it’s not newly a recent moment. And I’m doing drug deal paintings, so that’s something that’s been on the forefront of my mind.
If you eradicated ‘nigga’, used ‘Standard English’, and replaced the names of your urban subjects with Eurocentric names, could the context of your art stand-alone; would the demographic of your collector’s change?
Yes, I think the work would stand-alone. I could do it that way and blur out the n-word. I think changing the language is something I’ll have to deal with later. I don’t know if the demographic would change. The demographic of the people who mainly buy my work are older, Jewish women, and a lot of gay couples. I have some good Black collectors, but most of my collectors are Jewish, or Greek, so most of my collectors are not African American. I don’t know if that would change, if I started speaking a different way, that more Black people would buy my work than White people. But, maybe they buy it for the titles, sometimes to be able to say the title. Some of my collectors don’t even like to say the titles. Some are uncomfortable to say the titles back to me.
Your work reminds me of a Richard Pryor, a Dave Chappelle: a provocateur who uses humor to tackle society’s racialized ills and inequities. What is the origin of your racial humor?
Oh, that’s a compliment. I grew up watching a lot of Chris Rock, Jamie Foxx,“The Wayans Brothers”, “Martin,” fucking “Family Matters”, “Fresh Prince”, BET, and “Comic View”, so I grew up watching a lot of Black sitcoms, but I don’t know if that’s where it comes from. I definitely have always been into comedy. To this day I listen to a lot of comedians’ podcasts. I’m trying to read up a little more on the history of comedy, and basically, the social aspects of comedy and its history. A big part of my work is like that: the titles of my work are like “the shut up’s” to the joke and the image is, like, the punch line, or vice versa. That’s why the titles work more so [as] Dave Chappelle than Richard Pryor.
Dave talked about subjects that were Black, but they weren’t subjects that were especially catered to Black people. If you listen to Cedric The Entertainer or Steve Harvey, their acts are a lot more based towards Black people. Dave Chappelle just talks about life, with views of what it is like to be a Black kid now; it’s a racial thing that is familiar to all.
The great comedian Dick Gregory asserted, “Comedy is just disappointment within a friendly relation”; does the humor used in your artwork address personal disappointments that you have when analyzing race?
Yes and no. Some things you cannot help; it’s just the way it is. Sometimes, after I sold a piece and I’m talking to a collector, or talking about the piece, and they’ll say like, “nigger,” instead of nigga, and they’ll keep saying, like, “nigger,” and I’ll have to like stop and say, ‘Oh, no it’s nigga. Don’t say nigger,’ and they’ll be like, ‘Oh, oh, I’m so sorry.’
I feel like, ‘Am I perpetuating a problem, or am I just adding to culture?’…sort of like that same dilemma that Dave Chappelle went through when he stopped [the production of his show, The Dave Chappelle Show in 2003]. [My artwork is] making note of what you mentioned [I mentioned Devin’s work as a reflection of the assumed roles and expectations of being Black in America] and showcasing what that looks like to me.
I’m, like, horrible at fucking sports—at all sports—and kids would always pick me at fucking basketball first. I went to a lot of schools because, I was kind of a bad kid, so I moved around a lot. Whenever I went to a new school, in P.E. kids would be like, ‘We want fucking Devin.’ Minutes into the game, they realize they made a great mistake. They’re thinking, ‘He’s got cornrows, he’s gonna’ be good.’[laughing] You are very wrong: these are all aesthetics…[laughing]. You are expected to be these things.
Comedians have stated that they “live on the joke, and the joke alone”—can the art world live on just the joke alone, without it reinforcing racial implications?
I mean, that’s part of the joke—the racial implications. I think they kind of need each other. If I made paintings with nothing [but] just White people in them, I think the question would eventually come up of, ‘Why don’t you paint any Black people?’ With my work, personally, I feel like I’m dependent on the jokes aspect and the racial aspect: I need both, and one helps the other and [vice versa].
The joke part kind of takes the edge off the racial part, and the racial part kind of gives the joke more value and worth as a cultural thing that I’m talking about. Any institution has to label things, and put it in its place so they can later review it as whatever. It’s subjective to the person looking at it. I’m working with so many things that have already been activated long ago by someone else with racially charged ideas, so I kind of don’t have control over that to a certain extent. Everyone will have a different emotional ride with it; some will have a similar ride. Because of the comedic thing that’s kind of funny and light-hearted, I think a lot of people can ride that wave.
I don’t think I’m talking about anything that’s not there, like I am pigeonholing Black people. I’m taking this language and [these] ideas that could be considered “not of an educated class”, and taking these things out of that context, and putting it into the context of this White, prestigious, institutional cube that critiques cultural advents through society. So, taking one part of society and placing it into another part of society to be viewed and criticized—that’s what everyone does with artwork—to make a new thing.
I don’t feel like I’m downgrading [the Black community] at all, if anything I am bringing more thought to the idea of what is language, and who is allowed or [has] the privilege to use language…at a certain point, when do you go forward in Black culture.
It’s funny, like, people like me, Kara Walker, Kerry James Marshall, Trenton Doyle, Glenn Ligon, Mark Bradford…Everyone has to pick what part of the Black culture textbook you’re going to talk about: ‘What am I going to embrace?’ Everyone picks something different. I didn’t want to pick something. I wanted to talk about something new, what it is now, and all those things that everyone else talked about led to this. I’m kind of the accumulation of that shit, the end result. This is what you get after all of that.
You stated that you are not “the Black role model of the art world”; in 20 years, who would you like to be remembered as in the art world?
I said that in response to feeling like I had some type of responsibility to promote Black culture in an uplifting way. Yet, I’d like to be remembered as an artist who became a part of history, and not being subjected to being a sub-category of it.
Devin Troy Strother’s show Look At All My Shit!, is now on view at the Los Angeles Richard Heller Gallery until November 4th. His upcoming show, I Just Landed in Rome, Nigga, is opening at New York’s Marlborough Broome Street gallery on November 17th, 2013.