Monday, November 04, 2019

Some Sort Of Existence Outside Of Being White: Art X Interview

This is the first time I have been referred to as conceptual artist! Thank you to everyone at Art X and thank you Danny Dunson for giving me the opportunity to share my work! The full interview is below.

Jeff Musser is a conceptual artist based in Sacramento, CA. As a white (non-Black or Brown) artist, Musser has taken up a project that ventures deep into the history of racism, and the construction of race within the United States. Like many artists of color, he has created a visual language to explore the deep-seated issues aligned with racism, however, he interrogates his own privilege as a white person. While assessing the work in this feature, pay close attention to the titles.

Artist Statement:
"It’s clear that Black and Brown Americans are still recovering from the racist indoctrinations of the past 500 years, but what is less clear is how White culture, and American culture as a whole, suffers from the tragedy of whiteness. In my opinion, the divide and conquer default setting of Whiteness has created among white people, a lonely detachment from the rest of the world. Being The Default keeps white Americans from being liberated because it denies them a specific identity by absorbing them into neutral blankness. In my work, I aim to confront and scrutinize my whiteness and how it has shaped my worldview."

"I Present To You The World. Now Go Seize IT"  2019. Oil on canvas, 36 x48 inches.

ArtX: Tell us about you as a person.
Jeff Musser: My full name is Jeffrey David Musser, but I go by Jeff Musser. Or just Jeff. Saying the whole name takes too long. I am based in Northern California, Sacramento to be specific, not too far from where I grew up. I lived in Chicago IL for a few years and a few years in China, specifically the Guangdong Province near Hong Kong. I travel as much as I can for art projects, I like to get uncomfortable with my work and try things in a new environment. I’m traveling to The Vermont Studio Center for a residency in November, which I am excited and nervous about.

How long have you been practicing art professionally, when did you consider yourself a real artist?
I have been drawing and mark making since I was old enough to hold pencils or crayons on my own, so I guess you could say I have been a practicing artist for over thirty years now. But if you want to talk about being a practicing professional engaging in a larger art community and contributing to the contemporary art world, then I would trim off some years and say I’ve only been serious about my art practice for about fifteen years. I considered myself a real artist in college, but It didn’t kick into high gear until after I graduated.

"My Fear Of You Is Unfounded, But Yet It Is There" 2019. Oil on canvas, 36 x48 inches.

Tell us about your training, both formal and informal.
I attended the School of The Art Institute of Chicago and I graduated with a BFA in Visual Communications, which is a fancy way of saying I did graphic design. My original intention was to just paint, and I took some foundation classes, but unlike most of my classmates, I didn’t have a trust fund, so I needed a way to pay off my student loans once I left SAIC. I put painting aside and focused on print and package design so that I could get a day job once I graduated. The plan was to work my advertising job during the day, live my life, pay off the student loans ASAP, then paint at night. But I quickly learned that my day job, designing Happy Meals for McDonald’s, sucked ALL the creative life out of me and I didn’t even want to look at my paints when I arrived home. It was a well-paying gig, but it was incredibly draining, and I was miserable. 

So when the economy started to tank, I was secretly hoping I would be let go, and when I was, I was relieved. I took it as a sign from God that I should just go for it, and in time, I would figure out what I wanted to say as an artist. It was tough financially for a while, I was on food stamps for years, I was SUPER SKINNY, I got sick but never saw a doctor, and I never turned the heat on in my Chicago apartment, but I survived. It made me tough and I learned that whatever my day job was, it couldn’t be creative for someone else. I had to save that energy for my own work, and if the job involved another person’s creative vision, my role had to be menial, like painting solid blocks of color or linework on a mural. Since adopting the “saving that creative energy for me” approach, I have made huge progress in a relatively short amount of time.

"Absorbed Into Neutral" 2019. Oil on canvas, 36 x48 inches.

What mediums do you prefer to work in? 
I have been toying with the idea of expanding into other mediums, but oil painting is my first love. There is just something about painting in oils that I never got from drawing or graphic design. Part of it is my love of the materials themselves. I just love the smell of oil paint. When you open a tube of good quality oil paint like a cobalt blue or cadmium red, it just smells good. Serious oil painters know what I’m talking about. I can even close my eyes, hold an open tube up to my nose, and tell you if the paint is earth or metal-based.

I also prefer oils because of the time aspect. The way I paint takes time; the layers of glazes and colors need to dry before I can move onto the next stage. This process allows me to slow down and really appreciate what I’m doing. I’m not on my phone, I’m not checking emails, I’m not too concerned about what’s going on outside, I’m in my zone and I’m focused. I’m not sure I could be that focused if my medium was reliant upon technology and software updates; mediums like animated gifs, video art, animation, or even film. The basics of oil painting haven’t changed in hundreds of years and I like that.

Studio Shot.

Who are some of your art inspirations? What are some of your non-art inspirations?
Anyone who sees my work will be aware of the heavy influence of painters like Caravaggio, Diego Velasquez, and Kehinde Wiley. Of course, painters like Jenny Saville, Kerry James Marshall, Odd Nerdrum, John Currin, Titus Kaphar, and Gerhard Richter have been influential. I saw a giant retrospective by Cai Guo Qian in Shanghai China years ago that BLEW MY MIND! The show planted the seed of “Maybe I should try some sort of installation one day.” As far as non-art inspirations go, I pull a lot of material from American History and the natural world.

When do you know when a work is finished?
I usually have a road map of where I want to go with a clear intention of what I want to convey, but as sometimes happens, I get sidetracked or something I do in the moment ruins the painting and I need to start over. There is a fine balance between knowing when to stop painting and just pushing ahead, and I don’t always know where that line is. All ideas for paintings start off as collages. Collages with photos and drawings are my version of sketching. At this point in my practice, it’s a 50-50 ratio of what is original collage and what is on the spot, in the moment painting decisions. I will intentionally leave blank or unresolved spots in the collage so that I will figure it out when I’m painting, even though this often bites me in the ass because I won’t be able to solve the problem right away. Sometimes it will take months and this adversarial relationship will develop with a particular work. One of my painting/art idols Kerry James Marshal said in an interview…

“It’s supposed to get harder, and that’s not really a problem. You’re supposed to be more sophisticated and much more self-conscious. As you know more, you have to consider more. It gets harder to make the next thing because you have to have a good reason to do it.”
I didn’t understand that concept when I was younger, I thought it would be the opposite, but now I get it, especially with the new body of work I am developing.

Tell us about your process when working. 
After I have finished my morning routine of meditation, coffee, and emails, I turn off the Wi-Fi on my phone, put on some music or a lecture or a podcast in the background, and I paint for a solid, uninterrupted two hours. Unless it’s an emergency, I don’t answer my phone or even answer the door. It’s my time to work. Once the two hours are up, I take a thirty-minute break and I completely step away from the studio. I will take a walk, watch something on Netflix, stretch, answer emails, etc. Once the thirty-minute alarm goes off, I go back for another two hours and repeat the process. A twelve to fourteen-hour studio day is much more manageable and productive if I break up into smaller chunks.

"Undesirable Swarthy Swede in 1817: Proud White Southerner in 1860"
2019. Oil, spray paint, and charcoal on linen, 48×36 inches.

What are the meanings and the concepts behind this particular body of work?
My current body of work deals with a macro and micro view of whiteness. The macro view is focused on key moments in American History centered around whiteness, namely: its origins, the original purpose, how whiteness has changed over time, who was allowed and not allowed to be white, etc. Then there are the micro works, the personal components of whiteness in my family and how being white has shaped my worldview. I am trying to present the subject matter in a way that is somewhat subtle, something that can slip in under the door and reveals itself in layers. Certain paintings will in a way run parallel to white supremacy; there are aspects that are obvious and intentional and thus rendered in a precise way. Other aspects are a bit more abstract and vague and hidden, less easy to decipher. Racism is slick at hiding in plain sight…but once you know where and how to look, you see its effects everywhere.

I have noticed that when the subject of “race” or “racism” or “whiteness” comes up in the contemporary art world, rarely do artists who look like me step into the conversation in a meaningful, deep way. Much like in the non-art world, black and brown people are expected to make work about race. Or, they are expected to carry the burden of doing something about racism in their work or talking about the effects of things like colonialism etc. But why don’t white artists tackle these kinds of issues from the perspectives of power? For real change to happen, white people have to get other white people involved, and for lack of a better term, we have to put some skin in the game. We have to get REALLY UNCOMFORTABLE within ourselves. We have to take the kind of risks black and brown people have been taking for centuries. We have to examine what being white means and push past the fear of having conversations about race and whiteness because it’s not a problem we can solve, it’s something we have to outgrow. I’m not quite sure how, but white people will have to find some sort of existence outside of being white.

Studio Shot of " We Did Not Exist Before 1681" 2019. Oil and spray paint on canvas tarp, 65 x 65 inches.

What do you want viewers to take away from your work?
One of my goals with this work is to introduce constructive discomfort both within myself, and among my white-identified peers, social circles, and my family, with the hope that a deeper conversation on whiteness can be had. Too often the discussion of race among white people is halted because someone “feels uncomfortable.” The prospect of saying the wrong thing and possibly being labeled a racist is a very real fear among white people because racism is frequently comprehended in a binary way: “Either I’m a good, non-racist person or I’m a bad, racist person.” In past discussions, I have often felt the anxiety of that ugly label, and instead of pushing through the fear, I shut down, and I stayed silent when I should have made noise. And yet, the desire to explore my whiteness through my work, the desire to know WHY I stayed silent, has been gnawing at me for quite some time. In order to make honest work about the topic of whiteness, I knew I would have to go inward to ask some serious, uncomfortable questions. I initially doubted my ability to deal with some of the answers I might find. Admitting that I had absorbed and internalized racist beliefs, terrified me. But there is also a sense of freedom in confronting uncomfortable truths. If I am willing to confront and scrutinize and be vulnerable about how I am feeling around this subject, then hopefully other white people will be willing to do the same.

"I Can Be Comfortable Virtually 24/7" 2019. Oil on canvas, 16×20 inches
 "It Will Choke Me If I Let It"  2019. Oil on canvas, 16×20 inches

What are your biggest goals as a visual artist? And what has been your proudest moment professionally?
I have the usual goals of being included in big shows like the Whitney Biennial, or the New Museum Triennial, with a nice retrospective at the Tate, and to be included in international museum collections, things like that. I also plan to start a non-profit that gives money to schools that are in danger of cutting their art programs. I was really lucky in that I had access to art classes with amazing teachers that actually cared, so I am obligated to give back. My proudest moment came years ago in Chicago when one of my neighbors, who didn’t know my work at all, saw one of my paintings in the living room and started crying. Receiving a good show review, a solid critique, a nod from an artist you respect, showing in a blue-chip gallery, being awarded a grant, representing the USA in an exhibition overseas etc. are all nice, and I have a tremendous sense of pride that those things have happened to me, but they don’t really compare to seeing someone weep uncontrollably in front of your work. All because I moved some paint around on a canvas? It sounds cliché, maybe a little cheesy, but nothing beats that. I obviously didn’t set out to cause her or anyone else pain, but the message got through to her, it bypassed all her defenses and got her right in the heart. If you’re not interested in making a connection with people or inspiring some sense of “awe” that will lead to positive change, why are you an artist?

Tuesday, October 01, 2019

October 2019 Unicorn Of The Month: Alicia Piller

Los Angeles based artist Alicia Piller envisions historical traumas, both political and environmental, through the lens of a microscope. Her sculptures and installations conceive of past atrocities, suffering, and accomplishments as biological forms–broken down to a cellular level. A variety of materials including vinyl, latex balloons, and photographs, are employed to examine the energy around wounds societies have inflicted upon themselves and others. Her subject matter is often informed by her studies in anthropology and her sculptural process by her time in fashion and leather-working. Alicia Piller recently received her MFA from the California Institute of the Arts in the spring of 2019.

In her upcoming solo show at Lowell Ryan Projects, Alicia uses sprawling and knotted fields of latex and vinyl in her installations and wall works. The combination of raw materials, photographs, and news clippings twist together to form a kind of fragmented mirror of the current state of America. Her work references the trials and tribulations of this country's history and offers optimistic glimpses of a possible future with bright colors that show signs of life and proliferating forms that show signs of growth. Piller weaves into the work references to nature, family, capitalism, colonialism and industrial production in pieces that span the personal and the political.

One of the primary works in the exhibition, "Bulging veins. Stately being in its forthright mood, mottled with a tortured history," is a wall-sized mandala, a cluster of swirling bright green, blue and red latex and vinyl. Throughout the colorful forms are embedded photographs of flowers and plants. At the center is a slowly decomposing cue ball, a sphere not unlike our endangered planet.

Detail: "Bulging veins. Stately being in its forthright mood, mottled with a tortured history."

Across the wasteland, a twisted melody. Matter and spirit., another central work in the show, resembles a whale skeleton in size and shape. Rib forms reach out from the gallery floor, and horrors from the news are woven into the structure. Viewers can walk through the carcass and see press clippings from the last 200 years about gun violence and white supremacy. The piece holds the emotional effects of contemporary life while asking us to bury these societal evils.

In "Anticipates her future. Pearls and fruits, bows and arrows," a painted image of an archetypal woman squints in anguish. She embodies the spirit of our times and this reflective, transitional moment in our history. The word "PERMUTATIONS" is spelled out at the piece's base, questioning how we arrived where we are today.
Detail: "Nature of a stately being. Outstretched arms, bursting with newborn stars." 2019

Dissected sycamore seeds found throughout the work are broken up and reconfigured, symbolizing the dispersion of immigrant populations throughout our country. Elements of Spirit of the Times show us death and destruction, but also conception, birth, and transformation. The works convey an optimistic future, which imagines our past and present accomplishments and failings composted into new life.

When asked what she wants viewers to take away from her work, "Overall I would like the viewer to come away with a sense of hope; an excitement even, for the infinite possibilities of new systems/new patterns that can form from our collective histories."

Alicia's show at Lowell Ryan Projects opens October 19 and runs until December 21. To see more of her work, visit her Website and check out her Instagram page. 

Sunday, September 01, 2019

September 2019 Unicorn Of The Month: K Young

While I do enjoy collage, painting is my thing, so I would not necessarily call myself a "collagist" or a " collage artist." I learned about this artist well over a year ago via their Instagram account. This artist is "collagist" with a Capital C. I knew immediately that I wanted to feature them here, but it has taken some time to get here, we artists are busy people. The work featured here is outstanding, but I highly encourage you check out their IG Page to view more of their gorgeous collages.

I make my collages using found pictures from magazines and books. I hunt for these in second-hand shops and book sales - solid, physical objects with weight and texture - even a smell. Although I embrace technology, I find this whole experience refreshing in the digital age. I flick through the pages until something visual catches my eye. It might be a pattern, colour or shape. I then cut into it with a long-handled scalpel, without having any preconceived ideas at that time of how I will use it later.

Necessity is the mother of invention, and the limitations of scale, as well as the restrictions of the paper itself, brings about a unique creative reward. There is no undo button either, so every cut counts. But it feels liberating too; drawing with a blade, with no real objective in mind, until the original image is edited or abstracted into something new. These cut-outs are then kept, sometimes for months, until I find a use for them; when they can be partnered with other unrelated selections to make a new story.

I often use collage to explore ideas around gender roles, identity and social constructs. The concept that everything exists within a finite time-frame; that nothing holds a permanent stake in this world has always fascinated me and is another a recurrent theme in my work.

Faceless figures are juxtaposed with their surroundings; anchored to domestic or workplace scenes, sometimes literally becoming part of the furniture. Ghost-like outlines leave behind a vague trail. Information is kept minimal; it's the essence of the subject within the space itself, which is key.

These fragmented glimpses, moments and suggestions tell incomplete stories, and yet this editing also expands the narrative at the same time. The viewer has to make sense of what is happening; they have to create meaning. I see it like recalling a memory or working out the meaning of a dream, and collage by its very nature is the perfect medium for achieving this end.

Monday, July 01, 2019

July 2019 Unicorn Of The Month: Zahra Ammar

When I was a student at SAIC, some blowhard art critic declare painting to be "dead." I found this seriously distressing, and I can recall quite vividly the answer one of my painting instructors gave me when I asked him if painting was indeed dead. " That guy is a twat! He wouldn't know his own ass from a hole in the wall..if it's not dead to you, then paint away!" Oh Marion Kryczka, I miss you. I hope you're well.

Anyhow, I have always been attracted to artists who push, either with the medium they use or the questions they ask through their work. When I learned about Zahra Ammar and the kind of questions she poses, " How can something as mundane as paper be pushed to its limits?" I was intrigued. 

The versatility of paper as a medium fascinates me as I poke and pinch it, twirl and curl, and fold and mold it to create art. It is so forgiving, yet it can do things that even paint can’t. I primarily use a technique called ‘quilling’ to shape strips of paper that are integrated perpendicularly rather than pasted flat on a background. For an instance, it looks like an illustration, but in the next blink of an eye it looks like a sculpture. I also fold and cut paper into 3D structures."

"For me, art converses and delves into things when words are not enough. My themes run parallel between botanical pieces and geometric ones. I try to strike a balance between the two. Both are one and the same. When we go down to the structure of things, it all becomes symmetrical, even the abstract. Why this symmetry disintegrates over time? Whether we are attracted to it because of its transient nature or because we are part of it is something that really interests me. However, my intent is not to construct a soliloquy. I want to draw in the onlooker into their own dialogue."

To see more of her gorgeous paper sculptures, check out her Instagram and Public Facebook Page. And if you're so inclined, purchase her work Here. 

Monday, June 17, 2019

Notes On The New Work

This post has been building for quite some time. I have shared my current project with a few people, made mention of it on my IG account, and applied for a few grants and fellowships using some of the ideas below. 

But this will be my first public declaration. So take a deep breath and strap in. 

This post is about many new directions I am going, but the main question I am confronting within myself, and what I will attempt to ask/challenge with my work is this: Why don’t white artists ever address whiteness in their work? When it comes to race or racism as a subject matter, why do white artists shy away from it?

I have hesitated to put these kinds of questions/problems out into the world because it’s a touchy subject for people. And by people I mean white people. And when I say white people, I obviously include myself. Want to see a room full of white people squirm with discomfort, bring up any of these subjects:
  • Racism
  • Slavery
  • The history of racism/slavery
  • How the system of racism currently functions
  • Whiteness
  • Being white
  • The label of “white people”
Some honorable mentions might include:
  • Black Lives Matter
  • Reparations
  • How Reverse Racism is not a real thing
  • Or Idris Alba being cast as the new James Bond.
He didn't accept the role, but a large portion of the world lost their shit at the thought of him being the new Bond..

Some of you reading this might already be squirming a bit. Maybe you’re thinking, “Jesus Jeff, WHAT ARE YOU DOING? You’re a great painter, why would you go down this road? 

You might be committing career suicide! What if it goes horribly wrong and you make Klan Paintings?”
I would say relax, I haven’t fully disclosed where I am going, and rest assured, I too felt the squirming inside when I decided to make this shift. I can feel it right now, as I type. There is this sense of dread; this thick, almost magnetically charged fog that starts to envelop me. My pulse is elevated. There is a cold, nervous sweat on the small of my back. It feels like some sort of weird defense mechanism is being activated.

My mind races with:
What if I do kill my career?
What if I do fuck up and make unintentionally racist work?
What if I alienate my friends and family?
Who am I to ask these sorts of questions?
Am I smart enough to pull this off?

First off, what career would I be killing? 
I’m broke.
I haven’t sold anything major in quite some time. I have no gallery representation nor do I have any gallery prospects. No museums are courting me. A few collectors came over to the studio recently, and when I poured my fucking heart out to them about my work, they passed. Apparently it was due to “money issues.” But thanks to Facebook, I saw pictures of them in what looked like first class on the way to Europe. Having never flown first class, I wouldn’t exactly know what first class accommodations look like, but when there is a fucking bar in the middle of the plane, you’re not in coach.

My artists friends are passing me by with big public art commissions and gallery shows. Some days I wake up wondering if I have completely wasted my life. Sometimes when I walk to the coffee spot in the morning, I have this crippling fear that my parents are secretly ashamed of me. They say that they love me and they are “proud of me” but what could they be proud of when I haven’t really accomplished anything? Parents are proud of lawyers and doctors and occupations that pay well. What parents would be proud of a failed artist as a son?

Ok the last few sentences are a bit much. None of the “failed artist as a son” part is true, it’s just my brain going over board. I tend to make things far worse in my head than the situation really is. The past year was actually good as far exhibitions go, but there wasn’t enough momentum to make real change, so the part about not having much of a career is mostly true. When I think about still being in the category of “ emerging artist”, it makes me depressed given my age, but it’s also a bit liberating. No dealers are telling me to play it safe. No gallery is saying, “ I don’t know about this direction…collectors might not like this new work.” I can do whatever I want. 

Second, my apprehension about making a mistake or alienating people or any fear about saying/doing the wrong thing, to be real, isn’t a good enough excuse to play it safe. Too often the discussion of race among white people is halted because someone “feels uncomfortable.” The prospect of saying the wrong thing and possibly being labeled a racist is a very real fear among white people because racism is frequently comprehended in a binary way: “ Either I’m a good, non-racist person or I’m a bad, racist person.” In past discussions, I have often felt the anxiety of that ugly label, and instead of pushing through the fear, I shut down, and I stayed silent when I should have made noise. Think of that weird defense mechanism I mentioned above. But this defense mechanism is in place to keep me comfortable, to keep the me and other white people from questioning authority or questioning our own racial bias. Aka, the status quo doesn't change. 

I tend to think, and most sociologists and historians who study the subject in depth would agree, that racists beliefs are more of a spectrum. The key, that part that I feel is hardest for white people to accept, is to know that if you grew up in America, you fit somewhere on the spectrum, and there is a highly probability you have internalized negative associations and beliefs with nonwhite people. In other worlds, no matter how liberal or koombyaya your upbringing was, you have some racism living inside you. 

I cant speak to what other countries put in their proverbial water supply of ideas, but white supremacy is world wide and I got a taste of it when I lived in China. More on that in a future blog post. In order to escape the negative beliefs about non-white people, I think you would literally have to grow up on another planet. Even the label of “ white people” is problematic because the definition of who was allowed to be white in America has changed over time. More on that subject later.

If you’re a white person reading this and thinking, “ Hey man, you don’t know me or my situation! You don’t know whom I’ve loved or what my friends look like! I voted for Obama! Twice! I’m not racist!” I would say, “You’re right Buster, I don’t know you or your situation!” I am biologically an only child, but I have honorary family from the entire spectrum of humanity. When we hangout, we look like one of those United Colors Of Bennington Ads from the 90’s.

Yes, sometimes we hangout shirtless.

I love them all dearly, so I feel you on the diversity part. I also voted for Obama. Twice. But try this out. In your head, think of five negative stereotypes associated with say, black people.

Reaaadddyyyyy? Go!

Got them?
Did you think of five?
If you didn’t get to five, $100 says you were able to think of at least two.
I know I did.

Now the question is, assuming you actually did this, if you are indeed “ a good, non racist person who voted for Obama twice,” where did those thoughts come from? Even if you don’t subscribe to any of these negative beliefs, as in “ This is NOT who I am,” the very fact that those negative thoughts  are in your consciousness means that a very clever system inserted them into your brain without you even knowing it.

Part of the reason I want to go down this path, is to find those pockets of racism inside me, confront them, extract them, and make work about the process. There are plans to make work about whiteness at a macro level, where the idea of “white people” came from, the ideas purpose, its history, how it evolved, and work at a micro level, how being white has effected my ideas of the world and how I function in it. And of course, I want to introduce some uncomfortable, yet constructive criticism into the mix.

There is so much more that I have to write, but my thoughts and ideas are a bit scrambled at this moment. I will say that there will be a lot of upcoming blog posts about my new painting journey. I might even expand into sculpture so stay tuned!

Wednesday, May 01, 2019

May 2019 Unicorn Of The Month: Tavarus Blackmon aka Blackmonster

Tavarus Blackmon aka Blackmonster, is a Sacramento based artist and a current Graduate Fellow at Headlands Center for the Arts. Blackmonster’s practice comprises painting bold canvases that are full of cultural, societal, and personal notions, and how they relate to larger questions in art movements. He works digitally, creating videos, time-based art, web-based projects, and digital collages and paintings. His work often references art history, particularly the Funk Art movement, which was a prominent artistic style in Northern California in the ‘60s and ‘70s. His conceptual practice also includes a vast collection of sound art and audio based projects.

He recently had a dual show with Kumasi Barnett entitled 
"THE AMAZING BLACK-MAN AND EXQUISITE DIVERSION" at Verge Center for the Arts in Sacramento California. For those of you outside the Sacramento, Northern California region reading this post that were not able to see the show in person, or were unaware of it, you really missed out. It was a visually intense show, and the work of Roy De Forest immediately came to mind. But that is where the similarities for me ended. Imagine if artist from "The Funk Movement " dealt with real shit: police violence, mass shootings, poverty, racism, you know the flip side of the American dream. But it's not all doom and gloom with Blackmon's work. From the large canvases, to the unnerving sounds to the gingerbread-man chalk outlines on the floor, the work teetered right on the edge of playful and " Jesus Christ this guy is DARK!"

His 2018 thesis from The University of California Davis, "The Politics of the Cartoon and Contemporary Art", he investigated the development of Outsider Art through the lens of Funk Art, Chicago-based Imagists, the Hairy Who and German Expressionism. He has exhibited at Shy Rabbit Gallery, Pagosa Springs, CO; The Midway, San Francisco, CA; American Steel Studios, Oakland, CA; The Center for Digital Art, Los Angeles, CA; Arc Gallery, Chicago, IL; FE Gallery, Sacramento, CA; BrickHouse Gallery, Sacramento, CA; the Blue Banana Video Art Festival in Berlin, Germany; and recently at Verge Center for the Arts, Sacramento, CA. He has an upcoming installation at the Crocker Art Museum in Sacramento for May’s Art Mix and a screening at SoundPedro, Earmaginations Sound Art Festival at the Angels Gate Cultural Center in San Pedro, CA. He is a current Graduate Fellow at Headlands Center for the Arts.

To view more of his work, visit his Website, and his Instagram Page. And check out his manifesto: Black-Monster Review.

Monday, April 01, 2019

April 2019 Unicorn Of The Month: Rafael Vega

Rafael has an enviable studio space in NYC and I frequently tell him so on Instagram.

Like last months Unicorn Edra Soto, Rafael Vega is School of the Art Institute of Chicago alumni. Since Rafael is the third SAIC alumni to be featured on this blog, it may seem like I am a bit biased toward artists from my alma mater. The truth is I am, and I am ok with that! 

Vega lives and works in New York and Puerto Rico. After completing his BS-Industrial Chemistry (2003) and BA-Painting (2007) at the University of Puerto Rico, he received his MFA with a major in Painting and Drawing from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in 2012.

Untitled. Acrylic, charcoal, canvas on panel. 24 x 18 in. 2018
Untitled. Acrylic, charcoal, canvas on canvas. 64 x 48 in. 2016

One of the many aspects that I enjoy about this portion of the blog is learning about the influence of other artists. When I look at Rafael's work I can instantly see the influence of icons like Barnett Newman and Mark Rothko. The way that Rafael cuts and slashes the canvas and really trashes the surface, in a good way, strongly references Lucio Fontana. On this blog I try to feature artists who, like Rafael, contribute to conversation of art history, in a way that looks back and forward at the same time. 

Untitled. Acrylic, charcoal, canvas on canvas. 64 x 48 in. 2018
Untitled. Acrylic, charcoal, canvas on panel. 24 x 18 in. 2018
Back in 2011, I sat down with my friend Jose for a full top to bottom, nuts & blots interview about his life and his practice. It was one of the most fulfilling, and viewed posts from the Unicorn Shop! But it took me a whole month to transcribe and edit and tweak before I posted it. I really wish I had time to conduct full interviews again, and an intern who could transcribe and post them, but sadly at this point I don't. Maybe in the future I will come up with some sort of standard questionnaire. Until then, below is a portion from Phaidon's Vitamin P3, " Why I Paint" series that. 

Who are you? ...I always wanted to be a scientist; first a paleontologist, then an archaeologist, a nuclear physicist, astrophysicist, etc: Every option highly influenced by the Science section in the Sunday newspapers I read as a kid. But at the same time, for which I have no explanation, I also wanted to be a painter. So I went to college, completed my chemistry major and almost immediately started my fine arts education.

What's on your mind right now? Everything and huge moments of nothing. I'm easily distracted, kind of like a cat. That's why I say "everything and huge moments of nothing." Recently, I was really concerned with how to read faster, how to be more efficient when it comes to reading a book. My main problem is not just that I spend too long on one page, it's that subsequently I spend like two hours pulling, pushing, and forcing weird connections from sports to arts to science. At that point, my mind looks like a nautical chart, and I have to re-read the same page. It's not an eternal cycle, but it definitely slows things down. Every day I have to confront several unfinished books and their judgmental silence.

Untitled. Acrylic, charcoal, canvas on panel. 24 x 18 in. 2018
Untitled. Acrylic, charcoal, canvas on panel. 24 x 18 in. 2018

How do you get this stuff out? Putting it out is the easy part. Putting it out in a way that makes sense to you (the artist, that first and contaminated viewer) and at the same time can fit into an external narrative, that's different, that's the balancing act.

How does it fit together? In general, I maintain tons of distance and skepticism, a kind of apprehensive state in which you are not too close or far from your ruminations. It helps build some awareness and a sense of editing, and not just editing during the making, but beforehand. What's relevant? What's just fog? Remember the nautical chart? Well, this strategy is really helpful for me. In terms of my paintings, I have a kind of fragile genealogy or lineage of shapes that, with a specific and immediate context, become forms pertinent to me: a personal mythology. Every new painting should - or at least I expect it to - question the previous one. It must force its immediate past into a state of "vibration" (try to imagine a delocalized electron), by small tweaks, never too dramatic. It must question its assumptions/urgencies/resistances/negations not for the instant gratification an answer can provide, but because that's the only way for a painting to breathe and be pertinent. A painting becomes a moving target, similar to what the theoretical biologist Stuart Kauffman calls 'an adjacent possible'.

What brought you to this point? Patience, plenty of time in the studio, and discipline. Doing, doing, doing. Lots of sketches and notes.

Can you control it? Well, there's no absolute answer for that. Where in the equation should we put training (self-taught or art school), muscle memory, taste, etc? That educated intuition seems to have a prefixed set of solutions depending on the problem, solutions that keep emerging/repeating from painting to painting. I could say ‘yes,’ if a certain impulse or urgency is added, but we can also spend an infinite amount of time identifying the burden of proof for each argument.

Have you ever destroyed one of your paintings? The kind of destruction that looks for the total oblivion of the image or picture? Nope. Honestly, I don't recall ever destroying any painting. For sure pentimento (alteration), but no destruction per se.

What's next for you, and what's next for painting? No idea.

To view more of Rafael's work, visit his Website, and his Instagram Page. He was also featured in
Vitamin P3 - New Perspectives in Painting, so be sure and get your copy.