Artist Devin Troy Strother Doesn't Want to Talk About Being Black
Strother talked with me about his new solo show, <i>Space Jam</i>, and his desire to be the art-world's version of Michael Jordan: a "supreme entity who's surpassed identity and blackness."
All photos by the author unless otherwise noted. Art images courtesy of Marlborough Gallery.
Artist Devin Troy Strother is on his way to becoming an art world MVP, though his own expectations are even higher: Michael Jordan status. "He's what I'm trying to reach with my work," Strother told me over a 12-pack of Miller High Life while we sat amidst pre-installed work for his new solo show, Space Jam, exhibiting at Marlborough Gallery's Chelsea location through February 14. "Jordan has surpassed identity and blackness. He's not 'the best black athlete,' he's the best athlete—this supreme entity."
While the 28-year-old Strother has achieved a level of success most artists never reach—multiple solo shows, critical acclaim, and even purchase inquiries from Kanye West—the over-the-top titles of his work and the suggestion from critics that he's in the lineage of black artists like Kara Walker often become the focal points of his creative output, and his own ideas get marginalized.
To be fair, Strother often uses black cut-outs with a minstrel-ish vibe like Walker, and past works include long, double-take-inducing names like "'My Momma's House Is So Contemporary, So Abstract That Shit Look Like a Morandi Tho,' said Keniecia to Shaniecia. 'This is my Momma's House When It Was Black.'" But he doesn't want to be known as a "black artist," and he sometimes wonders if certain buyers are swooping up his paintings just for the titles, even when they won't say their names out loud, as many of them include the word "nigga."
With his new exhibition, though, he's confronting these issues full-on by being as blatant as possible about identity issues and artistic comparisons. The floor of the gallery has been converted into a basketball court peppered with several giant, black marble monoliths. The monoliths are the most salient objects in the room, and could be viewed as black players on a court, but also black men and their changing status within the art world. Status issues also come into play with holographic canvases that resemble sought-after basketball cards and caps with iridescent stickers, as well as images of Jordan himself, trailed by streaks of color as if he's bursting through the light spectrum, or has the untouchable "on-fire" power from basketball video games like NBA Jam. As for the art-world comparisons, Space Jam includes titles like "Devin Troy Strother x Rob Pruitt x Cory Arcangel x Walead Beshty x A Sad Face x 0 Michael Jordans" (2014). The "Sad Face" may as well be a winking emoji.
Over the course of a night, Strother spoke with me about how racial identity is inherent in his work even when he doesn't want it to be, his biting (and hilarious) artwork titles, and why even KKK members love Michael Jordan.
VICE: In every interview with you I've read, someone always asks, "What's your art's relation to blackness?" And you'll say something like "I'm not trying to make black art or race-related art, it's already been done," and the response is always, "Well you're a privileged millennial." It's like you can't win.
Devin Troy Strother: That was all in relation to how I don't want to talk about slavery. I don't want to talk about black injustice. I don't even really want to talk about being black. But I'm going to have to talk about it. It's like this weird escapist thing where you try to make work that's not about identity, but making work that's not about identity is also about identity. So yeah, you can't win.
I feel like you're just a young dude who, like everyone roughly our age, is internet-addled. Post-modern logic is basically ingrained in our heads due to technology and the internet.
That's almost like an art canon standard for my generation of artists. There are already so many things we've seen and had to learn about. You regurgitate it in some way, shape, or form. Now it's like how deep or what's the most obscure reference you can make in your work that hasn't been referenced yet.
So I figured I might as well reference people who are referenced all the time because it's funny—or it just is what it is. I don't know if I'm jaded through the art world. When you start showing regularly, you realize you have to validate other artists through your practice. That's what certain critics want to hear. They validated so and so, so now you have to re-validate those creators as like a hat-tip or art world respect/influence thing. Be it David Hammons or John McCracken. So I'll just go out and say this is a take-out of John McCracken's practice or whatever. I like to be blatant about my references.
Is that a defense mechanism in a way? Like I know you've got a sense of humor, but it's almost like you're hanging a lantern on your problems before someone could call you out for implementing a similar style without name-checking the artist.
It's kind of like that. That's why the gradient paintings are like "Devin Troy Strother x Rob Pruitt x Cory Arcangel..." but that was also a reference to fashion. A couple years ago, everyone was doing Carhart x Neighborhood x whatever—all those fashion collabs.
I might have one of my own collabs like that next year. Me and Kalup Linzy got asked about showing in this specific Brooklyn art space next year. But I don't want to do it there because it'd have to be a black thing. I just know it. I was like, if we do the show we'll have to call it A Black Thing or Some Black Shit, or Two Niggas in a Gallery. [laughs]
That's another thing. Galleries will never let me use "nigga" in the title of my shows. The first show I did at Marlborough was supposed to be called I Just Landed in Rome, Nigga , but they made me take out "nigga." But when they sent out the press release, they forgot to take it out. I'm waiting for a gallery to let me use it in a show title because I use it in all my titles—all my titles have the word "nigga." That's a word that's not what it used to be. I don't even normally say it—only when I title my work.
So it is pointed?
It's super pointed. I went to private school my whole life and I'm this middle class black kid. I went to mainly all-white schools and hung out with Asian and Hispanic kids. I didn't grow up with black kids. I use it specifically because when I was younger, I'd date white girls and they'd say, "You're not like other black guys." And back then I thought that was cool. I was like, Fuck yeah, I'm different. I'm not offended even to this day to tell you the truth. I feel like my work is slightly about that.
Do you think your titles are necessary to understand or fully appreciate the work?
The titles for me are the punch line of the paintings. When I work, I usually have a podcast or a movie going—something like Marc Maron, Doug Benson, or another comedian. Comedy is very similar to making work, I feel. You build this identity, present it to people, and become somewhat vulnerable because they're coming to critique you. With comedy, it's about you and the viewer and they come to see you do this thing. With painting, people come to see this thing you're presenting and you only have a few ways to communicate the paintings to the viewer. The actual image, and then the title. So many artists say fuck off and put up "Untitled #1" and shit like that, or some weird title that doesn't relate to the work. I've always been into messing with that.
How would you describe your work to someone who's never seen it before and doesn't know the titles?
I would want to try and articulate it without using the word black, but I don't think that's possible. I would have to talk about race because it's definitely something that's apparent in the work, even if I don't want it to be about race. This is always a hard question because I don't want to say black and I'm trying to articulate it without talking about identity. I don't want to talk about identity but it's definitely about identity. It's so much about identity.
I'm talking about what it's like to make work as a young black artist now, and be born in a post-post-post racial society. To come up being the only black kid in school, the only cool kid because I was the only black guy. Like Gerald from Hey Arnold! , you know? It's about living in that type of experience. I didn't have a negative experience being black so I make work that's... I'd say it's just American.
But the art is still about your America, it's about you and it is personal.
It's super personal, though not as personal as past work where I was literally referencing specific moments in my life. It's really all the things I try not to say it is. But this is kind of what keeps me making work. I'm always trying to articulate this ineffable thing I'm thinking about and living through. Every show is a failed show in a way—you never get it right.
There's that piece "'just a bunch of niggas in space' reedited (tell that nigga jordan, he made a mess trying to be gerhard richter)." That title is super interesting because it's like Jordan tried doing something outside basketball but ended up fucking up because of the social, creative, or racial constructs and boundaries we live with. Or like he tried it, but it can only be compared to so and so.
Yes, totally. But those also relate to the video game NBA Jam. You know when you get on fire and you get the trail behind you where you're untouchable. It's him making a slam dunk and he has this color gradient coming behind him where he's breaking through sound and light.
And he's got infinite zoom.
Totally. And he's got the MJ tongue sticking out. The faces were based on the dunk face.
But why Jordan? He's the superbrand and all, but...
He's what I'm trying to reach with my work. Jordan, to me, is the pinnacle black person. People love him, and it's never that he's black, it's because he's the greatest player. He's surpassed identity and blackness. He's not "the best black athlete," he's the best athlete—this supreme entity. If you're white, Asian, whatever: everyone wants to be like Michael Jordan. I feel like there are KKK members who'd say Michael Jordan is the shit.
It's funny because this body of work, more of my family and friends were into it and connected with it. That feels so much better: making work that an everyday viewer can come in and feel some connection to it, as opposed to some weird elitist shit. If the gallery were just filled with the monoliths, then it'd be such a jerk move.
I feel like I failed trying to get across the message I wanted to get across. Trying to make this correlation between the commodity and status of sports, of art, of people. It's similar to that correlation I was making between painting and comedy. It's all just this performance. Instead of playing basketball—that thing like, "To get out the hood you better rap or play ball"—this is like my basketball in the gallery mentality. Like, I'm a black dude talking about playing ball, but in the art gallery.
Space Jam is open at Marlborough Chelsea through February 14. For more information, visit the gallery website here.
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