Summer Jamming: Devin Troy Strother cuts up and reconfigures racial stereotypes

Devin Troy Strother: That's my gurrrl Quiesha (2012). Aluminum, automotive finish. 48 x 68 x 11.5 inches. Courtesy Richard Heller Gallery, Santa Monica.Devin Troy Strother: That's my gurrrl Quiesha (2012). Aluminum, automotive finish. 48 x 68 x 11.5 inches. Courtesy Richard Heller Gallery, Santa Monica.

Interview by Bill Clarke

Born in California, and now based between Los Angeles and Brooklyn, 27-year-old Devin Troy Strother makes work that combines painting, drawing, collage and sculpture, and reflects his experience growing up in a middle-class suburb of Los Angeles where he was "sometimes the only black kid in [his] class". He brings this unique perspective to work that depicts decidedly contemporary scenarios that often feature joyful-looking African-American figures made from cut paper. Although celebrating black culture is Strother's primary concern, subtle intimations of fraught African-American histories give the work weight. In the past year, Strother has had solo shows at Monya Rowe in New York, Richard Heller Gallery in Santa Monica and Bendixen in Copenhagen. His work was included in a two-person show at Toronto's Cooper Cole earlier this summer. Here, Magenta editor Bill Clarke talks to the artist about how his early life influences his art, owning the ‘signage' of Black American culture, and how one ‘gets a pass' to drop the n-bomb.

Bill Clarke (BC): Do you remember how or when you were first exposed to art?

Devin Troy Strother (DTS): When I was a little kid - like, in first grade - I'd go to daycare after school because both my parents worked until five or six o'clock. There was this dude who would watch us kids. He was a graffiti guy, and he'd give us drawing projects to do, to keep us busy while he practised his graffiti. At the end of the day, he'd give one of his sketches to the kid whose work he thought was best. One day I got one. I thought that was pretty cool.

About 10 years later, friends and I started to draw and paint down on the L.A. train yards, but I was never really into graffiti. I would draw a lot of cartoon characters. I was pretty naïve about art until I went to the Art Center College of Design right after high school. That was my first experience with art in an institutional setting. I didn't think to start going to galleries until my early-20s.

Devin Troy Strother: Shontel As a Square, La'Ticia As a Triangle and Kadisha As a Circle, Performing Their Play "But Nigga I'm a Shape" (2011). Courtesy the artist.Devin Troy Strother: Shontel As a Square, La'Ticia As a Triangle and Kadisha As a Circle, Performing Their Play "But Nigga I'm a Shape" (2011). Courtesy the artist.BC: What sort of work did you make in school?

DTS: At first, I didn't go to school for fine art. I went for illustration and graphic design. So, I was taught to paint in a technical way, rather than an expressive fine art way. I also did a lot of silk screening - very Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns. I was also really into Jonathan Lasker; he kind of brought me to the type of work I do now. I was also interested in Indian miniature painting, and still am.

BC: I've read elsewhere that you came to your all-black, figurative cut-outs because you found drawing and painting Black people difficult. Why did you find this a challenge?

DTS: I don't really know how I got into the Art Center. I guess they just let me in on a whim! (Laughs) Other students had art backgrounds. They'd taken real art classes as kids or they went to art high schools, so they had some chops. But, me…I didn't really know shit about drawing and painting. Even by the time I graduated, I wasn't that good. And, I partied a lot when I was in school, so that might have had something to do with it, too! (Laughs)

My problem was I wasn't good at painting people in space; it just all looked flat. But, I still wanted to paint, so one day I just decided to draw the figures, cut them out and then paint them. That didn't quite work out the way I wanted. I started using black paper for the cut-outs because I wouldn't have to paint much at all. I was also doing a lot of collage, but my friends talked shit about collage, saying that anyone could do it…that collage is just crafty, all glue and scissors. But, it's not…collage is hard! I'm not going to say that my art came about because I was brilliant. It was more like I was 22 and frustrated!

BC: You do still paint simple facial features on your figures, which kind of makes them look like people in blackface. Is this intentional?

Devin Troy Strother: Oooooh bitch you look soo good in that bikini tho (Pa'Triece on the beach in that yellow fit), 2013. Mixed media, 13 x 16 inches. Courtesy Cooper Cole, Toronto.Devin Troy Strother: Oooooh bitch you look soo good in that bikini tho (Pa'Triece on the beach in that yellow fit), 2013. Mixed media, 13 x 16 inches. Courtesy Cooper Cole, Toronto.DTS: I resisted painting Black people because I felt like every Black artist paints Black people. And, artists like Wangeshi Mutu and Kara Walker…I didn't want to make that sort of work. But, you still have to put some of yourself into your work, so I knew that I had to talk about the Black American experience in some way. I didn't really set out to make work about Black people; it just kind of happened. As far as the faces, I was looking at the cut-outs, and was like, How do I paint a face? I just used blue, white and red paint, and I was like…shit, they look like golliwoggs. But, my work is not about the history of minstrel shows; it's just if you break down a Black person's face to the most basic graphic shapes, that's what it comes down to. It was so people would immediately recognize these as representations of Black people. In this day and age, you don't have to explain this signage.

BC: But, haven't people found this reduction offensive?

DTS: We both know that it's kind of fucked up - that this works as a representation of a Black person. That's part of the work. I'm sure some people are offended by it, but if you don't like what I'm doing, you don't have to pay attention to it.

BC: When people think of Black artists making figurative collage, Kara Walker, who you've already mentioned, is probably the first who comes to mind. And, I agree: your work doesn't feel like hers at all. Your work feels, perhaps, more positive about the state of race relations in America. I'm thinking of some pieces that I saw at the Marlborough Chelsea booth at the NADA fair in New York this past spring, in which there are black and white…well, pink, really… figurative cut-outs hanging out together, giving each other the high five or riding bicycles. Or, a piece like Summer jam, summer jam, summer jam, bitch I'm gonna go to suuuuuuummer jammmmmm!!!!" said Heather to Sha'kneeka "bitch I wanna go to summer jam too!" said Sha'kneeka to Heather (2013), which is a mix of gleeful, partying black and white figures. Do you feel optimistic?

DTS: Yes, I usually do. It was an interesting experience growing up in a suburb with mainly Asian and white kids. I was usually the only Black kid in my class. It was pretty chill, though. I'm a 90s kid, so I grew up at a time when it was really cool to be Black. Hip-hop was at its all-time high. Skateboarding embraced all races. I encountered some fucked-up shit, but you start to realize that you are who you are, and you accept that there will always be people who trip out over stupid things.

Devin Troy Strother: Summer jam, summer jam, summer jam, bitch I'm gonna go to suuuuuuummer jammmmmm!!!!" said Heather to Sha'kneeka "bitch I wanna go to summer jam too!" said Sha'kneeka to Heather (2013). Mixed media, 11 x 14 inches. Courtesy Cooper Cole, Toronto.Devin Troy Strother: Summer jam, summer jam, summer jam, bitch I'm gonna go to suuuuuuummer jammmmmm!!!!" said Heather to Sha'kneeka "bitch I wanna go to summer jam too!" said Sha'kneeka to Heather (2013). Mixed media, 11 x 14 inches. Courtesy Cooper Cole, Toronto.I'm not trying to downplay those experiences, but I don't feel the need to talk about… (deep sigh) …things that have been talked about over and over. There will probably always be issues around race in America, but I don't feel the need to always talk about negative things that happened to my race. I do talk about these things in conversation, and I do like that people read things into my work, and see this duality in the work. But, I guess I'm more interested in contemporary experiences that include African-Americans. I hope I'm continuing in a lineage of African-American artists and the story that Black artists are telling, though I don't think my work is only about Black culture. It's about American culture. Though it seems that nowadays American culture is Black culture. I mean, President Obama, right? And, Beyonce! (Laughs)

BC: You've shown in both North America and Europe. Do people respond or interpret your work differently in New York than, say, Copenhagen?

DTS: I've only been to Europe once, so that's hard for me to say…though golliwogg dolls originated in Europe. I think they might see my work as an American story,  the continuing story of how America deals with Black people, and vice versa.

BC: Art history also informs your work. You reference abstract painting in some compositions, as well as the still-life painting tradition. Your voluptuous reclining female figures, especially the larger sculptures of them you made for your show last year at Richard Heller, seem to reference the tradition of the odalisque.

DTS: When I was in school, they would make us copy from master paintings. That's something that I've carried into my practice now. I include elements that encapsulate ideas of what the average person considers art to be. It opens the work up. For example, in a couple of pieces at Cooper Cole, I make reference to Matisse. I also reposition the subject matter of older paintings and make it Black. Like, if the source painting pictured a white person, I'll make the figure Black. Part of it is because I find doing that hilarious, but it does get to the idea of reusing old images and contemporizing them. Culture is cyclical. Everything - movies, fashion, art - it all gets rehashed.

BC: Speaking of hilarious, some of the humour in your work comes from the titles. What inspires them?

DTS: I've always been into the titling of artworks. In school, when I had to choose a painting to copy for an assignment, I'd often choose it based on the title. For a while, I was really into Martin Kippenberger, who often made up weird titles, and Jason Rhoades, too. With pieces like A Black Marina Abramovic in "I'm gonna fuckin' shoot you with this arrow" or A Black Chris Burden in, "Shoot me in the arm nigga" (both 2012), I'm appropriating from a different realm - the world of high art - and combining it with…I don't know what you want to call it…street culture, ebonics? I'm trying to bring together different aspects of our culture and make them work together.

Devin Troy Strother: A Black Marina Abramovic in "I'm gonna fuckin' shoot you with this arrow" (2012). Acrylic, gouache and paper collage on panel. 10 x 8 inches. Courtesy Richard Heller Gallery, Santa Monica.Devin Troy Strother: A Black Marina Abramovic in "I'm gonna fuckin' shoot you with this arrow" (2012). Acrylic, gouache and paper collage on panel. 10 x 8 inches. Courtesy Richard Heller Gallery, Santa Monica.BC: This is the first time the word ‘nigga' is going to appear in the magazine. I wonder what people will think of that.

DTS: (Laughs): If I was a white guy making this work, I would catch so much shit! But, because I'm Black, I can say ‘nigga', as much as I want! I can take the signage of my race and use it however I want. Some people might see it as having negative connotations, but they can't really call me on it! (Laughs again, then pauses.) Well, the only people who could put me in my place is other Black people, I guess.

BC: So, for you, is it like reclaiming and owning such words, or to insert Black figures into an art history that has excluded them?

DTS: Sort of, but it's more than that. It's more like, this is mine, you know what I mean? These words and these symbols of Blackness are mine. Remember that whole movement years ago that wanted to erase the word ‘nigger' from the world and from history…are you fucking serious? Nowadays, rappers do that shit all day long! Maybe it's because I didn't grow up in a totally "Black environment". I grew up surround by other races. I was kind of sheltered and didn't use the world ‘nigga' until I was, like, 18. But, now I've got friends of all races who use the word. I was at a party and a friend of mine who is white, from Australia, comes up to me and is all "hey, nigga', and a Black girl who was there got all, "You can't say that!" And, I was like, "What's your problem? Of course, he can. He's my friend." I understand that it is still a loaded word for some people but, if you're friends with enough Black people or live the lifestyle, I'll give you a pass.