Ten questions from David Schutter for Devin T. Mays regarding his exhibition Everything is Everything.
The subjects of your work range in scale from the very immaterial of performance to the miniature, to the grand gesture. I am thinking here, in that order, of your work with endurance performances like repetitive humming, your manipulations of Newport cigarette boxes, and your carillon recital at Chicago’s Rockefeller Chapel of Donny Hathaway’s “Someday We’ll All Be Free”. Could you discuss how you choose your scales and why this great range? How do you find the proper scales for each work?
For me those three works, the repetitive humming, manipulations of the Newport cigarette boxes and the performance of Hathaway’s “Someday We’ll All Be Free”, are more concerned with the scale of the gesture than the spatial or temporal implications. That’s not to say that the spatial and temporal relationships of those works were not considered, just given a different weight. It fluctuates. For instance in the case of the Newport project, Notations, I am currently more interested in measuring the gesture of picking up the box than the box itself; however, the project didn’t start out with those intentions. It began as a pedestrian exploration of my neighborhood that became an exercise in cropping and framing, which then turned into a mining of the familial. Now friends, colleagues and strangers are cropping, framing and mining in a similar way when they happen upon Newport boxes, and share them with me. Those moments, or iterative gestures, have become an important benchmark in the project. It’s become a way for me to measure the varying scales of the gesture.
In our previous conversations, I have come to value what you describe as your occupation with “in-between-ness”. I have taken this to mean that you trust more in the interstitial, minor-keyed, and contemplative zones of engagement with your audience, that you resist quick representations and embrace more difficult, possibly irresolvable notions. There seems to be a very potential residue in the room after seeing your work, one that bravely engages but is blocked by the largely fraught histories that are its subject. Ambivalence, melancholy, and frustration come to mind as these residual phenomena. I see in this a productive skepticism of sorts. But still, from this contact site of “in-between-ness” you select forms. Plastic sheets, vinyl records, basketballs, photographs, etc. How do you get from the realm of the “in-between” to the representational? Do you struggle with this? And could you say a little about what “in-between-ness” is for you?
Sure. I’ve come to understand my practice as an auto-ethnographic investigation of the in-between – an intermediate space navigated by the social polarities of my identity. These social polarities, ranging from corporeal to celestial, demarcate spaces that define an in-between. This in-between-ness is measured both horizontally and vertically – horizontality as a measurement of time and verticality as a measurement of transcendence. Time tests the durability of polarities and transcendence tests the limits of their existence. Creating this visual language I develop a vocabulary to define and redefine the in-between places being explored. The iterative formal gestures create conceptual underpinnings that create grammatical rules for the work. Grammatical rules, such as using plastic to frame and support (as with the ongoing piece Something made to put Something on), paired with an economical materiality, such that it can be used and reused to frame and support, have become foundational to my investigations. By creating conditions that infiltrate, imitate and mine my familial, spiritual and cultural landscape, the work proposes and repositions what’s in-between. In the exhibition, plastic sheets, Alice Coltrane records, a frayed basketball, a crude contour of President Obama, a five-foot tall candle and a photograph of my grandmother’s house were used as polarities to create a sense of space. And yes, I struggle with this all the time. It’s a productive struggle, but a struggle nonetheless.
Maurice Merleau-Ponty described a shape as simply something seen from a limited point of view, a shape’s contour was made by the perspective of the beholder. As an example, an ellipse may in fact be a circle seen on a tilt, or in a more phenomenal way, essentially inside every ellipse is a circle. You give shape to things as an artist. You’ve worked with circles and ellipses. Can you talk about the content of that form? Why is it relative to the issues at stake in your work?
I think that shape, a circle or ellipse, was another attempt to give form to in-between-ness. From my point of view, it was the best way to punctuate space. Every time I saw a circle I saw an ellipsis.
I believe my role as an artist is to punctuate: interrupt, accentuate, emphasize, etc. Linguistically, the placement of a comma or period can radically change the meaning or intention of a sentence, phrase or statement. I guess I’m trying to do the same thing visually. In my exhibition at Regards, the placement of all the objects was used to interrupt, divide and emphasize my sense of an in-between.
Value in the strictest formal sense is the relationship between lightness and darkness. To stretch that into metaphor, I would say that at the endcaps of the value scale, a perfect lightness of value could be something like enlightenment (whatever that would be!) and a perfect darkness of value would be something like madness or dread. But hope and doubt lie somewhere in the middle of the scale, they are indeed in my mind quite close together. Could you discuss these terms of hope and doubt and how they play in your work?
Hope and doubt are very close on the scale for me as well. I often find myself volleying in-between the two.
My second year in graduate school I began to introduce Christian iconography and rituals into works: a picture of Christ, hymnals, sacrifice, martyrdom, fire. I became doubtful, cynical even, about Art, my place in its history and my decision to become an artist. I’m sure most artists have gone through a similar quandary, I just happened to use Black Jesus to help me get through mine. But I was frustrated. In my first performance in my last year of graduate school I tied myself to a chair and yelled at everyone who entered the room. I proceeded to then yell at the picture of Christ I bought from a flea market in Detroit while simultaneously ravenously eating a bowl of black-eyed peas. At that time I felt like that picture and I together were nothing more than a mascot (the title of that performance). After the performance I talked about how I couldn’t understand how my grandmother always found ways to find the “blessing”. It really bothered me. That word. Her earnest use of it and belief in it. I wanted to believe the way she believed, but I didn’t. Not in Art. Not in me. But I wanted to. My last performance before graduation I got on my knees and prayed out loud in front of those same people in that same room. I prayed for Art and asked for the courage and strength to believe again.
In the exhibition at Regards, there was a photograph of a painting of my Pops that hangs in my grandmother’s house. I guess one might say I found some hope.
I’ve been reading Darby English’s excellent new book, 1971: A Year in the Life of Color. In it he raises the case of Peter Bradley, a black artist that in 1971 was making large color field abstractions. English refers to Bradley, as a practitioner of painterly abstractions, to be a colorist that challenged the “monochromy dominating black cultural politics.” Part of that monochromy was the continued use of “rhetorical figurations of the ghetto”. Bradley and other important black artists of the era, such as Fred Eversley and Al Loving, were making art out of form and material, based in rich studies of color (Bradley), glass-like resin (Eversley), and geometry (Loving). Completely absent in their work are these “rhetorical figurations” as a reference to social inequalities. In 1971 there were powerful factions that distrusted the relevance of a black formalism and to be an artist under its aegis was a precarious existence. Do you feel a pressure to make work that either must include, or shall never include, certain issues of color?
No, not at all.
Art has limitations, as any other form does. But from the discrete fields of study that I think you are engaging (economic, social, material, and visual histories alongside music, poetry and literature), I read a promise of convergences that could reveal certain truths, even if they may be obscured by art. Could you draw lines between the specific fields you consider your areas of study as an artist?
I honestly think I’m still trying to find the lines. Like you, I sense a promise of convergences and revelations, but I still feel somewhat distant from truth. I’m still very much in a space of creating conditions for that enlightenment, but I still feel preoccupied with finding the best way to form the right question. Material culture, social, economic, music, poetry and literature are all tools aiding me in that process.
Thinking of your exhibition at Regards this year, I re-experience the show in memory via the visual, certainly, but what comes close behind in my mind is the texture of the exhibition. I am thinking about the materials. Wax, fire, plastic sheets, iron, the photograph on paper, the drawing on paper, ink. Together these made for a strange textural circuit. I made my way through the show by stations and at each one I had to “feel” for something through perception, like a reaching outward toward the things themselves. In some cases, all that one could tangibly understand was the material itself. The smothering twists of urethane sheets wrapped around an iron rod could not be understood to mean anything other than what it was. A candle was a candle, etc. However, the textures together intimated an attempt at speaking through the objects. Maybe this is not a question, but could you speak to this?
Memory became an integral ingredient in the exhibition. The life of the burning candle, the different iterations of the plastic, the photograph of my grandmother’s house and the shredded basketball all play with or rely on memory. It, memory, becomes another work in the exhibition. Texture is something I’d like to further explore: adding texture to a space, the texture of a memory, adding texture to a memory. Did one feel the tear in the basketball just as they felt the twists of the plastic? Maybe. I can’t help but relate your description of texture to my use of punctuation.
I would like to push on the limits of space in your work to include a discussion on sound. Your work at the Rockefeller Chapel that I mentioned at the start of our conversation, can you please highlight the details of the project for the uninitiated? It was a remarkable performance that activated space and sound in an uncanny way.
Absolutely. Donny Hathaway’s music changed my life. It moved me beyond measure. A friend of mine, Zachary Cahill, told me that a professor once told him to make art like his life depended on it. Donny Hathaway sang like his life depended on it. I was inspired. So much so that I submitted a request to the Rockefeller Chapel for his song, Someday We’ll All Be Free, to be played by the chapel’s carillonneur. They agreed. The following week I walked up to the top of the chapel with sheet music and a field recorder eager to capture this rendition. The carillonneur warned that the song might sound really different from the studio version but that didn’t bother me. The carillonneur began hitting the levers with his fists. He alternated between open palms and fists, open palms and fists. There was nothing elegant about the performance. Not in the way a pianist plays the piano or a jazz musician a trumpet. It looked uncomfortable. Awkward even. It was incredible. I can’t wait to go back.
Composition could be considered to be orchestration, marks and shapes set into space. Something like this is in modernism, the arrangement of the tics and the tacs in a Kandinsky painting, or how the horns in a Bartok symphony punctuate silence. I think that idea of composition is past convention at present, old-fashioned. Then there is another composition, one that is declared through its elements. Composition after the modern is perhaps more about what something is. The human body is oxygen, carbon, hydrogen, etc. A painting is paint, canvas, etc. Maybe this awareness to the essential after the modern is to acknowledge the facticity of decomposition, or death, the coming apart of elemental components. Of what is your art composed? You’ve used the phrase, “Everything is Everything” in your work (particularly in the title of your Regards exhibition). Explain how this phrase relates to composition?
Good question. One that might take a little more time for me to answer. Of what is my art composed? What elements make up my art? It’s hard to give an answer that’s not formal or conceptual and not overly poetic. But maybe talking about the phrase will help.
When I spoke to Mike and Nat at Regards about the phrase, “Everything is Everything”, I described it as a response. Something you say when there’s nothing else to be said. It explains everything and nothing at the same time. I recalled a conversation with a friend over the phone in which he asked how I was doing and I responded with, “Everything is everything.” His response, “I never knew what that meant, but I feel you.” This notion brings me back to your question about texture and how one almost had to “feel” for something through perception in the exhibition. I believe one must’ve felt something in order to understand what was in the room. Otherwise, a candle is just a candle, a basketball is just a basketball, and plastic is just plastic.
I am an invisible man. No, I am not a spook…I am a man of substance, of flesh and bone, fiber and liquids- and I might even be said to possess a mind. I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me. Like the bodiless heads you see sometimes in circus sideshows, it is as though I have been surrounded by mirrors of hard, distorting glass. When they approach me they see only my surroundings, themselves, or figments of their imagination- indeed, everything and anything except me.
This above passage from Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man is a fiery, melancholic longing to be seen and recognized, there is too a gallows humor in its sarcasm about the possession of mind, and it speaks out of a frustration that is near resignation. An important note toward these sentiments is that the author is invisible because people refuse to see him. Instead, they only see themselves, as if through some weird optic light warp, in a series of reflections and distortions. The histories embedded in this passage have persisted into newly complex problems, perhaps so daunting that the same denials of their presence could be a kind of eternal recurrence. How do you engage the issues of visibility in your work and do you also feel an obligation to discuss the factors contributing to invisibility?
I wouldn’t say I feel obligated to discuss the factors contributing to invisibility, although there are times I do feel more obligated than others. Dealing with issues of visibility can be extremely challenging. My biggest hurdle has been getting people to see something they think they’ve already seen, and because they’ve seen it, they think they know it. I think this might speak to some of the denials you mentioned earlier. It was hard enough to get people to see the first time, let alone look again or look differently. That really was the impetus of my Notations project. The year 2014 wasn’t the first time I saw a discarded Newport box on the street, it was the first time I picked one up.
Devin Mays is an artist living in Chicago.
David Schutter is an artist and Associate Professor at the University of Chicago.