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A bonfire of burning Ku Klux Klan members. Patrick Ewing in blackface with cartoonishly long arms and legs. Bodies flying off a slave ship in the throes of a revolt and blackface Chicago Bulls hunting tigers with spears on the Savannah. Oh, there’s also a Black woman and a white guy flying downward on a giant banana, titled “2 Niggas on a Nana.” When it comes to the types of images that have put Devin Troy Strother’s work on the map, it’s hard to grab a term that doesn’t feel like an art magazine cliché. They’re sensational. They’re provocative. They’re in your face. Nah.
Maybe “loaded” fits the bill best. At least for me, a white man in an art gallery wondering: Am I in on the joke because I’m into ’90s basketball and C.L.R. James? Or am I the butt of the joke for this very reason? Are old rich people and crypto millionaires buying blackface Knicks and putting them in their apartments? And why do I feel the urge to do this as well? It’s a wormhole that I imagine is a mental spiral of the artist’s own design.
At a time when so much art is either blissfully abstract or socially polite, Strother’s paintings exude a joy found in flipping subjects on their head and putting the spectator’s consciousness into a meat grinder. “Sometimes work is offensive,” the Californian artist told me, almost dutifully, during both of our recent conversations. The first chat took place over Facetime Audio from Paris to Los Angeles, when the artist explained to me how he planned to restage the work of the posthumously canceled painter Philip Guston, a Jewish painter whose major 2020 retrospective was postponed until a time when it would be “more clearly interpreted.” When I suggested that his work was sneaking Guston back into the establishment when art institutions were refusing to exhibit it, Strother was amused. His new exhibition of paintings at The Pit in Los Angeles is called “Undercover Brother” for many reasons.
THOM BETTRIDGE: I wanted to start off by asking you about the Philip Guston references in “Undercover Brother.” What had drawn you to Philip Guston’s work before this whole controversy with him happened?
DEVIN TROY STROTHER: The Fine Art program out of ArtCenter [College of Design, in California] is kind of based off of an MFA program where they just give you a studio. There’s not too much emphasis on craft. I wasn't learning anything technically in terms of painting, and I didn’t want to graduate and not know how to fucking paint. So I switched over to illustration, where you have to do this thing called master copies. Master copies is when you copy some type of art from the renaissance — like a Rubens, a Van Dyck, or a Rembrandt. It’s a copy of an old master. I was at a disadvantage there because I didn’t know as much as some of the other students who had been in illustration longer. A lot of them came from art high schools and shit, so they had been painting longer than me. I came from a shitty suburban high school that didn’t really have a good art program. My background was graffiti and stuff like that. Anyway, long story short, Philip Guston was someone I always wanted to do master copies of because his paintings were a lot simpler. Not simple, but they were easier to replicate because the way he paints is kind of cartoonish. That was something I did a long time ago when I was still in art school.
When it became time for me to figure out the next steps in my “painting practice,” I wanted to step away from doing the cutouts and the collage aspect of my paintings and just do a straight-up painting. I went back to Philip Guston again to practice using some of his motifs and composition structures, the way he places objects in a space and the way he uses paint while it’s wet. Then there’s the subject matter of the painter in the studio, which is something else I was thinking about doing with regard to Black painting becoming such a prominent thing in the past couple of years. With all of the Black Lives Matter movement stuff there was a big shift in the art realm to start collecting Black bodies, and so the blackface stuff I had been doing was getting to the point where I was pretty much over it, for lack of better words.
I had been doing it for basically 10 years at that point and just wanted to change up. I have so many Philip Guston books, and it was around the time that his shows got canceled. I was thinking, “Oh, people don’t like this, maybe I should paint it anyway…”.
BETTRIDGE: But the connection to Guston was already well established.
STROTHER: He’s one of my favorite painters. I felt he was unjustly being disapproved of because those people just don’t read a lot of times. I’ve always liked him. I would stay in New York for a bit at Max [Levai’s] house. Max was the president of Marlborough Gallery. He had a bunch of Gustons in his guest room where I would stay, and so I always dug his paintings. The painting I was most obsessed with was called Talking (1979). It’s basically just a hand with a little nub of a paintbrush in it, and a cigarette and smoke is billowing out. I just basically redid that painting but made the hand Black, and turned the cigarette into a joint, and called it Texting instead of Talking. That was the first one…
I’ve done these things before, taking other white artists and flipping their paintings and turning the figures in their paintings Black — owning the painting in that way. It’s similar to what blackface is. Originally there’s a white person putting black makeup on, so it’s the reverse of that. It’s me taking a white person’s thing and putting ownership over it in some way by making it Black. Those were the thoughts going through my head, along with his shows being canceled. What you said the other day resonates a lot: “Since he can’t show them, I’ll show them for him.” I wasn’t directly thinking that, but once you said it, it made sense of the motive and the drive to want to keep making these paintings.
BETTRIDGE: Just to rewind to one comment, you were saying that you were over it with collectors collecting Black bodies, and your takeaway from the blackface paintings being a response to that. How did it become stale, and what exactly were you reacting to when you changed course there?
STROTHER: I had been given shit by different people for adopting the blackface motif as part of my image lexicon or whatever, and using that as part of the signage that this is Black people in the work. It felt like I was giving in to pressure from people saying I’m not going to co-sign this or I can’t get galleries. It was more that I had done so much, and I think I had gotten out all of the things that I had really needed to get out with it. If work is offensive that’s not something that’s a problem for me, because sometimes work is offensive. Not every work is meant to be this pretty, happy thing.
BETTRIDGE: So when you appropriate this painting Talking and you make the hand a Black hand, the cigarette turns into a joint, and you’re texting instead of talking, does it become autobiographical? Or is the Black hand just a Black hand in general? How does the subject matter change when you take this painting you’re familiar with and change the color of the hand? Because it sounds like a very complicated switch.
STROTHER: They are very much self-portraits in most ways, I would say. And almost always. My hair doesn’t look like that, but it kind of does. It’s not my exact skin tone, but it’s pretty damn close. So, yeah. They’re definitely self-portraits. The show is called “Undercover Brother,” which is a play off of a little bit of BlacKkKlansman, and there’s a movie called Undercover Brother. So it was a little bit of that, and also that idea of undercover brother because a couple of the paintings are Black dudes who are wearing a Klan mask on top of their Afro, watching and painting. So it was that idea, too, of going undercover as the inside man trying to get the lowdown on what the Klan’s doing, trying to get inside info, that was the narrative I had in mind.
It’s also just me playing the popular trope of Black bodies being important right now. I wanted to depict my own self in the work, and I saw myself as a Philip Guston, in a way. He made these iconic, controversial paintings. He was Jewish, he had his reasons for making them. Being obsessed with the other, wanting to put yourself in the shoes of your opposition. I have the same kind of obsession, too. I’m from LA, so I’m really into gang politics and stuff like that. I’m not a gang member and haven’t ever been, but I have friends who are slightly in that life, or used to be, and I’m just curious about how that stuff translates into rap music and how that rap music will later turn into real life repercussions. I’ve always been into hood shit. I’ve been into skinhead culture, too. I used to really be into punk, and went to go see the Dropkick Murphys and Lars and the Bastards and Agnostic Front. Long Beach is known for having a big skinhead population. Long story short, I got beat up by a bunch of fucking skins one night. Ever since then I’ve been obsessed with American History X and any kind of documentary about Nazis and shit. It’s all just weird gang formation stuff.
BETTRIDGE: I was reading something about how in LA there’s also cop gangs, which have these white supremacist viking aesthetics.
STROTHER: Yeah. There’s one called The Executioners. They’re sheriffs. I’ve always been into that type of culture. I just like reading about it. And even that feels like you’re going undercover, because you’re going into a world where you know you don’t necessarily belong, but you have this voyeuristic obsession with it.
BETTRIDGE: I was thinking about movies like BlacKkKlansman — or even a movie like White Chicks — where there seems to be this cultural obsession with the plot of a Black guy being undercover as a white person. The “undercover brother.” What do you think the allure of that theme is to people? Or maybe it’s easier to ask you what draws you to it?
STROTHER: Well, being that I’m a Black painter and I travel the world and am “privileged” to a certain degree — I was born in the suburbs and went to a private school –— back in the day you would get, “Oh, you’re not Black.” Or, “Oh, you’re half Black.” Not to say that you have to be from a certain situation to be Black, but kids are just dumb and they just say whatever. It’s not that I was ever ostracized from my community, because I didn’t grow up in a Black community. I grew up in an Asian and Hispanic community, but there’s that idea of being the only one. I don’t know, it’s something that’s always been in the works: this idea of being an outsider and being an insider at the same time. Not totally being accepted into fine art. And then accepted, but it’s a different world.
BETTRIDGE: I’m curious about how your Reggie Ross character came into being — because in a way, you’re doing the same thing there that you’re doing with Guston. How did you decide to become a Black Bob Ross?
STROTHER: I originally wanted it to be a series of straight paintings. He was not the total catalyst for it, but when I was trying to figure out a different body of work, for a brief second I was like, “I’ll do it under a different name.” And then me and my friends were talking, and I was like, “Instead of Bob Ross I’ll call it Reggie Ross and just make these more serene, scenic still-life-y images.” But that’s been done by some other artists so that idea fell by the wayside. But the idea of Reggie Ross was still something that I thought was funny, just some guy saying he was the long lost stepbrother of Bob Ross, shit like that. I was doing the Reggie Ross thing, and then that documentary about Bob Ross came out [Bob Ross: Happy Accidents, Betrayal & Greed (2021)], and people were just watching it on Netflix a lot, it was super popular. I’m not really exactly sure how I’ve seen it as a thing, but it’s literally something that I do and I have fun with outside of just making these paintings, having another outlet that’s a little bit less driven by the market or having to sell anything. It’s more geared around entertaining the viewer.
BETTRIDGE: I feel like a lot of your work is, you have these hands that are smoking, or playing basketball, or painting. Because then you were also saying you got drawn to this work by Guston of a hand, so I’m wondering what draws you to that symbol or that part of the body.
STROTHER: Well, hands are hard to do, just because the perspective is always weird. It’s hard, you have to do fore-shortening and you have to figure out a way to stylize a hand that makes it resemble a hand. On top of that the bottom of my hand is basically a beige pinkish, where the top of my hand is a dark brown. So there’s a pretty cool color transition from the top of my skin to the palm of my skin. And it’s just an interesting thing to investigate. I wanted to make the paintings and not have them be that serious, and be loaded with all this racial shit. I just wanted to make some paintings about painting. And Guston, he had an obsession with doing that, too. He had obsessions with a lot of things, but I really took the hand and just went with it because it was like, well, I use my hands a lot.
And absolutely I’m using my hands to paint, using my hands to roll joints, using my hands to smoke a joint. Using my hands to clean the brushes. There’s a lot of energy around what my hands are doing.
BETTRIDGE: Yeah. It’s funny, too, because I feel like with the Guston faces, especially when they’re smoking, they always seem like their mind is racing somehow.
STROTHER: Smoking is very contemplative. I grew up with smoking being this whole thing. And the generation now vapes, but there’s still this weird fascination with smoking or blowing smoke out of your mouth, and having a cigarette to think things over. It’s such a regular part of my life, just rolling and smoking a joint. It’s almost automatic just coming to the studio. I don’t have to smoke a joint to paint, but it’s a lot cooler if I did.
You get into this hermetic monk mode once you’ve got all of these paintings going at the same time: depictions of these faces and eyes looking at things. They’re all looking around at everything that’s being made. It’s like they’re all having a conversation about you, and you’re having a conversation with them. It can get trippy.
BETTRIDGE: So where does your painting of the bonfire of Klansmen sit within the story? Is that the euphoric climax?
STROTHER: It’s more of the start of it. I’ve done paintings of Klansmen being killed by Africans and slave ships being taken over by these Black people in chains. I did some paintings with a grim reaper on a horse mowing down a bunch of Klansmen. But yeah, I always painted violent acts happening to white supremacists. I just haven’t actually made them this big before. It’s the reaction back towards the Klansmen aspect of Philip Guston’s work. I know it’s funny, but also in my version, they’re actually being burned. So that’s my flip on it.
BETTRIDGE: Is it cathartic? To create that kind of image?
STROTHER: They’re all cathartic. I wouldn’t be able to make them if they weren’t cathartic.
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