The racialized and gendered body—his body—is the jumping off point for JOHNATHAN PAYNE's performance, sculpture and installation. His performances include rituals that embody endurance, self-investigation, self-care and preparation for facing the world as a human in a particular body. Coming at the same content from another direction, his Constructions—beautiful, airy, fragile curtains, meticulously assembled from shredded, colored printer paper and comic books—and ballpoint pen drawings of dense, wavy lines that evoke human hair explore the body through abstraction and materiality. Johnathan earned his BA in Art in 2012 from Rhodes College, where he was the recipient of the Sally Becker Grinspan Award for Artistic Achievement. His solo exhibitions include New Drawings (2014) at Beige, Accumulations (2013) at InsideOut Gym and DHOOOOOOM! (2011) at Jack Robinson Gallery, all in Memphis. In 2015, he collaborated with photographer D'Angelo Williams on Room to Let, created and exhibited at First Congregational Church in Memphis. He will exhibit new Constructions and collage work at 1:54 Contemporary African Art Fair courtesy of Jenkins Johnson Gallery. The fair will take place at Somerset House in London on October 6-9, 2016. Johnathan currently lives in Memphis, Tennessee but will be heading to Yale this fall to pursue his MFA in Painting/Printmaking.
OtherPeoplesPixels: “Intense preoccupations with self-concept, desire, and tribalism [were] the points of departure for” Meet Me Where I’m At (2015), a solo show that included sculpture and performance. The title reads to me as a call away from tribalism, a call to see humans as individuals, not others. Can you say more about how you think about tribalism?
Johnathan Payne: I define tribalism as the organization of individuals who have a deep kinship over a shared culture or commonality. A fraternity, an ethnic or racial group, and a church congregation are examples of tribes to me, and such tribes were catalysts for the conceptualization of the show. I also think about tribalism in relation to time and space, and how people can go in and out of particular tribes depending on those two variables. The show was the outcome of a lot of personal existential questioning. I was beginning to question my positioning in the tribes that I deemed myself a part of but felt somewhat distant to: past and (then) present relationships, the Black/Queer community, and my then live/work space at a church, to name a few. I wanted to examine the isolation I felt as an individual in relation to certain tribes and the difference between identifying as a tribe member and actively participating as one. So, your interpretation of seeing humans as individuals and not (or, interrelation to) others is very spot on.
OPP: How do self-concept and desire play into, ignite or counteract tribalism?
JP: The past, current, and future self—elements that make up a self-concept—are occasionally at odds with one another. I think this oddity with one’s self is experienced by everyone at some point or another. Usually, I process some of these inner emotions/self schemas by asking myself, “What the fuck are you doing?” or “What were you thinking?” or “Where are you going?” These questions may sound ruminative and self-shaming, but they help me be real with myself and get to the meat of my personal goals and desires. Desire is a double-edged sword for me. I’ve felt the desire to be someone I inherently am not, to be among people whose tribe I don’t have immediate access to or would have to mute or sacrifice an aspect of myself to gain access to. These inner conflicts with certain desires have negatively informed my self-concept, and have brought certain insecurities to the surface in distressful ways. Meet Me Where I’m At ultimately became an attempt to reconcile my relationship with myself, and to see myself unique to the tribes I occupy and the ones I desired to be in.
It was important for me to work across disciplines and engage in time-intensive processes to create the work. I was thinking about the body a lot, specifically a racialized and gendered body, my body. I was questioning my relationship to my body and how my body existed in space and how it was being perceived by others. Poly-consciousness is very central to my lived experience, and the show became an opportunity to explore a personal multidimensionality across materials and forms. Mental endurance, positive self-talk and perseverance are all tools I use in my daily life to push through internal drama induced by the external world. Physical fitness seemed like an appropriate vehicle to examine this self-preservation. The home workout excited me because it is rooted in self-care, but also in solitude. There’s comfort in not being seen working out, in not being susceptible to the perceptions of other gym-goers. I wanted to turn all that on its head by doing Tae Bo in a gallery, to conflate the concepts of isolation, self-improvement and the external gaze.
OPP: You did a performance for the same show, in which you performed a series of secular rituals—shaving your beard and hair, doing a Tae Bo video in a gym-mat-shaped ring of tea lights, bathing, and reading floating fortune cookies
followed by beer-bonging your own bath water. In the documentation, we
can’t see everything that the live viewers saw. What else can you tell
us that we may have missed by not seeing this live?
JP: The live performance spanned roughly one and a half hours, start-to-finish. The audience and I were both entrapped in a lot of time together. There were many sounds of feet shuffling, people conversing, and beer and soda cans popping open by mid-performance. With the exception of shaving my head, bathing, and beer-bonging bath water, most of the performance was spent with my back facing the audience. It was a very personal experience for me, and the audience’s experience was secondary to my own. Occasionally, during the duration of the Tae Bo workout, I would stop to drink water from a bottle I placed outside the tea lights. There was a bit of comicality visible to a live audience, specifically when I responded with disbelief to particularly intense exercises. Audience members cheered me on when I got tired, or when I looked like I was really struggling to perform the moves. Eventually, some of the tea lights burned out entirely.
The Tae Bo workout was projected directly onto the wall, so the scale of the video was large. It consumed me, and in a way I had to compete for the audience’s attention, because the Tae Bo video is rather dynamic to watch on its own. In the video, you see Billy Blanks in the foreground a majority of the time. The fitness studio where the video was filmed has a padded red floor, with various signs on the walls. There is a large, diverse group of people participating in the video. Many racial groups, ages, and genders are represented. There are also a variety of fitness levels represented too. But, collectively, everyone looks confident and has a strong physique. The front row contains people who are incredibly fit, and they maintain the pace of Blanks’ commands. The video was produced and distributed in the year 2000, and it definitely feels stylistically and aesthetically dated in that sense. Billy is a very lively figure throughout the video. He is encouraging, uplifting, militant and authoritative, all in one. My body language throughout the performance shifts, particularly during and after the bathing sequence. At that point, I am directly facing the audience and actively engaging with them. It was certainly me at my most vulnerable moment, but also my most powerful moment.
OPP: A year later, what do you think about your own performance?
JP: This performance continues to be a lot for me to unpack. I think about my relationship to Billy Blanks and how his projection of Black masculinity is very divergent from my own. My attempt to mirror his appearance and keep pace with him is difficult, unsuccessful and ultimately unnecessary. I find comfort in that “failure,” in that ability to affirm Blackness across a spectrum, detached from competition and a monolithic representation. I still contemplate the line between self-care and self-medication, and my relationships to my past and current self. I continue to ask myself a lot of questions surrounding who I am and how I exist in the world. Ultimately, I think the performance challenged me to relinquish some of the internalizations that impeded me from being able to be my authentic self.
OPP: In your Constructions
(2015-present), made from both shredded comic books and colored printer
paper, I’m most interested in the idea of transforming a narrative form
into abstraction, even if it is an abstraction that hints at a
functional object (a curtain). Can you discuss the two different papers
in relation to the forms?
JP: My Constructions series developed from an ongoing interest to appropriate comic books in my work. Since 2011, I have explored the comic image and consider Ray Yoshida and his retrospective at the Sullivan Galleries at SAIC to be one of the most significant moments for me as a visual artist. Seeing the way Yoshida extracted and arranged forms from various comic books into specimen-like formations against spacious white grounds really stuck with me. In my Constructions, I make tapestry-like collages that attempt to evoke the vulnerability, complexity and tactility intrinsic to particular embodied identities. These evocations are manifested through color, pattern, and material. I play with color and pattern in different ways depending on the paper I choose.
When I shred comic book paper, the compositional and formal elements become colorful strips of pixelated, whimsical information. I then play around with these strips, creating patterned designs until I discover one that is compelling enough for me to explore further. Then, I set out to make a large scale artwork. From a distance, there is a formal uniformity to the Constructions made out of comic book paper. Yet, when viewed at an intimate distance, the comic Constructions offer a lot of complexity and detail in relation to color, line, and subject matter. I deconstruct depictions of whiteness, “justice,” heteronormativity, and patriarchy embedded in many comic books. The resulting form is not intended to be a reimagining or response to the original comic narrative. Though a familiarity exists, my goal is to transform the material into something rather unconventional.
I developed a stronger interest to play with color in my work after exploring the art of Black Abstractionists. The work of Alma Thomas, Trenton Doyle Hancock, Odili Donald Odita, Howardina Pindell and Stanley Whitney really resonates with me. So, I began to experiment with colored printer paper. I enjoyed that, similar to comic books, there was already visual information to respond to, though in this instance, it’s just flat, predetermined color. I began to use this paper as a tool to build pattern, tamper with light and shadow, and reference color field paintings and geometric abstractions. I layer warm and cool colors atop one another in an attempt to blend colors and create a visual vibrancy where the two shift rather seamlessly. I consider these particular constructions to be more broadly derivative of paintings. Also, the colored printer paper is usually stronger than the comic book paper, because of its ream weight and it being newer paper most times. So, I find that there’s a greater ability to experiment with surface texture. The surfaces of the colored paper constructions tend to buckle and bend, which reiterates the idea of vulnerable, yet resilient bodies and identities within society. I’m excited to explore both materials more in graduate school, as well as other printed material/archived publications.
OPP: Tell us about your recent collaboration Room to Let (2015) with photographer D'Angelo Williams. What did you each bring to the project?
JP: D’Angelo’s MFA thesis work titled Beauty Kings stages various black men adorned with a deep burgundy turban standing in isolation within urban and rural landscapes. I was deeply inspired by this work and had the pleasure in participating as a model for him. His thesis work and my studio projects at the time were the catalysts for the show. Following Meet Me Where I’m At, I began working on a series of gestures and drawings that were intended to be somewhat dark in tonality and thematic content, so I wanted to balance that out with a project that was more participatory, colorful and playful. We decided to further investigate portraiture photography and abstract drawing together.
D’Angelo specifically brought a strong background in shooting and editing photographs to the project, and I brought a collaborative painting and drawing background. We both desired to explore color, identity and abstraction using space, material, fabrics and textiles and willing participants. We shot the photographs at First Congregational Church in Memphis, where I lived and worked as an events coordinator and a hostel resident assistant—the church runs an international traveler’s hostel called Pilgrim House. We borrowed linens and blankets from the hostel and asked guests if they wanted to pose for us. Initially, I was hesitant to ask strangers to participate. We would both approach someone, explain the themes and ideas surrounding the photos, and ask if they were interested. To my surprise, a lot of people expressed interest, and for some, it was a significant highlight of their time in Memphis.
OPP: What surprises emerged during the process?
JP: We worked together to drape the fabrics over the guests, making formal decisions based on the specific locations in the building and the personalities of each model. What struck me early in our project was how beautiful these fabrics looked adorned on the models. These were sheets and blankets that I’d spent a year interacting with as a staff member—washing, folding, cleaning—and I’d given them no particular mind and ascribed absolutely zero value to them. But, in reality, there was a lot of power inherent in them. That power was invisible to me, and the project really encouraged me to search for meaning where it’s (perceivably) least expected. We shot the photographs in various spaces within the church and made collaborative drawings and one shaped painting in my studio, which was also located inside the church. We exhibited the work in one of the rooms we photographed in, and opened the exhibition to churchgoers, hostel guests and friends. It was wonderful to witness so many different people engaging with the art.
Room to Let really informed my interest to explore color, tactility, materiality and abstraction, and how all those elements can represent embodied identities. Working with D’Angelo was incredibly affirming, and I found comfort where we overlapped as artists and individuals.
OPP: In your most recent video performance Training Session (2015), you do forward rolls on a small gym mat over and over again, wearing a T-shirt that says Up Against the Wall Mother Fucker. What are you training for?
JP: I am training for sustained self-preservation against the systems within society that wish to destroy me. In Training Session, I wanted to portray a pro-Black political sentiment through embodiment, text and the urban environment. I had finished reading Between The World And Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates and was thinking a lot about the vulnerability inherently attached to the Black body. How, at any point, it can be extinguished and how that threat of extinction can induce an internalized violence that is both protective and self-destructive. Coates writes, “. . . this is your country. . . this is your world. . . this is your body, and you must find some way to live within the all of it.” That line really resonated with me as I strove to determine what being free in my own Black body looked like. I wanted to show myself struggling in a repetitive act, that danced the line between external and internal influencers. That in-between is a rich space to me.
I also wanted to connect this performance with a Black Power narrative. The line on the shirt is a quote from Amiri Baraka’s poem Black People. In the poem, Baraka affirms the need for Black people to make their own world by any means necessary, including violence onto white people. The poem goes:
You can't steal nothing from a white man, he's already stole it he owes you everything you want, even his life. All the stores will open if you say the magic words. The magic words are: Up against the wall motherfucker! this is a stick up... We must make our own world, man, our own world, and we can not do this unless the white man is dead. Let's get together and kill him my man.
Though I’m not a violent person, I wanted to incorporate the theme of a racial-political uprising, but on the individual level. I wore the shirt in the performance to evoke the aggressive, combative tone in the poem. I paired this loaded text with a repetitive action—the somersault, a rudimental gymnastics technique—that hinted at notions of personal development, amateurism and innocence. I also wore a wrestling ear-guard to reinforce the idea of combat sport, but also to hint to a potential opponent. Though in reality they are many in number, two “opponents” depicted in the video include the hard, overgrown externalized world around me, as well as the internalized shackles that impede me from nurturing a radically Black identity.
Filmed October 11, 2015 in Memphis, TN.
Documentation courtesy of David Bergen.
JP: The recent police killings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile and the shooting of Dallas and Baton Rouge police officers are
tragic and continuous reminders of the difficult reality that is
existing in a Black body in America. It’s horrible to think that images
of Black people have been constructed in ways beyond our own imagining
or control and that these constructions ignite such brutality and
violence onto us. In her book Citizen,
Claudia Rankine speaks to a particular anger: “the anger built up
through experience and quotidian struggles against dehumanization every
brown or black person lives simply because of skin color.” I’ve heard
this anger be referred to as Black Rage, and I see a connection between
it and the internalized fear I mentioned earlier. I
empathize entirely with these emotions and understand the root causes
behind their extreme, outward manifestations. I also am able to confront
my particular vantage point, which is from a place of privilege. I
understand that the way I maintain and/or channel my emotions is unique to my
experience. I haven't always been the most comfortable affirming my Blackness or confronting racism in the past, but I'm unpacking that suppression in my life right now. I think all of this is visible in Training Session.
Featured Artist Interviews are conducted by Chicago-based, interdisciplinary artist Stacia Yeapanis. When she’s not writing for OPP, Stacia explores the relationship between repetition, desire and impermanence in cross-stitch embroideries, remix video, collage and impermanent installations. She is an instructor in the Department of Fiber and Material Studies at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, where received her MFA in 2006, and was a 2012-2013 Mentor-in-Residence at BOLT in Chicago. Her solo exhibitions include I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For (2013) at Klemm Gallery, Siena Heights University (Adrian, Michigan), Everything You Need is Already Here (2014) at Heaven Gallery (Chicago) and When Things Fall Apart, a durational, collage installation in the Annex Gallery at Lillstreet Art Center (Chicago). Form Unbound, a two-person show, also featuring the work of Aimée Beaubien, closed in December 2015 at Dominican University's O’Connor Art Gallery (River Forest, IL). Most recently, Stacia created a brand new site-responsive installation for SENTIENCE, a group show at The Ukrainian Institute of Modern Art in March 2016.