In the Studio with Reginald Sylvester II. Words by Alex Leav.

Duchamp, de Kooning, and Descartes walk into a bar. Their resulting conversation is not the punchline of a joke (apologies), but it encapsulates the spirit and oeuvre of the work of contemporary artist Reginald Sylvester II. Effortlessly fusing traditional art historical and Biblical ideologies with modern concerns, Sylvester creates dynamic paintings which ask us to confront ourselves and the world around us.
The artist welcomed me into his New York studio, giving me insights into his process and his mind.

"Cuts" Installation View (2022), Image courtesy the artist and Maximillian William.

I find it super interesting that you have a background in graphic design. You create these beautiful, layered, spiritual expressionist paintings so deeply rooted in “art” and art history which, to me, initially seem like the antithesis of organized or clean “design.” Do you think your work is at all influenced by elements of graphic design? If so, how?

I believe that there are different sides of me when it comes to making. Graphic design doesn’t really inform anything within the process of picture making for me. If there would be any connection, I feel that as an artist you must have an understanding of one’s self and sensibilities when it comes to using material. As a designer, having a certain sensibility in the way in which you problem solve through visual solutions is also quite necessary.

Your paintings seem to function in a unique space between handmade and readymade. Can you speak on the importance of found material in your work?

I believe that found material and its role within the make-up of my work is super important being that these materials memorialize the object that I’m making. Particular narratives can arise when working with materials in that way.

Reginald Sylvester II, "Bondage III" (2020), Acrylic and rope on canvas, 60 x 48 in (152.4 x 121.9 cm). Courtesy the artist and Maximillian William.

Agreed. You talk about respecting the material, letting it “do its thing” after you’ve done yours. It's almost as if you're stepping away to let the material speak for itself, making room for these particular (and, maybe, unexpected) narratives. You've recently been working on rubber instead of canvas. What exactly does rubber “do” to your paintings after you've stepped away?

Rubber has a level of elasticity to it. When working with the weight/thickness of rubber that I'm using, gravity plays a huge role in how it sits. How tight and or loose the rubber is when stretched plays an enormous part, as well as the type of incisions I make within the material. Rubber begins to do its own thing to a certain degree. Therefore, it’s for me to understand it’s position and work between the confines of what it naturally wants to do and what I want it to do. You're right - I’m not really interested in fully controlling the material. I’m more interested in finding a sense of harmony with the material.

You said to me that “art is dialogue.” I loved this. I think your work successfully engages with the dialogue of art history (making references to Abstract Expressionism, site-specific sculpture, etc.) while creating its own dialogue about current events and trends. First, can you talk a little about your historical influences? Second, I’m curious as to whether you think keeping up to date or “with the time,” is important to you and your work. If it is, do you ever feel pressure to keep up?

My historical references more so lie within the Abstract Expressionist movement amongst maybe Minimalism, and my interest in Brutalism. I'm certainly not worried about keeping up with the current times. I am however thinking about Futurist themes in how to make work that speak to a distant past yet a resilient future.

Do you think about narrative? What is your relationship to storytelling?

I think about narrative a lot when it comes to titling works. I believe exhibitions of mine are chapters within my life and that maybe my relationship with story telling revolves around that. I never really intend to tell stories through my work. I more so want my contribution to art to exist as visual commentary to things that happened in the past, present, and future.

Reginald Sylvester II, "These Songs of Freedom II & III" (2020), Acrylic on canvas, 72 x 60 in (182.88 x 152.4 cm). Courtesy the artist and Maximillian William.

How would you place painting as a medium in the current cultural landscape of art production?

I’d always place painting at the forefront of art production. There’s a physicality alongside a spiritual experience within making and viewing paintings. To me, there aren’t many other processes that exist which can trump that experience. Then again, I’m a painter so I may be being bias.

Well, this is a magazine which revolves around painting, so I think we're all a little biased! However, it's obvious that your practice extends beyond painting. You make sculpture, pottery, furniture, etc. Do you think having multiple processes and means of expression helps propel your ideas forward?

I don’t look at myself as just a painter. I really see myself as a maker. With that in mind I have a lot of different concerns pertaining to other media that I’d like to confront. These other areas of making do allow me to deal with those concerns in different ways. When allowing myself that freedom certain process start to inform others and think that’s what excites me the most.

We talked about your interest in the possibility of mass-producing your “Chair 001.” Do you think this interest relates back to your interest in the readymade?

Not at all. Starting a furniture company for me is a way for me to have a conversation with furniture and or design objects that came before me. It also allows me a way to engage with different audiences in an affordable way.

Reginald Sylvester II, "Swing Low" (2020), Acrylic, thread, and sticks on canvas, 72 x 60 in (182.88 x 152.4 cm). Courtesy the artist and Maximillian William.

Do you have any rituals or processes that you follow in the studio?

Not at the moment. I recently decided to start praying before I work. Giving thanks to The Creator for allowing me the opportunity to create.

You have a solo show coming up at the Harvey B. Gantt Center. Can you give us some insight as to what we can expect to see in the show?

This show will display my thinking over the last year, my interest in the ready-made, and how that’s informed my painting.

Lastly, what is it about painting and the act of creating that you love?

I love the fact that I can visually deal with things I’m going through whether it be spiritually or emotionally - or ideals I’m working my through about the world we live in within the act of painting. It becomes a humbling experience if you let go enough and I find myself wanting to give more and more thanks to The Most High for allowing me this space being that He is the ultimate Creator.

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Photos by Alex Leav.