In the Studio With Sedrick Chisom.

Words by

Sofia Hallström

In the Studio With Sedrick Chisom.

Firstly, I wanted to ask you about the narrativity in your work. Could you talk about the importance of writing in your practice? At what point do you begin to write and how do your ideas emerge?

So, I’ll try to talk about this in the most organic way possible. At the very beginning, I started thinking about the larger narrative that was starting to emerge. There was a painting called The arrival of the Last Confederate Failson amidst the glacial shores of Monument Valley several hours before the Wrath of Medusa that depicts a guy in Confederate underwear and an atmospheric gear suit. He’s on an ice flow, stranded, miles away from land. I was like, “what the fuck is going on?” From that painting, I created a text preamble, like the one [showcased] at the beginning of the show [Chisom’s current solo exhibition, Twenty Thousand Years of Fire and Snow at Pilar Corrias] from which I started extrapolating all this information: an atmospheric gear suit implies that the environment isn't safe and there is this weird climate change thing happening, and it's toxic. I started doing research into the terms of all those intersections. I started doing more research when I began to write my play into all these different histories of monstrous races, the intersection between histories of disease and race, miasma theory versus germ theory, the relationship between the wilderness and the relationship between the eugenics, particularly in the US. I wrote a sixty page play, and I had all these ideas that I just couldn't pack into it. I had this whole body of material and references that started sustaining the paintings. It started being its own self perpetuating cycle and set of references over time. Now, it's gotten to a place where it's more about the world and a particular character, and each show might focus on a certain set of characters. For example, for this one [Twenty Thousand Years of Fire and Snow] everything centres around the Occidental Tower which is this weird fucked-up Tower of Babel, Bruegel-like structure. I'm just detailing the society within that. Other shows were more about people being stranded on ice flows etc. The first show I did in the UK for Condo 2020 [joint exhibition with Sofia Mitsola at Pilar Corrias, London] was Westward Shrinking Hours which is just a world subsumed in a fiery heat.

Can you expand on the idea of world-building and how this idea came about?

In grad school, I was making a lot of paintings that were a one-off. At the time, I had this back and forth relationship with painting in terms of what's acceptable or not. Are figures acceptable? Is narrative acceptable? Narrative functions in a weird way in painting because there's all this other stuff that takes you out of it, like the materiality. You can never tell a new story in a painting and I think it's the interesting thing about a painting. I started getting frustrated as I had so much that I wanted to tell. Over time, it started to be that I was implying a world. So, I wrote a short story that was about a character and then I thought that there must be a way to actually construct a whole cohesive world within the paintings. I started thinking along those lines, looking at artists like Trenton Doyle Hancock, Henry Darger, even William Blake; a lot of symbolist painters construct worlds. I realised world-building is very political. You do the same kind of work in world-building if you create the foundational document of a nation state because you're like right, what kind of economy is this going to be? What kind of political organisation is this going to be? Who are the people who make up this place? What is their shared history that allows them to be a nation? All these concerns are the most political things. I started looking at Sun Ra, and that whole project of Afrofuturism is political because it's a project of making a world. Sun Ra spoke about black people in the US and the larger African diaspora, whose mythologies were destroyed and erased. He said that every single nation of people needs a mythology. Also, there's this Star Trek episode called Far Beyond The Stars. The protagonist's name is Ben Sisko and he starts hallucinating that he's a sci-fi writer in the 1950s in the US, and not the pilot of a spaceship. It's the best acting I've ever seen in my entire life. He can’t get his short story published, because he [the protagonist] is a black man, and there's a moment where he has this whole psychotic breakdown and becomes completely schizoaffective. He doesn't know if he was someone who dreamt about this guy in the 1950s or if he's that guy who's dreaming about his life right now. I thought that was such a fascinating way to contextualise a Star Trek episode. I don't cry when I watch movies, but I literally just cried, it was amazing. I was like, damn, this is Star Trek.

Sedrick Chisom, Twenty Thousand Years of Fire and Snow, Pilar Corrias Eastcastle Street, 15 July - 21 August 2021. Photography: Mark Blower. Courtesy of the artist and Pilar Corrias, London

You studied graphic design at Cooper Union, and then went on to study an MFA at Rutgers?

I went to Cooper and the school was free. I had this really weird mentality of I can take as many classes as possible, because it's free. If I'm not paying for it I can just overload in classes. So I overloaded all the graphic design classes. I had a year and a half left and they were like “Sedrick, you got to take other classes... you can't overload the classes in the same way…” That's when I started taking painting and video classes. I basically had a whole other education for a year and a half. Then I went to grad school.

Your work incorporates a layering of techniques, mediums and references. When I look at your paintings, I see an image that has a certain sensitivity that arrived at a point that hasn't been premeditated. What are your material processes? And how did you develop this style?

At the very end of my time at Cooper, I became interested in an interference pattern thing that is happening in the paintings. I would stutter the spray paint can nozzle, so just a bunch of dots came out, slowly, that created a field of mist over the surface. I was interested in glazing techniques of applying thin paint over opaque passages. It would look like there was something interfering between the viewer and the subjects in the paintings. In grad school, I tried to push myself because the paintings were kind of paranoic looking. I didn't know what they were about but they had a mode to them. I forced myself to make the image clear up, so less mist, less interference patterns. I was really interested in the material of paint. It's applied onto a surface: its additive, its subtractive. It's about that more than anything, I'd say personally. Then something kind of weird happened. I got my hands on some spray paint remover and it was the night of the election in 2016 and I wasn't even watching the election, I was just painting. I covered the whole thing in spray paint remover and then went downstairs, because there was some student critique, and people were freaking out. They're like, "yo, Trump's gonna win", and I was like "Oh shit, that sucks. Oh, right, I have a painting upstairs that I need to finish." So I took a giant spatula-like palette knife and took off so many layers of paint. "I was like, whoa, what the fuck". I didn't really anticipate that would happen. From that point on, I got invested in sanding techniques. I would apply paint with different materials like window scrapers. I would thin the paint down with rubbing alcohol or use a detergent to increase dispersion. Just weird borderline YouTube science experiments. I think the paintings these days are such that one of the basic processes is like, a tonne of additive techniques at first, a lot of smearing with window scrapers and palette knives and then spraying a shit tonne of spray paint on the surface, the ones on paper, particularly. Then I'll subtract with some rubbing alcohol and use a woodcut chisel to start removing off layers of paint and then apply thin paint. It's a really intensive process. Colours start incidentally appearing. I started using the complementary colour to the colour I knew the painting was going to be, for example, a lot of the orange paintings started really blue. A lot of sections in the painting are pure material process. I started backing the paintings on paper with canvas. Through all that layering, the paint started creeping over to the other side and staining the surface so I started getting into this idea of painting on raw canvas and thinning down the paint, and just soaking the fuck out of the canvas with a tonne of water and then using water soluble paints and just letting that like disperse all over the surface. I started getting into projecting images, because I realised if I paint without any kind of preconceived image then maybe I would paint the outline of a figure and the paint would bleed in this irregular way. What I was trying to do with the paintings on paper is get to a place of less control by using all these disruptive techniques to erode and potentially risk messing up the image and breaking down the paint. But with the paintings on raw canvas, there is just a lot of bleeding and I realised that I wanted more control. I started projecting images to create a matrix image that even if the paint bled a certain way, I could still get back to it because I could faintly see the outlines of everything.

Sedrick Chisom, Twenty Thousand Years of Fire and Snow, Pilar Corrias Eastcastle Street, 15 July - 21 August 2021. Photography: Mark Blower. Courtesy of the artist and Pilar Corrias, London

Where do you source your visual references from? And what are the wider conceptual ideas that underpin your material practice?

The main sources of visual references are from this book, The Monstrous Races and Medieval Thought [by John Block Friedman], and that book details encyclopaedia and compendium of Pliny's Natural History. They're travel writings [that] compile this idea of monstrous races: Ethiopians, wife givers, cyclopses, cephelae, headless men, this whole medieval constellation that had functioned originally in Greek and Roman mythology. When Christianity took over as a state religion in the Roman Empire, that mythology also got absorbed into Christianity; people thought they were Cain's children. I thought it was fascinating because it's this world-fictional ethnography. There's something fascinating about prejudice. If you ask someone to draw a dog off the top of their head, they'll draw like a Snoopy dog. There is this projection and symbolism of what a thing is. The idea of racial projection and racial ‘other’-ness is completely from the top of somebody's mind. Nell Irvin Painter's History of White People touches on this history, because this [Pliny’s Natural History] is one of the earliest texts that were absorbed into the West and formed these Western attitudes of the ‘other’. That's always been really central to the work. Also larger themes surrounding this idea of racial projection and a pure ‘other’ in a Lovecraftian way. There's a book called Lincoln's Photographer that I refer to a lot, which is by the photographer of Abraham Lincoln, when he was going to the battlefields trying to broker peace. I also started getting into Dover [History] Colouring Books. They were published in the 1970s and are completely ideological tools. It's so fascinating as they're books for children. There's one called Famous Women of the Civil War, which I found really amazing, because it's the most warped gender politics that I've seen. There are women who fought in the Civil War, and they're all Confederate… they say these women risked their lives to die for the institution of slavery. On the other hand, I have a bunch of cheap comic books. I go to a comic book store and buy five cent comics and start cutting them up for visual references and make drawings and compile it together. The whole thing is a world-building exercise. In the work, the villain protagonists – these pseudo-Confederate characters – enact that. But they're also, with the genetic disease, becoming impure and confused in terms of their physiology. These references started coming together, from this idea of the monstrous races to the idea of reactionary force like the Confederate figures and, looking at the visual language of comic books in terms of the world-building.

I wanted to ask you about travel writing and travel logs. How do you interrogate this in your practice?

I started from the book the Monstrous Races which has one of the first maps in it. In Christianity, there's a category of maps that are ideological: at the centre is Jesus Christ and there's a larger circumference outward [that depicts] humanity's removal from Jesus Christ. Obviously, Europe's at the centre and the monstrous races are on the outer boundaries. There's this idea of the known and the unknown world. The monstrous races exist on the boundary between the known and unknown. That thinking still exists. There is this idea of the explorer who is on the boundary of the known who encounters ‘other’-ness. I was fascinated with looking at these maps and how they functioned and started thinking, well, there is a discourse on maps that deeply has to do with ‘other’-ness. In Pliny's Natural History, when he was compiling the idea of the monstrous races he was taking people's word for it. It's not like people actually saw these things. I found it really interesting that the map is ideological rather than geographical. I got this other book one year after grad school called Imperial Eyes [Imperial Eyes: Travel Writing and Transculturation, Mary Louise Pratt]. One of the ways that imperialism and colonialism was sold to the British was that there'll be people whose whole job would be to write and draw maps about places. It'd be a beautiful map of a place and the beautiful drawing of a location with this prosaic description. It's fascinating because these guys were not native to the New World. They got all these diseases that actually made a lot of them go blind… so they actually couldn't see much. They were so sick that a lot of native people would have to carry them up the hills... so they couldn't even walk up the hills. These are accounts that are written by people who couldn't even see. It's like mind boggling. In Great Britain, France, and other European countries, people were looking at these documents thinking that the New World sounds full of promise. This book, Imperial Eyes, was a really, really important read for me. I started thinking about adventurism and tourism. I saw this post [on social media] earlier today about a guy who went to Afghanistan, just to visit the country. What he encounters is just trauma and horror, beyond his imagination, and he didn't expect to see all these dead bodies. He's basically stuck in Afghanistan now. I was like, dude, that's horrible but you have this naive idea that you can just go there. That's kind of a first world attitude. I was interested in the idea of the traveller and explorer and the use of maps and travel writing and their role within the colonial project. In space exploration, the protagonist is the explorer, and the project is outer space colonisation of celestial bodies and whatnot.

Sedrick Chisom, Twenty Thousand Years of Fire and Snow, Pilar Corrias Eastcastle Street, 15 July - 21 August 2021. Photography: Mark Blower. Courtesy of the artist and Pilar Corrias, London

How do you approach creating the titles for your work?

A lot of them are plays on existing titles. I had this painting called The Victim Complex of Straight White Sebastian, that's a play on the execution of St. Sebastian. Some of them will be like that. I had a show in December, and I was thinking about Christmas time shows. I was trying to think of a foreboding title that was pointing to the future. I looked to A Christmas Carol and The Ghost of Christmas Yet-to-Come. I thought that a cool way to deal with this would be to turn it into what would be a cool rap album title. I thought of Jay-Z’s album, Dead Presidents. I was like “The Ghost of Dead Presidents Yet to Come,” but maybe there's a critical twist to it, so I was like oh, “The Ghost of White Presidents Yet to Come” to position it outside of Trump. It's not a reactionary freakout moment that we had this horrible dude as the president; a criminal, sexist, rapist and a racist and all this horrible shit. It's about the larger arc of our history. That's how I came up with that title. Like I said, a lot of them come from Nina Simone lyrics. One of the basic places where a lot of the language came from, especially early on, was Black Twitter. There’s a lot of weird slang and insulting phrases within that. They're [the titles] extremely long and drawn out, it kind of becomes hilarious. I was thinking about the randomisation of capital letters; there's no system on purpose. There's a lot of play in the titles where there's jokiness or sarcasm. I will look at Muhammad Ali, who was the best at coming up with insults to people's faces using really flamboyant theatrical language, like “bamboozle,” “discombobulated.” I had a painting called The discombobulation of three Alt-rightland reconnaissance men on thin ice, several hours before the wrath of Medusa. It was just like an insane combination of all these references.

Is there something that you hope the viewer takes away from your paintings?

That's a tough one. I'm not really sure, necessarily. There is a climate now where messaging is so important, and getting the message of the work has become very primary. Also, politically, what does this [painting] mean? Who has been represented? But I keep thinking, with painting, there's messaging, and then there is all of this material stuff, it's almost like it has two consciousnesses. A painting will shift your consciousness and your perception. You can't help it. Even if you make a painting of Trump, eventually people will look at it and be like, how is the hair painted? It shifts your consciousness deliberately into thinking about the construction of the message itself. Kind of innately. I don't know what a larger message would be that the viewer will take away necessarily. However, if they came away from it thinking about several things for example, what are the larger implications of travel and the colonial project? Or, what is the relationship between disease and racialisation? What's the distinction between the fear of being invaded by a foreign people versus the fear – and we feel it now with COVID – of disease. If you look at the rhetoric of disease, it’s very much a rhetoric of immigration. Even AIDS was a fear of ‘other’-ness and contaminating this idea of purity. The work is part of a consciousness raising project, in a really ethereal way. I think it would be worse if someone looked at the paintings and thought that the message is that the Confederates were bad. Rather, I want them to think about all the tropes that make up our cultural logic, the nature of the way power manifests, the way language functions. Who gets to be called a hero? Who gets to be called a monster? What are the assumptions that underlie those things?

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