Q. You are famous for using flat, very dark black tones to color the skin of your subjects. What does “black” mean to you?
A. I use black as a rhetorical device in the pictures because when we talk about things and when we want to talk about things where most of the power is gathered, black is that kind of a term. So when we talk about race in America, we talk about black people, white people and brown people. I use it because it’s the most powerful rhetorical device because it operates at the extreme. And since I’m trying to make images that portray the maximum amount of power that [they] can, that’s why the black is most effective for me.
Q. Which medium do you enjoy working with the most?
A. I’m primarily known as a painter, so I do a lot of painting. My paintings are in acrylic instead of oil just because it dries really fast. I don’t have to wait for it, so I can keep working. I like building up my paintings with layers and layers — because the acrylic dries so fast, I can put four, five, six layers of paint in a day, as opposed to having to wait a week or two before the layer dries.
Q. Your work is often described as being narrative. What informs most of your paintings?
A. History — I consider myself a kind of a history painter. In particular, the way history is rendered throughout the history of painting. You could call my work almost-narrative. It’s not quite narrative, because it doesn’t quite tell the story. It’s not quite about scenes in which actions take place. My works are almost always tableaus. There [are] some setups where there is a figure in an environment, but nothing really going on in there. So there’s really no action, so there’s no story to be built except for the stories you might want to tell about the psychology of the figures in the space.
Q. It seems like you’re saying that, in fact, there may be an absence of narrative in your paintings.
A. Sometimes there’s a complete absence. There’s just presence.
Q. Can you explain further what you mean by “presence”?
A. Presence is a kind of existential condition. It’s pure being. This relates to the blackness of the figures too — it’s unequivocal. They are what they are. It’s like when you see them they are black. That’s an absolute. It’s sort of emphatic. You can’t argue with it. In terms of presence, just being black in the space of those paintings means something. The fact of their being there holds implications for how expectations are either met or confounded when we go to art museums. When you go to art museums, you don’t expect to see a black figure like that because our common understanding of what art is and what art history is comes from the weight of Western and European and Renaissance paintings. Museums seem to have been designed to hold those things. In those spaces, the black figure is almost always absent or peripheral. I’m making that black figure central. Its presence there has implications that speak to its absence in other parts of the art historical record.
Q. Can you tell me more about the story behind “Untitled”?
A. I’m a child of art history. This is something that means a lot to me and matters a lot. So the question about who paints is what that picture is really about. When the artist represents him or herself, they declare, “I paint.” The painter in the painting is painting a self-portrait. The painting behind the painter is also a portrait of the same painter. That painting behind is the painting that you are looking at. But that one is a paint-by-number painting. But paint-by-number painting is a system of representation. If you looks at the way the paint-by-number painting is being painted by the artist that is there in the painting up front, you could see that the artist is taking liberties with the system. She completely disregards the realistic, naturalistic representations and chooses her colors arbitrarily to fill the spaces in the painting behind. It asserts the rights of the artist to disregard laws to do what they choose as opposed to what’s imposed.
Q. Can you explain the symbolism in the painting? I’m thinking of the hair and the oversized palette in particular.
A. The hair. It’s shaped like a beret, a turban, it’s oversized. It’s more than it needs to be. In black American culture there is an obsession with what the hair does. It’s an elaboration of what you can do with your hair for black women in particular who seem to be preoccupied with the quality, shape and style of the hair. But with the palette — in the history of art, there’s a competition [to decide] what’s important. Is representation or abstraction the more important or the more advanced kind of work? The palette that she works with is not only the tool [she uses] to make paintings; the surface of it has on it a painting itself, and the painting on it is an abstract painting. I am suggesting that the representation is more vital, and that abstraction is incidental. It’s an incidental effect of the process of making a painting.
Q. What do you think the place of black art is in the canon?
A. When I was born, the historical canon of Western art was already well established. I didn’t have any say in determining the value of that work. Because none of the artists in that canon are African-American, we found ourselves on the outside trying to get in. So there are two parts to the struggle of artists of color in general. You’re effectively outside the discourse of art history as a creator, as an inventor. So what we’re trying to do is to be recognized for having the capacity to do incredible things just like everybody else has done, but also struggle to find — invent — new modes of representation that give you the kind of authority and ownership that an inventor of a way of working or a way of seeing has ownership of. That’s a part of the dual challenge that artists of color, and African-American artists in particular face. It’s hard to establish tradition, or established traditions are hard to interrupt.
Q. How did you decide to become an artist?
A. I’ve never wanted to be anything else. I was lucky enough when I was in kindergarten to have had an epiphany. My kindergarten teacher was instrumental in making that happen. She kept scrapbooks and pictures and things, and I got a chance to look at that scrapbook one day and it was the most amazing thing I had ever seen. Just the variety of the images and pictures, because they were from everywhere. Pictures of giraffes, architectures, airplanes … all of that stuff was in this scrapbook. I just said to myself when I was looking at that, “That’s what I want to do. I want to make pictures like these.” It imprinted itself on my consciousness. I’m a compulsive image collector. I started looking at everything. I made no distinctions.