[March 29 2017]
Southern California-native and multidisciplinary artist Devin Troy Strother has a penchant for discussing race and its prominent role in his work, which, contrary to that by artists like Kara Walker or David Hammon, is characteristically comedic and playful. Easily identified by the appropriated minstrel — and golliwog-esque iconography that Troy Strother uses to support his own visual vernacular, each piece has an equally engaging title — contemporary ikea part 1: nigga there’s abstraction, snakes, and bananas in here, and where the fuck is rauschenberg at? (2016) and Michael Jordan. “I don’t know if that’s your dick or your leg, but please baby baby don’t make me beg! Just take me to the Bahamas and fuck me like I’m your big mammas” (2014) are great examples.
Here’s a casual conversation from an afternoon at his Downtown LA studio.
PAIGE SILVERIA — How long have you been in this space?
DEVIN TROY STROTHER— We’ve been here for like four years. It used to be a giant pickle fridge and then it was a crab-meat storage for a while. After that, in the spot across from us was this men’s goth-wear company called Kill City. This was their overstock storage space. There’s a rumor that one of the owners killed himself and so that space is still available. But this spot was hollow. We built out all of the walls. All of the lights weren’t working. It took a little while. And we got in here right before Sprueth Magers and all of those galleries opened in this area.
PAIGE SILVERIA— Whom do you have working with you here?
DEVIN TROY STROTHER— I have an assistant and a studio manager. My studio manager writes emails and gives me homework lists. I’m scatterbrained and work on ten things at one time.
PAIGE SILVERIA— What are you working on now?
DEVIN TROY STROTHER— I have a solo show in Cologne at Ruttkowski;68 in June. I’ll be there for about three months to make most of the work. It’s a new gallery and I’m really excited to show out there. Its going to be epic, and will be exhibiting all new work. I forget if they hit me up or I hit them up, but I said something along the lines of, “You guys need a black guy on your roster.” And they were like, “We do.” And I was like, “Well let me be your nigga then.” I’ve actually said that to a couple of galleries.
PAIGE SILVERIA— How do they respond?
DEVIN TROY STROTHER— Unfortunately it’s an unspoken truth. If you look at every major gallery’s program, they’ve got five–eight very famous white males, maybe three or four female artists, one LGBTQ artist, and then a black guy. That’s the demographic I see in many galleries’ programs.
PAIGE SILVERIA— How does that make you feel?
DEVIN TROY STROTHER— You play the cards you’re dealt. It’s like, “Fuck it.” If I have to do shit that has to be about being black, I want to do that in the very beginning. And I still feel that that’s not what my work’s really about, I just happen to have a lot of black people in my paintings. Race comes into it because I can’t escape it at this point. If I painted all white people, people would ask me why. There’s no way of me getting around having to answer for my race and why what I’m saying is important to the whole canon or history — my stance on the black vernacular of being born in 1986, going to an all-white school, being like the coolest kid in class because I was the only black kid. They’d all ask me about the new Dr. Dre album that came out. But I didn’t play sports, so I let them down a little bit. I used to skateboard. Then I got a car, started doing drugs and got into art school somehow.
PAIGE SILVERIA — You did a residency program in Maine too, right?
DEVIN TROY STROTHER— Yeah it was kind of like a graduate program where they give you a studio and they have visiting artists come by. You just talk about your work and what your practice is about. I didn’t go to grad school, so that helped me to keep on learning once I got out of school. Some kids, if they make it when they get out of school, they don’t really push their practice to do other things.
PAIGE SILVERIA — So you think school is really important?
DEVIN TROY STROTHER — Well, school’s never going to teach you to be interesting really. They give you technical advice and teach you art history, and you can take that and make a whole practice off of that, which I kind of did.
PAIGE SILVERIA — How so?
DEVIN TROY STROTHER — A lot of my work revolves around the title. I did that because I’m into comedy. So I see the image as the setup of the joke and the title is the punchline. I have this one painting I’m working on called, “Two niggas out to sea,” and it’s a picture of a white guy and a black guy. It’s like the vernacular of using the word nigga to describe someone who’s not black and a person who’s black at the same time. I have this show coming up in New York called Ambiguity of Black and White (at Marlborough Contemporary in September) which is about how black people and white people are the only two races that still refer to each other by color and it’s not really frowned upon. I think it’s really interesting that I’m really content for someone to call me a black person. I’d rather be called black than African American; I just like the term better for some reason.
PAIGE SILVERIA — How’s your experience in the art world thus far?
DEVIN TROY STROTHER — The art world is just fucked up. It’s not regulated. They set prices at wherever the fuck they want; they just make it up. They kind of have a system of hours, times, material and shit like that. But a lot of it is just off the cuff too — especially if you start getting resold in the secondary market. Prices soar up. Art school doesn’t really teach you if you really do start showing, how to handle relationships with galleries and collectors. David Hammons has this lady who handles everything. You can’t even talk to him, you have to talk to her. But I like to be a little bit more involved in what’s going on. If it were in someone else’s hands, I feel like things would get perpetuated and taken out of context.
PAIGE SILVERIA — How so? The way your work is interpreted?
DEVIN TROY STROTHE — Just the way they explain it. If it’s a white person talking about my work and they don’t really get it, the way they explain it is just funny to me — to hear them talk about it. They’re so awkward and uncomfortable. Like, saying the word nigga. Or even using “the N-word,” which I think is fucking even funnier. Cause you’re saying it, without saying it. So yeah, everything always goes back to race with me, which I’m cool with at this point. I’ve come to accept it.
PAIGE SILVERIA — Was there a point when you weren’t cool with it?
DEVIN TROY STROTHER — When I was an undergrad, I didn’t paint black people. I drew. I was a very big Barry McGee fan. I ripped him off a lot. Then some personal shit happened in my life and I stopped painting for a while. I was on a bunch of drugs and strung out. Then I quit that and I started doing these little cutouts. I needed something to do because I was about to graduate. I was looking at a bunch of East-Indian miniature paintings. And the way that they space is really great because they’re really small. They pack a lot of shit inside of them. I was really into these paintings and that’s sort of what spawned figures of this scale. They’re almost the same scale as the miniature Indian paintings. I also wanted to do something that was sort of like signage for black people. Like, me sitting down and rendering and actually painting a black person, I just wanted to do it quickly and have it read easily as a black person. When I first did it, I wasn’t trying to do black face- or golliwog- or minstrel-type shit. It was more about the basics that you would need to recognize a black person. One, they have to be all black; they have to have eyes and white for their teeth. I thought, why don’t I give them blue eyes since they’re African-American? Then they’re red, white and blue. Then I was like, Oh shit, it looks like golliwog. But I was okay with that, because it was like using something that’s already activated and very charged. And everyone has a different feeling about it. Some people think that black face is negative and racist. Some people think it’s funny. Some people get why I use it specifically.
PAIGE SILVERIA — Which is?
DEVIN TROY STROTHER — To lighten the mood. A lot of work that African-Americans tend to make is sort of heavy. And this is just me talking off-cuff, but it’s not what I went through. I went through a totally different thing than David Hammons or Kerry James Marshall went through. They went through real racist shit. I went through racist shit, but it was a lot more subdued. I feel like my work talks to that genre of being a black kid in America. It’s more of a celebration of being black than Kara Walker beating you over the head with slave imagery. For me, I just don’t want to talk about the Civil Rights Movement. I want to talk about some things, but in a comedic way. Like the comedian, Jerrod Carmichael tells this really funny joke: “I’m starting to appreciate slavery. Think about it, if it wasn’t for slavery, I would be in Africa right now. Tell me three things you know about Africa. They have fucking lions, civil war and people think AIDS came from there.” It’s like a low-key privilege to be here. So it’s this weird ambiguity where slavery was obviously one of the most horrible things to have happened here, but also, I wouldn’t be in this studio right now if it didn’t happen. I don’t think I’d have a crazy studio in Africa. Slavery changed the progress and the trajectory of so many things. It’s something that helped me to get to where I am. It sounds really fucked up.
PAIGE SILVERIA — You’ve found a silver lining.
DEVIN TROY STROTHER — Like how you turn a fucked up situation around. I just got this book for my birthday. It’s about black folklore and black humor during slavery and about how they learned to laugh at their situation. I find that really interesting. And black people have always been entertainers. It’s also funny, when you read about Southerners, they didn’t like to play music. That was the start of blacks doing music. The slave owner wanted them to play for them while they drank or had dinner parties or whatever. I’m kind of like an extension of that — being an entertainer. From sports to music, we’re always performing. Painting is the same shit. You’re just one step removed from it. When you’re a comedian and you’re onstage, you’re so vulnerable. You’re letting all of these emotions out in front of a crowd. But when you’re a painter or sculptor, you take the back row. Your work is like a stand-in for you. Sometimes people will come and ask you what the work means, but I think if you’re successful enough, the work will explain for itself what it’s about.
PAIGE SILVERIA — How did you learn to draw?
DEVIN TROY STROTHER — My daycare teacher was a graffiti writer. He’d do these pieces on paper and have a raffle at the end of the day to see who could read his letters. I won it a bunch of times and would trace his letters and learned graf a little bit. I grew up just down the street from a train yard. So that’s how I got into art, was through graffiti. That’s a very common thing for people in their early 30’s — at least males. It’s the most accessible thing to do. I didn’t go to my first museum until I was like 18 or something. Graffiti teaches you about color in a way; it’s a stepping stone. It’s fun as shit. You wouldn’t believe how many people come from graf. But now it’s starting to change because graf is seen as urban art, low low-brow shit. So a lot of artists don’t say that they came out of graffiti anymore because of the association.
PAIGE SILVERIA — Tell me about when you graduated. When did things start to pick up in your career?
DEVIN TROY STROTHER —At that time, Blogspots and Tumblrs were real popular. So me and my girlfriend at the time, we emailed like 50 art and design blogs from a made-up email saying, “Hey we love your blog and everything you post. I just came across this really cool artist’s website. We think he fits your aesthetic.” And like 30 blogged about me. Then after that it was like wildfire; I started getting calls from galleries. Well also what started it was that Kanye West had written that he was going to buy one of my paintings. It was on the front page of his blog. This was like 2009. But he never bought it. He didn’t want to pay for it. It was really cheap; it’s funny cause now it’s sold for way more.
PAIGE SILVERIA — So that’s when Richard Heller Gallery in Santa Monica picked you up?
DEVIN TROY STROTHER — Yeah he was the first. He picked me up like the day I got out of school. He called me and said he’d just seen my work at Art Center. I did so well towards the end that they gave me a gallery show. He said he really liked my work and that if I gave them three paintings he’d have a check for me by the next week. So I did and he sold them to the Schorrs, that couple who were really big collectors of Basquiat’s. It was a really great collection to be in. I’ve worked with him since then.
PAIGE SILVERIA — He puts you in a lot of shows.
DEVIN TROY STROTHER — We have had successful shows together. My art teacher told me that painters pay the bills for galleries. So once you get your first gallery, then you get your New York gallery and then it’s abroad. I have one in Cologne and in Copenhagen (Bendixen Contemporary). When you’re working with one gallery, it’s a little bit easier to explore and do a lot more shit. But when you’re working with four galleries, they constantly need more inventory. So it feels more like a job and that’s why I need to have my team to keep track of everything. My girlfriend helps out a lot too.
PAIGE SILVERIA — When did you sign with Marlborough Contemporary?
DEVIN TROY STROTHER — 2012 or somewhere around then. The funny thing about them is that Max and I are the same age. And he’s overseeing the London space too, which is also called Marlborough Contemporary and in the beginning there was some confusion about which gallery was applying to the fairs and shit. So Max just consolidated the two galleries; New York’s roster is now a part of London’s. He’s programming between the two galleries. Which is crazy because he also has that restaurant Happy Endings and a new one opening too. It’s interesting working with them because their team is so big; there are like 20 people. Working with international galleries is another story. Cultural taboos and sentiments that are important to us may be more obscure or ambiguous to them. So I have to try and find this medium of how to present my work to an audience of people who aren’t American. That’s another thing they don’t teach you about in art school.
PAIGE SILVERIA — You’ve pointed out a lot of things that seem reasonable for a school to teach art students.
DEVIN TROY STROTHER — Well there is no right or wrong way to do it. Some people are ladder climbers and go to every single fucking opening and museum thing to meet every curator. You know, work the system that way. Then there are those who stay in their studio and have people come over and through word of mouth, they get put on. It just depends on what your intent is on making your work. If your intent is to make money, I’d say you should ladder climb and get into an institutional collection like the Whitney. Or you could just constantly do shows and not get your retrospective until you’re like 60 years old. If you get a retro at like 40, you then have to come up with a whole new set of problems for yourself. I call them problems; I sabotage myself in certain ways to get to something else.
PAIGE SILVERIA — What’s an example of this?
DEVIN TROY STROTHER — I usually make horizontal, narrative-based paintings. So recently I’ve been trying to do more vertical, abstract pieces. I just started them two days ago. My work changes drastically a lot. I’m in here every day so I have to keep myself entertained somehow.
Interview and photo Paige Silveria