I'm really mesmerized by Sedrick Chisom's work and its investigation of colonial history, Christianity, and black spiritualism. His intense palette, influenced by thermal vision imagery, and emphasizing the idea of seeing culture and the world through blackness, creates an almost palpable atmosphere, a magical realism, where the viewer can actually begin to empathize with the urgency of these paintings. More at the links below!
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To begin, I'd love to know a bit more about you! Where are you from, and where are you based now?
I was born and grew up in Philly. I split my time between living and making work in New York and New Jersey.
What first interested you in painting?
I transferred from Community College to Cooper Union and tried to get credit for a painting class that I had already taken. I thought that painting was a thing that you had to do when you study art— like how paying taxes is a thing you have to do even if you’re broke. The person reviewing my transcripts asked me if I “understood the language of painting” (I didn’t even understand the language of the question). At Cooper I ended up taking a sophomore class with painter Bobby Bordo. It was dope— he was bored by the study of academic painting (pots, pans, naked people, learning to paint art historical styles, etc…) and let us paint basically whatever we wanted— so long as it wasn’t too corny. He did whatever he could to keep us interested and excited about painting. Once, he took us to a boxing gym as an excuse to paint the figure. A few of the boxers tried to get us to fight them in the ring.
Your work both addresses the formal craft of painting as well as, generally speaking, identity politics. Tell me a bit more about your practice.
I’m sincerely trying to have my cake and eat it too lol. What this means is that I’m just as much invested in making inventive paintings as I am about picking a fight to make my arguments about culture. The argument I’m making has to do with the colonial history of black spirituality being invaded by Christianity— a western religion that naturalizes, and even delegitimizes suffering (for example, within doctrine, Christ’s bodily suffering is already at all times more real than our own individual suffering). I’m pairing martyrs and other Christian subjects with Black Lives Matters imagery to meditate on this mentality and this state of being. Basically it results in me dealing with a lot of very loaded content all the time and subsequently trying to rescue the paintings from heavy-handedness, cheesiness, and misinterpreted sentimentality by dealing with those concepts as material or spatial problems.
I find it really interesting that the figures in your paintings, while often symbolic, are typically faceless, and rather spectral. Can you elaborate on this a bit?
I think my work oscillates between the scariness of a paranoiac imagination as well as the humor embedded in such a situation. On a formal level, I’m attracted to glowing figures yet somehow critical of (or simply embarrassed by) our mystification of shiny things (like gold or glitter). In this regard, the subject of Christian painting offers me a lot because it is an inventory full of glowing (borderline alien) gaudy religious figures existing in landscape. In my world these figures are ghost-faced and sometimes have bright predator eyes, betraying that they can’t be trusted.
I also reference a lot of thermal vision imagery to create relationships between seeing and violence. Thermal vision goggles allow you to target and isolate figures, which is, like, the most aggressive way of looking at something. Though, I haven’t quite made up my mind about whether or not the paintings describe a world where there are no faces or whether the figures are simply glowing so much that you just can’t even see their features. Either way, I think it points to an unease or cynical gaze towards the basic possibility and intentions of the Christian subject— a figure attempting to be seen as enchanted and full of goodwill.
What is your process like? When do you know you've finished a piece?
I really wish I had a formula because there are so many moving parts! I keep a notebook full of drawings, as well as an archive of reference photos ranging from religious iconography and black lives matter imagery to infrared heat vision diagrams. Half the time though, my paintings are totally free-styled without any planning or preconception. I spend a good amount of time just looking at the photos and letting images blend, clash, or soak into my brain like a sponge. The activity that happens on the paint surface early on is very free and about finding color and investigating materiality— really it’s about creating a primordial world of atmosphere and light.
Sometimes the subject or space begins to emerge from the surface and directs me to think about how I should approach the painting— like how dogs or small children growl at you to tell you if they are hungry or tired. Rarely, if occasionally, do I start with a reference in mind and the painting is anchored from the start. In those instances I feel like I’ve cheated (cheated what?) and I’ll usually perform some kind of risky gesture or material application to overcome my internal painterly guilt. As a totalizing statement, I’ll say that I typically default to deploying material special effects whenever I’m stuck. Sometimes interesting things come from it, more often than not, the result is that I’ve successfully painted the thing to death. R.I.P.
The funny thing is that I’m always dealing with the residual effects of finishing a painting in starting a new work. My engagement with a painting typically comes to an end when I have sufficiently confronted or fled from all the things that would typically doom a painting from the start and there is some exciting moment happening on the surface that I want to blow up and make the main focus of the next painting.
What is your studio space or workspace like?
It’s a disaster and I think I’m going to get fined at some point.
What is the best advice you've ever received? Have you received any advice that you're grateful you decided to ignore?
The best advice that I’ve ever received was to take a break from school and make work to create distance from the institution before I graduate from Cooper. Doing that was instrumental to what I’m doing now. The advice I’m grateful I decided to ignore was advice I got when I started college, which was to care about having good grades and think of myself more as a student and not an artist.
What do you need most as an artist?
A squad and hunger. If you have a community of art making friends, you have a whole world of relationships that will keep you growing and focused. It’s essentially a support network. You probably need hunger a bit more, however. By hunger, I mean a drive or sense of being propelled by something that has effected or changed you and motivates you to act and engage with culture. I don’t trust art that comes from a place without strife, tension, or response to problematics of some kind— mostly because art is impossible in utopia.
What do you feel is the most challenging thing about pursuing art, either creatively or professionally--or both?
The most challenging thing is creating and maintaining a framework for a studio practice that allows you time and space to actually make work. Pretty much all artists these days take on roles that extend beyond just being in a space and producing objects. Artists these days have to navigate the world wearing multiple outfits like Mr. Rogers (acting as gallerists, curators, promoters, copywriters, and art-historians). I don’t think any artist working in NYC from the 1940s would make it if they had to contend with the same conditions that artist live in now.
Do you have any upcoming exhibitions or projects you're currently working on?
I have some work that will go in a show in an old gold vault in New Jersey (I actually don’t know more about it than that).
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