How to understand Black art across the diaspora

Sydney Vernon

Part I.    Part II.    

 A Conversation with: Sydney Vernon

The ISE-DA team spoke with artist Sydney Vernon about her process, inspirations and how her time at The Cooper Union has informed her work. Our conversation continued to develop into macro issues within the art world and her hopes for its future and hers.

Vernon is working towards her BFA at The Cooper Union in New York City. She is an artist who has produced a body of work focused on family history intertwined with her personal cultural narratives. Though currently on hold due to the COVID-19 pandemic, her phenomenal first solo exhibition at the Thierry Goldberg Gallery, “When We See Us”, can be viewed here.

*note, this interview is a combination of two conversations with Sydney.

Part I

How are you?

I’m okay, I feel like I have made some improvements since [the last time we talked]. I am trying to move my room around so I can optimize my studio space. I’m trying to get settled into doing something, maybe make some collages. I have been thinking of The Black Romantic a lot. The only examples I can think of right now is Kerry James Marshall, he did this vignette series and a while back, The Studio Museum released a catalogue for an exhibit they had called The Black Romantic. There’s not that much writing on it that I’ve encountered, but I think it is a way of getting specific about Black art that I can get behind.

How would you describe your work and process?

My process is pretty mixed media. I do a lot of drawing but I have paint that I use sometimes, whether its oil paints, acrylic or gouache. Last year I picked up screen printing, so that has been something in the work that has been really important as a visual interest. I am still interested in making beautiful pictures and I think that the quality that screen printing has been able to give me really adds to the work.

Why did you decide to focus on your subject matter?

Cooper Union didn’t really have that many classes about teaching Black art history and my sophomore year, a really amazing professor taught a class called “What is Post-Black?” At the time, I was really trying to figure out what my work was going to look like and how I was going to use my love of drawing to say something a bit more with my work and imbue it with meaning. It was my second year away from home and that homesickness, in addition to the new material I was learning at school, kind of gelled together in a great way and I stuck with it.

How has your time at Cooper Union informed your art work?

My whole idea of what art can be just expanded so much at Cooper, even though I learned about so many different art movements. I learned a little bit about sculpture and I learned a little bit about performance art. I think I knew and had a sense of what I wanted to do when I came to the school, and that was more drawing and painting-based, so I just tried to use all of those other experiences to build into what I knew I came there to do.

Some of my work came out of homesickness. Not being from New York, I was in a new, high-pressure environment and going through a lot of questionable encounters freshman year at Cooper Union. Blackness was being tiptoed around and a lot of assignments for art history were narrow and skipped over histories. I took the class called “What is Post-Black?" with Nana Adusei-Poku. She was able to breakdown a comprehensive history of Black art. I didn’t want to perpetuate this essentialist history within Black art. I used family photos as a personal connection and a drive to make the work. I weaved other narratives into [my work] with collage, printmaking [and more]. What you get is the mixing of the universal and the personal. I still go back to that syllabus as a reference. A lot of people have their references, most of them are white. I try to shake up the pool of what people are pulling from. I don’t think a lot of people are interested in diversifying their knowledge unless there is pressure to.

The Warmth of Other Suns, 2019

Who are your inspirations?

I am an autodidact when it comes to teaching myself about Black art history. But, if I did not go to Cooper, I would not know who Louise Bourjois was. I feel like having all these influences now, in addition to my favorite artist Kerry James Marshall, and being able to take from the entire history of art has been really rewarding. I think that the academic resources are really different to what I am actually interested in and to the research I do on my own. But I love listening to podcasts that I’ve found on my own and I love a good Foucault quote. I can take all of these ideas and can take from Betye Saar’s works. Everyone is important to me so maybe those people: Betye Saar, Kerry James Marshall, Louise Bourjois and definitely Lynette Yiadom-Boakye.

Njideka Akunyili Crosby is another. Not only is she a very great artist but she has a good work life balance. I look at the way she goes about producing art and every time, it is about the quality and she doesn’t have to be in this race with everyone else. The meticulousness of her work, the attention to detail and the fact that she is not in a state of hyperproduction. She has developed this language for herself that is so beautiful, and everybody can tell and is enamored with it. I think it is amazing that she can work at that quality consistently and maintain having a family and being a sweet person. It makes me consider my value systems and think about where you put your energy.

We spoke about you coming from a family that creates art. How does that inform your work, allow you to evaluate your art and push yourself forward?

With my parents being from New York and my mom having gone to an arts-focused high school in New York, when my sister and I were born she always found educational models for us that focused on art. Some kids learn how to play a sport, others an instrument. My sister and I were geared towards a life in the arts and understanding the value of art. I think that arts education is definitely a really interesting path to take because this level of intimacy we get to develop with making art and appreciating art is definitely a blessing.

I am exposed to different ways of making art. For example, my sister makes installation art and photography and while its abstract, it’s still figurative. In art, there has always been this tension between abstraction and figuration. I don’t know why people focus on Black artists portraying the figure or why there is a tension between the two. We have to think about why that is, why there has been a binary of what Black people can create and why we are pigeonholed into doing one thing. I mean, look at Jack Whitten and Norman Lewis.

People are looking around and seeing where they find value and the community is something that people are deciding to focus on. We’ve always been trying to uplift each other and show ourselves in spaces where we haven’t been seen before. Representation is really important but at the same time, each artist and work have different individual painterly qualities that can teach us what mastery looks like in our opinion. They are each specific about how they want to paint.

Former Men, 2019

April 3, 2020


Part II

What ways do you think can be employed to get more people into fine arts?

I would like [the art] experience to be like a shared cultural experience for every Black person. But that’s not how it’s going to work. We’re going to have to do a lot of work to understand what people are seeing and how they are seeing it.

People need to spend more time with the work but not everyone is interested, or has an art background and their visual literacy is not encouraged. One thing is to look at art and it’s another thing to comprehend it and find their own level of connection. Art is not a standardized test, it is so much more expansive. I want other people to be as passionate about it like I am.

I would say that museums are a great way but I know how charged that statement could be because they cost an insane amount of money. I think those moments when you get to see the work of a Black artist, it just changes your mind about wanting to be invested in reshaping the museum. If I didn’t get to go to the Met and see that Kerry James Marshall show in 2015 I don’t think I would be as fed as an artist if I didn’t get to see that. I want to say museums and that’s their job. They need to bear that burden because they have set themselves up to simultaneously create a space of discomfort for Black people but also remain the gatekeepers in accessibility to art.

I find these spaces have become so inaccessible even for people in the art world and who feel comfortable talking about art. It is difficult for Black artists right now. We see ourselves everywhere but not as equally still. With COVID-19, it is going to be hard [for the art world] without the glitz and glam to keep the exclusivity. With online viewing rooms, it’s more democratized and it’s a website.

What are the ways you see your peers creating and what other creative pursuits surround you?

My peers are killing it in so many different mediums. A lot of people developed a real talent for sculpture. I don’t think three-dimensionally, I feel like sculpture is something I have difficulty giving words to. I love paintings and that’s where I focus most of my looking, but I know so many amazing sculptors. Also, performance is really popular, I have actually done a couple of performances. Performance can be fun.

Is that something you want to do more of in the future?

Yeah, I would definitely do more performance art. I actually would love to collaborate with someone on it. There are so many ways that people are being creative and following what feels right for them and I am interested in seeing that variety reflected in the mainstream. But maybe they’re on the way. Someone who I really enjoy is Martine Sims. It’s very in my opinion, complicated but very smart. So, she has video but has 3D renderings and photo and makes these sculptures from it. And then you have Jacolby Satterwhite who, actually, that is his work. It’s very digital and incredible. He had that residency at Red Hook labs or a show there last year. It’s really phenomenal. Those are two artists dealing with the digital realm and their own experiences in a phenomenal way.

The Ambassadors, 2019

Since we’re talking about art that is seen to be on the margin, we earlier spoke about public art. Could you expand your thoughts on it?

I think that public art is something so important. Going back to arts education, it’s so important for a child to see themselves in their community and have an experience with that way of understanding. So many people I know have come to appreciate art by having a really positive childhood experience with it. I think public art has the ability to do that. But again, it is intertwined with all these systems. There’s this stigma with public art but I honestly think that that’s one of the opportunities for learning. Giving more space for public art will fuel visual literacy and allow for everyone to have continuous access to art. You don’t have to step into the space of a public institution to interact with art. With public art, you see it every day – it’s become part of your memory.  An example is the mural outside of the Women’s History Museum in San Francisco. I visited with my sister and that’s become a part of my memory. Another is the Simon Leigh work on the High Line [in New York]. One is more community-based and one is more art world but I think that both are necessary.  I think Lauren Halsey is another example of someone who really puts the community first and its evident in the work and how she brings community into these spaces.

What’s next for you?

I think drawing and painting is still what I love and I will continue to do that. I would love to graduate next year and take some time and continue to engage with as much art as I can and with as many people. Make from a really pure place. Subject matter is going to change for sure. I think I am taking it to a more internalized place to the point that it is more imagined and does not feel as picturesque. I’ve been doing some sketches. I can’t think with the current situation too far in advance and ahead. This is my platform and something that I am investing time and passion into.

How are you occupying your time during this break?

I have been reflecting a lot on who I am outside of the studio because I, like many people, I was working hard, my show had just opened, I had just produced a large body of work and I was going to enter a period of resting. But the work never stops so I am trying to be more aware of what I actually want to say, who I am, and working smaller and having that scale shift has been really interesting.

This break is making me reflect on so much like how to be comfortable, how to give back and how to feel fulfilled. I do want to collaborate more. I am also thinking about the artist as self and how as a public figure it has become very abstract. Whatever I do, I am interested in teaching eventually and collaborating. I want to expand the notion of what an artist can be, especially a Black figurative artist.

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Interview by Adefolakunmi Adenugba 

April 15, 2020