All images courtesy of Marlborough Chelsea
Devin Troy Strother laughs excitedly as he rushes over to a rolled up carpet in the middle of the prestigious Marlborough Chelsea gallery. “I've been WAITING for this!” he exclaims with a smile, ripping off the tape and rolling out a purple floor covered with stars and planets. After a quick tour, where Strother's so ecstatic that he can barely catch his breath, it's clear that he's made the gallery his universe in more ways than one. Juxtaposing outer space with his childhood hero, Michael Jordan, Devin Troy Strother has expanded his art practice by visualizing Jordan's legacy as beyond human—as a brand. Enter “Space Jam,” his new exhibition.
In 2009, while still an art student in Los Angeles, Strother sent his work to a group of popular, curated blogs. Most of them, including Kanye West’s website at the time, published his early pieces—figures cut from black paper and collaged with other materials on painted backgrounds. The blogs that posted his pieces got him noticed by top galleries like Richard Heller in L.A. and Marlborough Chelsea in New York, and as soon as Strother graduated, he was showing work.
The intrigue of these early pieces was that they seemed to be part of a race-driven conversation, one that artists like Kara Walker started decades before with similarly cut-out, black paper silhouettes. Viewers assumed the black figures in Strother’s work were meant to depict black people and their historical plight in deceiving swirls of neatly organized color. Works like Black Pussy and Jason Rhoades Diptych have curvy, naked women on their hands and knees, all smiling with identical, painted afros. A violent piece like You Can Run But You Can't Hide From Your Baby's Mama has figures riding zebras and throwing spears at other figures who lay bleeding on the ground. In We Caught Dat Nigga Slippin, the figures wear basketball uniforms and spear a tiger. Despite Strother saying repeatedly that the early works are not about race, they continually looked like they were trying to create a specific visual language to depict black people.
Using “nigga” in his titles, which are often long and intentionally humorous, has only made the self-contradiction more pronounced. “It keeps the audience trying to figure out what’s really going on,” he says, admitting that he perpetuates the “it's not about race but it is” paradox. Strother titled his first exhibition at Marlborough Broome Street in 2013, “I Just Landed in Rome, Nigga,” quoting the lyrics of a Jay Z song. And yet, he also denies that he's specifically commenting on hip-hop. As a black artist cutting figures out of black paper and titling his work as he does, Strother knows he's set himself up to talk about race. Now he's shifted the focus to a black figure whose success overshadows his race, Michael Jordan.
“Space Jam” is a turning point for Strother. He relies less on the narrative of multiple figures to tell the story; there's only MJ. He turns to gradients, holograms, glitter, and the thick texture of layered acrylic paint. He created a basketball court in the gallery with tall, black blocks acting as the players (whose names include ALONZO, SHAQUILLE, LAMAR, and TERRANCE). He also made deflated, bronze basketballs and styrofoam cups. He's come a long way from the paper, figure-based collages to communicate nostalgic epiphanies about what Jordan means to culture today. And the paintings are selling for over $20,000 each.
Not everyone can turn online attention into offline success. When it comes to visual art, the work that typically spreads best online—GIFs, YouTube videos, and actual websites—is sometimes doomed to stay there, based on the limitations of displaying and selling these mediums in the real world. Strother took his online moment and turned it into a very exciting career, with “Space Jam” showing a glimpse of his bright future. Here's what he told us about it.
On becoming an artist:
“At one point I wanted to be a garbageman, because I heard they got paid $25 an hour or something. [Laughs] I wasn’t really serious about it. I almost had to become an artist. I was…well, not a really bad kid, but I did graffiti and stuff. I was always in trouble. I couldn’t go to a real college or university, because I had bad grades, so my options were either apply to community college or go to art school. So I applied to art school, and I got in. Right when I got out of art school, I started showing in galleries.”
On getting galleries to notice his work:
“After I graduated in 2009, my girlfriend and I emailed a bunch of art and design blogs. We would be like, ‘Hey check out the work of this artist. It’s really cool,’ under fake emails. We were pretending to be other people, saying that we loved their blog and thought my work fit their aesthetic. We sent emails to 50 blogs, and about 30 picked up my work. Other blogs re-blogged those blog posts, and it basically spread like wildfire.
“Back in the day, Kanye West blogged about my work [on his now defunct website, Kanyeuniversecity.com]. I didn’t even know that happened until Kanye’s manager called me. I had my phone number on my website at the time. His manager was like, “Someone over here showed Kanye your work, and he really likes it.” He wanted to buy this one painting, and we went back and forth for a while. They were trying to haggle me with the price, but then it just fizzled out, and they stopped responding. After that, I started getting calls from galleries. I don’t know if he had anything to do with it, but right after we had that experience, I started hearing from galleries in Chelsea and L.A.”
On putting a basketball court in the gallery:
“I always wanted to do a show about basketball, or at least about court painting. I thought about calling the show ‘Space Jam,’ because it’s a large space, and I was going to have to jam out a bunch of shit quickly. They asked me to do the show in September, and it was supposed to go up in December, so I didn’t have a lot of time—about two and a half months to be able to do all of the work. I had just watched the movie Space Jam, and I was also watching 2001: A Space Odyssey.
“‘Space Jam’ is a play on words, because I’m also talking about the actual space that I had to make work for. I didn’t want to talk about basketball in-depth or do a giant survey of basketball and Michael Jordan. I just wanted to use his image as a sign or as signage, and then just slap him on tons of shit—using him more as a mark, rather than me investigating Michael Jordan.
“Originally, I was thinking a lot about outer space, since, in the movie, they actually go into space. I wanted to talk about space and try to find some correlation between basketball and space. I don’t think I did that, but that was my initial motivation for jumbling the two topics together. I think I went more into basketball than space.”
On switching up his style:
“Before, I could cut out hundreds of the figures I was making into collages, but I have a lot more going on now, so I had to get one or two assistants to help with the cutting. Then I got a bigger studio. When you get any amount of market attention, you start to grow without even really realizing you’re growing. I still make really small paintings that have a bunch of figures in them, but I just needed to stop doing them for a while, because it became so automatic. I wanted to challenge myself.
“I used to build a small narrative and then make an image. This exhibition is one long narrative with a bunch of images all about the same narrative. I still have the figures in some of the works, but they’re just not the focus.”
On people associating his work with hip-hop:
“I projected that onto my work early on. I didn't grow up listening to rap, but I’ve used rap lyrics to title some of my work. I grew up in a middle-class neighborhood and went to mainly private schools. I didn’t grow up using the word ‘nigga.’ Even when I got older, I didn’t really say it. I only started saying it a couple years ago.
“I’ve always objectified myself to be stereotypical—to overplay my blackness. I knew it was going to come up, so I just decided to be blatant and overly ‘black’ about it, which is why I use ‘nigga’ so heavily in my titles. It’s the back and forth of me being able to articulate why I do it but also talking about the work in a certain manner. Having it be in this type of gallery—this very institutional, educated, and pristine setting—and using a title like My Niggas and I plays up that stereotype. I’ve always done things that contradict myself, which helps the work and interests people. They don’t technically know where I stand. It keeps the audience trying to figure out what’s really going on.
“With the art and rap crossover, I feel like I could be a part of that conversation, but I don’t directly try to be. When Jay Z did the ‘Picasso Baby’ performance, I really wanted to comment on it, but I didn’t know how. It was funny to me. Kanye has always been into art. It would be so expected of me to comment on them, and I’d rather comment on Michael Jordan. It’s a slightly vapid conversation I’m having about Michael Jordan, though; it’s not heavy. It’s a very formal presentation of images that revolve around basketball and Michael Jordan. To talk about rap, I feel like I’d have to do something else.”
On people assuming his work is about race:
“That’s just something I’ve come to terms with. I’m not going to be able to get away from the fact that it’s always going to be about identity in the end. When you make work that’s not about identity, you automatically end up talking about identity. I can say it’s not about black people, but then I have to go into this whole thing about why it’s not about black people, and then I just end up talking about black people the whole time. I’ve accepted that I’m always going to have to talk about it in some fashion. Now it’s just about how I can change the conversation. The work has black people in it, but it’s not about black people.
“In this exhibition, I’m talking about Michael Jordan, who is a black person, but I feel like he’s of this certain status. Everyone when I was growing up—no matter if they were black, white, Asian, or otherwise—wanted to be like Michael Jordan. He’s become this signage now. He’s above identity and race; he’s an iconic figure. I don’t really know too many other people in popular culture who have been able to set that precedent, where no matter who you were during his prime, you wanted to be like Michael Jordan.”
On the long, humorous titles of his pieces:
“The titles have always been like punch lines for me—a secondary part of the work. The older works are more dependent on their titles than these new ones. Before, I would have a little notebook and jot down snippets of conversations that I’d hear, and then I’d try to make paintings from little pieces of those conversations. The titles would be dependent on the images, and the images would be dependent on the titles.
"With this new work, the images are a lot stronger. They’re physically bigger, but there’s still the same correlation [with the titles]. The images and the titles still need each other. The bigger size probably contributes to the titles being secondary, whereas before I felt like they were equally as important. If the title doesn’t make me laugh, then I usually scrap it.”
On making pieces that reference art history:
“That’s me being coy. It’s like when you’re in school, and you’re showing work in a critique. Someone’s automatically like, ‘This reminds me of a so-and-so.’ It’s about the experience of making something and getting an automatic comparison to some other artist’s work. We’re at a point where so much has already been made, and you grow up looking at images all the time, so you automatically start to regurgitate some of it. This is me being upfront and blatant about that regurgitation.
“It’s about titling, too. There’s a tradition in the way that artists give titles to their works; some are upfront, like Apple on Table, and some have titles that are more poetic, like Untitled 33. There are all these archetypes that people use to title their works. I just feel that using artists’ names in titles is something that people don’t really do. Why would you automatically reference another artist in the title of your work? Everyone implicitly does it; you kind of have to do that. It’s about the idea of knowing who you’re referencing and also being able to cite other artists who you feel your practice is emblematic of, or how you’re furthering that conversation and the whole vernacular. That’s why I’m like, fuck it, I’m going to make a Picasso piece and call it Black Picasso or something like that.”
On the specific memorabilia that inspired the aesthetic for “Space Jam”:
“You know how on a lot of sportswear, the tags have that hologram? Like Starter hats with tags that niggas would leave on? [Laughs] I’ve always associated holograms with the NBA and sports. There are also holograms on basketball cards. It has this aspect of being a full color spectrum with laser and light passing through it. Holograms, in a way, are as much in sports culture as they are in space and what goes on in space, like a nebula or some shit like that—crazy fields of colors. As a background, it’s always different. It’s really hard to do that with paint.
“I thought it would be funny to pour paint on holograms, because it’s like putting color on top of this prismatic thing. It’s color on top of color, even with the gradient pieces. The color streaks are all the colors that the gradients are made up of. It’s also about the video game NBA Jam that I played as kid. When you played the game as a player, and you got really hot, you’d go to dunk, and it’d be like, 'You’re on fire!' You’d make a stream of fast, blurred light. Also, in the iconic photo of Michael Jordan dunking, his tongue would be sticking out. That’s why all of them have a tongue sticking out of the smile.
“When I was making the show, I had a panic attack that I wasn’t going to finish. In the middle of the panic attack, I put all the little, cut-out Jordans on the pieces. I didn’t know if people were going to be able to receive the work well if I didn’t have the Jordans on there. I just started throwing them on the paint. My assistant was there, and I yelled, ‘Put Jordans on all the fucking paintings!’ It was a really weird moment.”
On Michael Jordan’s cultural legacy:
“I’ve got little cousins who know Michael Jordan over Malcolm X. He’s the icon. He’s a shoe, too. When you hear Jordan, you think of a shoe. It’s funny to have someone’s name so associated with an object that people wait in line for days to buy it. His name, and the shoe, and the branding of it, are basically contemporary art practice—the idea of branding yourself and making this object that people want. Jeff Koons has a line of collectors who want a single thing that he makes. When I was young, I was thinking of Michael Jordan as a person, but now, we think of the brand that he created. You automatically think of Nike, as well. And Nike is this whole other fucking thing. That’s a whole other exhibition.”
"Space Jam" is on view at Marlborough Chelsea in New York until February 14, 2015.