I had two windows open from Google searches right before sitting down to talk with New Haven-based painter Dominic Chambers, one researching concepts of Fabulism and how it relates to mythology and magical realism; the second, a heavy, daunting article from The Boston Globe that attempted to explain how the American collective consciousness has been tested in 2020, our lives reflected in the shadow of immense doubt and death, leaving so many with a greater sense of unease than anytime in our history. Little did I know that, moments later, Chambers would articulate how magical realism and escapism have synthesized to shape him as one of the freshest voices in contemporary art.
From his early days in St Louis, to grad school at Yale, to short story writing and a strategic drive to work, Chambers has developed a unique, personal language born out of comics and the power of a good book. In the midst of preparing for the August Wilson African American Cultural Center in September, he took time to talk about process, literature, philosophy, hyperactivity, criticism and self-awareness. His work, in many ways, embodies a desire for relief and respite during moments of struggle and stress, appreciation for the powerful freedom of simply relaxing on a grassy field, and the joy of disappearing into sweet imagination.
Evan Pricco: Let’s talk about St Louis, where you're from. I think of Kansas City as the center of Missouri art, but what kind of scene is there now?
Dominic Chambers: I was born and raised there. I would say, even then, there was still a vibrant art scene. It wasn't in the same context as it is now. For example, there are a lot of contemporary artists who are working out of St. Louis, Aaron Fowler being a prominent one. So, I think there is a little bit more contemporary art landscape now. But, traditionally, it's mostly been just St. Louis-based artists who are trying to keep things vibrant. The MFA program at Washington University has created this smaller art community.
Do you notice a change when you go back now?
I think so. I’m definitely more savvy about the art world than I was when I was a student. I will say a lot of the change happened in me, because I did a lot of traveling after leaving St Louis. I lived in Italy, then New York, and all of this happened before I went to Yale for grad school. So the big change is that all these things in the art world were no longer the things I just “heard about.” I was actually participating, going to Chelsea galleries or dispensing a critical discourse with other artists. And that wasn’t happening in St. Louis because we didn’t have that community. We only talk about it there, you don't ever see it.
So, in grad school, you're around great minds all the time. You're challenged in a very particular way. It's very much like standing on your own two feet or you drown. I think going to Yale and being in such close proximity to New York really changed the game for me because I actually got to see how often shows were happening, work was being made. I was closer to it.
I think there’s an advantage to not starting in that environment, like you might be hungrier to dive in.
Oh, very much so, no doubt. I agree with that 110%. Which kind of made my journey to Yale a very weird one, because I was keenly aware of the fact of being rooted in the Midwest. I went to school there, my undergraduate degree was in the Midwest in Milwaukee. And I was a kid from community college. And so, I seemingly was significantly outmatched by those kids who went to Cooper Union or Pratt. They had a much more sophisticated approach to the art world that I didn't have. But I had drive and was incredibly motivated by having self-awareness. Like, you're not that special, you have to work even harder to get to where you need to be.
When did you have that moment when you thought, "You know what? Actually, my work holds up. I didn't need to go to school XYZ”? Because everyone has that slight insecurity, just a little, no matter what. When did you get through that? Was it day one?
I wish it was day one, man. Because the art world is like a pyramid, you're already significantly outmatched as it is, because very few people can actually sustain themselves in it. And you're networking and connecting, and not being in New York or around Cooper Union, that was a heavy hitter. Those kids are able to get far because they're in such close proximity. That's real.
But I also knew that I was hungry. I knew I was just willing to work at a different level. I was willing to work and have a different approach to it. Because I was trying to figure it all out! I think a lot about Kerry James Marshall and how he considers things in very strategic terms. And that's how I approach it, bringing a degree of self awareness and mental clarity to my practice.
When did you learn that, even with early success at the age of 27 and the validation you are receiving these days, you have to keep that drive and aspiration?
One of the biggest things I learned in undergrad was patience. You become aware that these things are very cyclical. Your career will be incredibly prosperous, and then it may not be. You know, peaks and valleys. And you have to be patient with being those things. But when you're immersed in that stuff in New York, you kind of are robbed of that patience, you know? To really give that practice time to mature.
What's interesting, in this interview, is that you've already mentioned words like relaxation and patience, and there are elements of leisure and patience in your work. What's relaxation to you? Why is relaxation important in your work?
I think it's because that's something I can't do. That's very much what it is. For example, I have internalized the capitalist culture that we live in as Americans. I don't mean financially, I mean, I don't really believe in not being productive. I'm not a huge fan of people who aren't. Kerry James Marshall says this too: no one likes a non-producer. I have internalized that where I feel this necessity to keep working.
I realized like, "Oh, shit. This is very messed up in a way." As Black people, you feel the need to fuel something in this country or own your place or offer your body to validation, whether it be psychologically or emotionally. And I realize I'm a huge reader, but also was like, "Damn, it's incredibly rare that you encounter images or ideas in people who are not being hyperactive." I am a living example of that. I am a very active person. That was something that really got me: I'm totally complicit in this hyperactivity, 24/7 thing. I was in that system. And I do think it's incredibly unfulfilling in a sense. Where you don't know how to catch up with yourself. And someone who's seemingly stable, or people who have their shit together, have often fought for taking time for themselves, you know?
I think I was listening to a talk Derrick Adams gave right before the pandemic about leisure as protest. I may be mis-quoting him, but it was close to this.
It's a form of protest. Inactivity can be one of the best double-edged swords that can offer benefits. For example, if you were inactive, you can catch up with yourself, you can get perspective, you can reflect. But also, if you wanted to really make a political stance against a corporation or a business, don't support them. You would be inactive. I think there's something powerful about that. And especially for people who have been colonized and subjugated to oppression. If you know that this country's one and only relationship to you is, one way, as a laborer, then to take back your agency and your urgency, just allowing yourself to rest, is the ultimate form of protest. And a part of what brought me to the idea was the writer Paul Beatty
Yes, White Boy Shuffle was a great book.
I believe he won the Booker prize for it. I mean it's very funny, and very witty and a challenging book. But you know the protagonist suggests that all Black people should kill themselves, which is something that the artist Rashid Johnson talks about a lot. Beatty’s writing was that the absence of our bodies would be the ultimate form of protest because nothing will sustain itself without us. And I liken that to a kind of leisure.
So, considering that, do you feel relaxed when painting these scenes?
I am not, no. I am not, I am not [laughs]. I am relaxed when I look at them, because I work on so many paintings at one time. It allows me to relax and slow down because, again, I keep up with myself. A lot of artists are by themselves, we spend whole days alone.
Then you're perfectly built for a pandemic.
Exactly. I don't see anyone! No, I'm so high strung. I'm a very anxious, high strung person. But I think what happens, and Guston said this and he’s entirely correct when he talks about it, but when you're in the studio, everything is with you. So, as you keep working, things leave and then you lose yourself.
I think a lot about that process when I'm making a good painting and I'm really into it: I lose myself, in essence. That is also when I quiet down. Because I'm the loudest voice in my studio, and that's a thing I'm still, to this day, negotiating.
"I don't really believe in not being productive. I'm not a huge fan of people who aren't. Kerry James Marshall says this too: no one likes a non-producer. I have internalized that where I feel this necessity to keep working."
I was talking to Eddie Martinez for a feature a couple issues ago, and we talked about this idea of constantly working, that his favorite artists are the people who are always making art. Like sketchbooks, paintings, sculptures, everything, and it sounds like you are somebody heading in that direction? You're not precious with everything, but you're just constantly making.
Oh, I'm totally that person. 110%. I'm curious what Eddie's reasoning is for that. For example, when I think about people who make art, I think about people who use their minds a lot. I'm very attracted to people's minds. I'm interested in how they use words and I love people who use colorful words. And so, in my mind, my favorite kinds of people are those who keep their minds constantly engaged because that's what art is to me. Someone's intellectual activity. You build with this person's insight and what they decided to solve. There are creative problem solvers in these paintings, so I'm interested in that. But I am also a hyper-producer.
What Eddie was talking about was how ideas, gestures and characters can re-emerge in your art, even 10 years after they left, because when you are subconsciously making all the time, it shouldn’t be a big deal to have these instinctual ghosts show up again.
And even in different contexts. Your idea of an emblem might change. No, I totally agree with that. I love making art every day, of being in here as much as I can. But I think, and I'm not sure this is true, I could be lying to myself, but I do think that my reasoning behind constantly producing work is not by happenstance. I feel like I'm looking for something, right? You see works by Kerry James Marshall, or Lisa Yuskavage or Mark Bradford, and they possess a sort of presence. And I think I'm looking for a painting that also offers that kind of presence to me as the maker, you know? So when I'm making these works, I'm looking for one, just that one that could be the one.
Okay, so let's use, for example, your show at the August Wilson Center in Pittsburgh in September, correct? How is show prep for you? How deep into your head are you?
The show is called Like the Shape of Clouds on Water. The title comes from a short story that I'm writing. It has this idea of intangibility, like clouds. You can't harm physical things, but they have a physical presence. Water, too; a body of water is something that seemingly is containable. The story is about those two things in relationship to one another.
But then I think about the conversations that the works have among each other. I'm not necessarily as interested in going to a particular show or a group exhibition and feeling as though these are just totally individual, distinct objects that are just things that you're meant to engage with. I think about how these works relate to one another as a broader conversation and whether or not that works. I make a decent amount of work but I'm also curating which ones I'll actually be showing.
What has the story become?
The story is in the middle of being written right now. I might be three or four pages in. But it's about the idea that this character learns that he's always been invisible, actually, a disembodied voice who ends up being the consciousness of another person. You have a dual reality. One that he thought he was living, almost to find out he was a fragment of a larger whole, this larger whole being another body that he's actually inhabiting. One of them is the clouds and one of them is the water, all engaging with one another. So, it's talking about how environments influence who we are, the kind of person we are. The nature versus nurture thing.
Did this idea come to you in 2020? This is a year where introspection and escapism may be the greatest we have ever experienced in our lifetimes.
Not in the midst of the pandemic. I think this comes from a love of magical realism. I like making stories and have wanted to be a writer for a long time. I love poetry, I love writing, I love books. I had this in mind when considering how I would, as I got older, write a story based on my life, but as a semi-autobiographical book that utilizes magical realism.
Magical realism is a genre that perfectly encapsulates our need to escape. I feel like it’s an under-utilized genre, though so much great fiction resides in that realm. Murakami, Lethem, and you’ve talked about Octavia Butler. The pandemic has really tested this idea of escape, because there's so many people now who've actually, for the first time, in a long time, started thinking about their lives and how they see themselves in the world, in the physical world. Then, collectively, we have this very existential conversation about reopening and just accepting death with almost a shrug. A footnote. It's a very interesting conversation that I think a lot of people have never conducted with themselves. I was going to ask if the pandemic created that reflection for you, but as un-eloquently as I can say it, you were on this shit before.
Right. It comes from the fact that I grew up in the hood. And I was always looking for escape. And the escapism I found was in books. I have an overactive imagination. I think, by nature, I was a much more aloof and imaginative person. But it does mean I wasn't in tune with the world around me. I was just like, "Damn, this world is fucked up and I need to escape."
And I love what you said about the pandemic because my mother always told me something I found really interesting. She was from Arkansas and would say, “Dead bodies don't cast shadows.” She would always tell me that. And I always just thought that was such a poetic, but also a very ominous, thing to say, too. Because her mother told her that. That when a person dies, their shadow is gone. It was this idea that their personhood, their soul or this thing that tethered them to the world around us is no longer with them.
How did drawing and painting become your escape as opposed to, maybe, another creative endeavor?
I loved anime a lot as a kid and loved to be immersed in those stories. I loved comic books and things like that, too. I love fantasy. A very colorful world where anything is possible, you know? And it's all at the behest of the writer. I've always been interested in that. It’s become part of my practice, too. I feel like being the creator and writer in my studio has helped me to better understand my relationship to the world… by dictating the world of another.
Dominic Chambers: Like the Shape of Clouds on Water will be on view at the August Wilson African American Cultural Center in Pittsburgh beginning September 18, 2020.