Musician, writer, cultural theorist and lead singer of rock n’ roll bands including Nation of Ulysses and The Make-Up Ian Svenonius recently posited his belief that all the best rock n’ roll is “funny and provocative.” I think Svenonius is spot-on here. However, the only aspect of this statement that I would amend is that it’s not just rock n’ roll, but ALL art and creativity that benefits from being funny and provocative. Though art doesn’t have to be those two things to be good, it’s hard to argue that the humour and transgression of artworks as diverse as James Brown’s music, Cindy Sherman’s photographs, and The Sopranos didn’t add to their appeal.
Artist Sedrick Chisom’s paintings are formally startling as he re-envisions the romantic landscape as one of pollution, supremacy and decay. Eschewing the lush colors of the modernists in favor of a harsh, acidic and neon palette, Chisom places his figures into an inescapable and dreadful environment. And despite their bleakness, it’s hard not to find humour in Chisom’s work. He places his figures into such dire circumstances that one can chuckle at the utter fatalism of potential outcomes. The paintings, usually titled by elaborate works of semi-narrative prose, echo the bleak landscape that humans inhabit in 2019: incoming climate emergency, rising white nationalism, and historic income inequity are forcing the masses into a biblical stranglehold. Like the figures in Chisom’s paintings, we are well and truly fucked.
Chisom was born in Philadelphia and, with some personal hesitance, embarked on a career in the arts. As a child, he obsessively drew the Todd McFarlane-created demonic anti-superhero (and one of the first superheroes of color to achieve mass popularity) Spawn before a teacher introduced him to the fine arts. Nevertheless, Chisom at first studied graphic design at community college. From there, he was offered a full ride at Cooper Union in New York. Having finished his design credits, he was able to take whatever classes he wanted. It was there that his painting aesthetic began to develop.
Chisom grew up Christian, and he tends to see the world in terms of motifs and symbols. His paintings find a biblical context within various tenets of modern life: self-victimized white men, martyrs of police violence, and heroes of activism are part of a larger mythological arc. Influenced greatly by Ishmael Reed’s 1972 conspiratorial literary masterpiece Mumbo Jumbo, Chisom’s work mimics that book’s emphasis on how pseudo sci-fi, postmodern notions of industrialization, capital and systemic oppression can coincide with biblical and mythical tropes.
Chisom’s current show at ADA Gallery in Virginia, The Ghost of White Presidents Yet to Come, exists within this framework. Chisom positions the paintings into a cohesive narrative in which people of color have left Earth to explore the universe, while the white people that stayed are suffering a strange epidemic in which many humans’ skin pigmentations begin to darken. The work is thrilling and provocative, but the narrative so bleak and rife with Camus-ian absurdism that it is also jarringly hilarious. I spoke to Chisom in December, while he was putting the show together. We discussed living in an apocalypse, being an artist in an image-saturated digital world, and the eternal symbol of old white dude, whiny entitlement that is Brett Kavanaugh:
Adam Lehrer: There is something foreboding, dare I say apocalyptic, within the images you paint. Is that apocalyptic aesthetic deliberate, or something I’m reading into?
Sedrick Chisom: I’ve been reading a lot of apocalyptic fiction, which always has a focus on the “connections between things.” There’s this book I was reading that discusses the intersection between contemporary environmentalism, and eugenics and genocide. Which is a bizarre intersection to me, but it is a real one. The true enemies are always people. It’s agendas and people conspiring.
Adam Lehrer: When I saw your paintings for the first time, the aesthetic of it was so jarring and so engrossing. It’s a very powerful and provocative image to look at, but nevertheless, the subject matter is still right there for the taking. Colonialism. Race. Climate disaster.
Sedrick Chisom: To me, it was the idea of having my cake and eating it too. It’s not solely about the formalism or the aesthetics. To be a painter is problem-solving. How do edges interact? How does one decision to disturb or create a rough edge interact with something that blurs the edge or looks washy or opaque? You know what it was? When did that Chris Ofili show happen at the New Museum?
Adam Lehrer: 2014. That show was amazing.
Sedrick Chisom: Yeah I saw that show and was like, “Oh shit.” I realized a painting could be really visual and be really provocative, and argue politics at the same time. I was amazed at the way all the components came together: shit, resin, color theory, subversive attitude towards Christianity, allusions to Rothko. He was having his cake and eating it too. You’re not indebted to any one idea. You can embrace a broad spectrum of styles, attitudes and ideas. I had a thesis show and one of the professors was like, “Your paintings are like fly traps.” He meant that I use surface to depict social imperatives, the idea that aesthetics can be strategic. Resolute aesthetics.
Adam Lehrer: And there’s brutality to your painting; it has the inescapable dread that Francis Bacon had or Symbolists like Alfred Kubin had. There’s humor, but it’s totally black humor.
Sedrick Chisom: On the narrative level, I’m always drawn to the darkest chapter of the world. So for me, the subject matter is actually leading to a positive. Some kind of good changes. One of the things that I want to posit in the work is this idea of people mutating. This idea of mutation means, in a historical sense, who are the people that are others? Who are the “other bodies?” My work is sort of the inverse of that. As I approached figuration and started creating these bleak environments, there’s a primal exploration of these white men who are masters of their universes and go into the environment [I’ve created] thinking they are the shit, but in the paintings, they find out that’s not the case. To me, that’s pretty funny.
Adam Lehrer: I think the idea of mutation is something that I particularly identify with just because in my own work, that is something I am always dealing with. I think humans have an ingrained desire to mutate. We are separated by privilege and class, but we all are trapped inside bodies. We get sick, and we feel pain and aches every day. That’s the one that thing that connects all of humanity. It’s the corporeal. These massive spiritual entities stuffed inside of decaying, rotting organisms.
Sedrick Chisom: Everybody dies. You are your body. Society teaches you that you are in your head. But bodily suffering is very real.
Adam Lehrer: I was curious about your relationship to religion. Did you grow up Christian?
Sedrick Chisom: I grew up Christian in the Protestant church. Black Protestant. Actually, the sermons from the pastors were literally quite apocalyptic: statistics of crack baby epidemics, teen pregnancies, black men being gunned down before 25. I had the impression that I’d literally not be living at 25. I remember in high school, I started reading books about the history of Christianity and its relationship to colonial enterprise in Africa. And I remember thinking, “Wow, it’s an inherently anti-black religion.” In Medieval art or in Roman/Christian art, what is being depicted is this blurring of monsters with humans living on the margins; the images of people on the margins are shown as having some humanity, but that humanity only extends to their ability to be converted by missionaries. But some of my most positive memories are of being with family in that black church. When people think about Trayvon or Eric Garner, they think of them in the context of martyrdom, which is the context of Christianity. The way a martyr dies is akin to Christ’s suffering on the cross. So there’s a cross and the cross becomes an aspect of Christ’s identity. Or Trayvon, and the hoodie becomes a part of his identity.
Adam Lehrer: There are also some really interesting and funny subversions of biblical verses. I love the painting in which Jacob is boxing with god almighty. It’s like you’re taking these aspirational figures in biblical tales, but still pitting them against this almighty authority.
Sedrick Chisom: Not on a formal level, but on a conceptual level that painting is inspired by the Gauguin painting [Vision after the Sermon or] Jacob Wrestling with the Angel. I think that’s one of the funniest paintings where these people are watching and laughing as this helpless dude, Jacob, is put in a headlock by an angel.
Adam Lehrer: (laughs) Yeah it’s a bit barbaric.
Sedrick Chisom: It’s like super fucked up to look at. I think it’s hilarious. A great painting. So looking at that painting made me ask myself, “Who would a contemporary Jacob be?” You know The Nation of Islam?
Adam Lehrer: Yeah. Elijah Muhammad.
Sedrick Chisom: Yeah. You know the story of Yakub? It’s a crazy conspiracy theory. Bear with me: white people were made in a lab thousands of years ago. That’s the actual mythology. And according to the Nation, Yakub, or Jacob, struggled with god because of that. So Yakub is black, and he’s fighting god. I was wondering how this fight would actually go down. Contemporary Jacob wouldn’t be a wrestler. He’s going to be a boxer. I’m wrestling with this biblical attitude, but also deflating it because god is this gigantic, oversized, sunburnt white man.
Adam Lehrer: I wanted to talk you about these cultural tropes you’re trafficking in. The self-victimized white man, for instance, is ingrained into the culture at this point.
Sedrick Chisom: Sometimes I think maybe the content is too obscure. And then other times, I think they are totally obvious. Brett Kavanaugh: he was the guy in The Victim Complex Of Straight White Sebastian.
Adam Lehrer: I knew that was going to come up during the conversation.
Sedrick Chisom: It’s not really just him, or Trump, or anyone specific. There’s the idea that your agency is shaped by whatever society affords you. If you can afford it, you can turn the door knob and life will let you through. If someone has been afforded so much privilege and agency in life sees push back in any way, they self-victimize and see themselves as martyrs. So part of the work is looking at these cultural ideas, like martyrdom, and seeing how they functioned in the past and comparing that to the form they are taking now. [Martyrdom] becomes like an illusion. I always want to inject the mystical element with some reality.
Adam Lehrer: What I think is interesting about Kavanaugh specifically as a metaphor is that he was being honest when he said he felt under attack. His view on life is that because he is smart and has achieved, he should just get whatever he wants. Whereas most humans, like us, know that to get what we want we have to be smart, achieve highly, and have every other fucking thing go one hundred percent right.
Sedrick Chisom: Totally.
Adam Lehrer: Kavanaugh not being elected to the Supreme Court is what abject poverty, or drug overdose, or homelessness would be to us. He can’t even see in himself what the rest of us see: an undisciplined, sexual harassing drunk.
Sedrick Chisom: The Supreme Court isn’t an entitlement; it’s a privilege. Being an artist, you apply for things. You’re used to not getting them. You operate within the frame of being self-critical and understanding you aren’t entitled to anything. But this guy wants to decide the law of the land and will instruct how people’s’ bodies are maneuvered, but has no self-perception. I think when I heard the guy say “I like beer” for the 7th or 8th time I was like “Dude?”
Adam Lehrer: You mentioned Chris Ofili, what other artists made a strong impression on you?
Sedrick Chisom: Umar Rashid who paints under the alias Frohawk Two Feathers. I think he influenced me in the idea of being an artist and a draughtsman, and being visual but having that be in service of storytelling. And Leon Golub is really influential [to me] on how the surface is this kind of physical abuse and how acrylic speaks to the subject.
Adam Lehrer: To finish up, I wanted to ask you some artist-to-artist stuff. How do you compartmentalize living in the image-saturated digital world that we live in while still staying true to what you’re trying to create?
Sedrick Chisom: I take on the boxer mentality, where it’s not about what anyone else is doing, it’s really about pushing yourself. Thinking about my own path, and projecting myself and my work and responding to what’s going on.
Adam Lehrer: I think I’m good at compartmentalizing to an extent, but if I’m here smoking a joint with my girlfriend and the joint is a bit too strong and the paranoia takes hold: my first thought is always about how exposed we all are because of social media. There’s no privacy.
Sedrick Chisom: That’s super funny, my first instinct is to turn off my phone. I really could message someone and be like, “Fuck why did I do that?”
Adam Lehrer is an artist, photographer and writer. Lehrer’s work consists of manipulated photography, collages made of mostly Internet sourced images, and video loops. He has had solo shows at Spring Break Art Show, Governor’s Island Art Fair, and has been featured in group shows. Lehrer is also a culture writer, and his art, film and music criticism has been featured in Autre Magazine, The Quietus, Forbes, VICE, Bedford & Bowery, Bullett Media, i-D, SSENSE, and more