By CLARE GEMIMA October 24, 2023
After meeting so many incredible artists while visiting Atlanta, it was hard to resist broadcasting the sensibilities of several emerging and talented practitioners that aren't based in the heart of New York, or atleast have not yet exhibited there - and perhaps this is a good thing. While visiting Atlanta’s Contemporary Fall Open Studio night, I was lucky enough to stumble-upon an overarching, 8 foot high puddle form, crafted by the committed and eye-patched-from-studio-happenings artist, Rial Rye. By using an array of hard to manipulate materials, such as resin, plywood and LEDs, the artist’s central structure, along with its sisterly iterations of various heights and colors that dotted around his voluminous space, (the size you may find in the Bronx if you're lucky), were, ironically, the complete antithesis of an eyesore.
In another instance that occurred almost immediately after coming off a plane from Houston with too much turbulence for the air staff to hand out coffee, an unexpected ease came from learning of the fascinating practice of Ellex Swavoni, a power house seemingly literate in the extra-terrestrial, currently showing at In Unity, As in In Division, Johnson Lowe Gallery’s current group show. After a conversation about interior, and womb-like fractals that the designs of her purple and black netted sculptural works draw personal influence from, Ellex ran away to excitedly return with cryptic digital-preps for her luscious and indecipherably coded works. Her highly charged feminine and Afro-Futurist equations that lay the foundation for her dry, wet, and 3D structures are highly complex, infinitely inspirational, and result in visually magnetic works with luscious and galactic vividity.
Wihro Kim, another artist featured at In Unity, As in In Division, and I discussed his experimental new body of paintings, and our mutual love for using photoshop’s lasso tool (the closest I’ll ever get to Texas again). His airbrush and acrylic paintings are masked and painted, then covered in another paint layer that’s masked. The result mirrors the sensation of optically focussing on something that was blurry seconds before the brain allowed it to appear razor-sharp. In Wihro’s case, I was struck by his work's stringent pre-planned pigmentation that bursted on his canvases like an explosion of vibrant ambrosia.
I had the pleasure of interviewing Rial Rye, Ellex Swavoni, and Wihro Kim purely so I could learn more about their respective practices, and about some of their work I was lucky enough to experience in person.
Clare Gemima: Your identity and experiences as a multiracial, queer person with diverse ancestry seem to play a significant role in your all encompassing artistry. Could you elaborate on how your personal identity shapes and informs your organic and figurative larger-than-life-scaled sculptures?
Rial Rye: As a multiracial person, there is so much about my ancestry that was rendered unknown to me because of the erasure of my ancestors' culture and genealogy at the hands of colonialism and chattel slavery. Through my art, I am working to bestow a permanency upon my ancestors that was denied to them during their life. That quest for permanency is perhaps most visible in the large scale of many of my sculptures, which allows communal and public viewing, and the faux weathering and stone finishes, which borrow aesthetic qualities of unearthed artifacts that have survived and persisted through history. Even my name, "Rial Rye," is adopted from the furthest ancestor I can trace on my African-American side, such that my art and artistic identity fully belong to a legacy larger than myself.
However, it is a necessity to memorialize my ancestors within the boundaries placed on my ability to know or research most of them. So, on one hand, the use of figures in my work is quite literal, in that the figures are references to actual people. But on the other hand, it's important that those figures are rendered in an abstracted style, because the people they depict are not, and never will be, known to me. By making their features ambiguous, even in terms of race and gender, my figures can stand in for both a general concept of my ancestry, and also for any specific, individual ancestor of mine, even if that person is not someone I can name or identify.
Clare Gemima: Your work combines elements from various artistic and cultural traditions, blending styles like Naïvism, Neo-Expressionism, Cubism, and traditional African and North American art forms. How do you navigate your process of blending such geographically, and culturally diverse influences consciously and progressively?
Rial Rye: This is such a great question, and it's one I get asked often. I think that when astute viewers are able to identify the origins of the styles and references that appear in my work, they often expect that my art is rooted in a social commentary on race and colonialism. I conceive of my work primarily as personal and introspective instead. I really love that dichotomy between how others think about my work, and how I think about it myself, simply because it epitomizes the fact that my very existence is, in many ways, a social commentary on race and colonialism in and of itself. The reality is that everyone's racial identities are part of larger histories of race and colonialism. But, I think that truth is especially salient for multiracial people, because we are so often pressured into categories that are incorrect, yet used to dictate our social standing.
As a multiracial person, the styles that I combine all belong to traditions that are part of my own cultural heritage. Some of them are borrowed from cultures that were colonized and some from cultures that were colonizers themselves. When I first began my professional artistic practice, I felt a lot of pressure to justify the fact that I blend styles that can be traced to cultures on opposite sides of that struggle. At the same time, I, myself exist because of the blending of those cultures. I have often felt I exist in a liminal space where it would be dishonest to claim only some of my lineages, but I am also unable to claim any one of them fully. I exist in the ambiguity of both/and, while society demands either/or. As I have matured in my practice, I have become more comfortable allowing all of those elements to exist within my work without apology or justification. In fact, delegating to the viewer the work of resolving the tension presented by placing the aesthetics of the oppressor and oppressed in conversation feels like a natural culmination of the experiences I have had as a multiracial person. I've found both a catharsis in placing my own ancestors in conversation with one another and a political power in filtering my identity through the visual language of juxtaposition.
Clare Gemima: Can you elaborate on your process of preserving the essence of inspiring moments while also breaking or obstructing them to create a sense of balance in your paintings? Additionally, how do you integrate the digital tool of Photoshop with your physical painting process to achieve a balance between the real and digital worlds, and how does this impact the work’s final composition?
Wihro Kim: A common thread between the myriad moments that inspire me is one that strikes a balance between filling me with a deep sense of wonder about what is happening in front of me, and being suffused with a sense of recognition in some way. The space between these two thought processes engages me intensely, and I try to bring that sense into the paintings. Sometimes, when a moment from life inspires me in that way, I will take a photo of what I am seeing or take notes about it in a way that tries to keep the essence of the moment and not overwhelm it with too much finality. Then I will bring the photo and/or notes into the studio and start working them into a painting. If I try to recreate the sense of the moment exactly, I will inevitably fail, so what usually ends up happening is that the moment becomes just one part of the painting.
Lately, most of my paintings have been made with acrylic paint applied in various ways. I’ve been loving the airbrush a lot, whether applied with stencils/masking or in a more freeform way. I also apply the paint with regular brushes, pallet knives/scrapers, paint markers, and sometimes pouring, spilling, splashing. Each of these methods have their place depending on what feeling I am attempting to convey at the moment. I also feel as though different spaces in the paintings call for different ways of interacting with the surface.
Over the years, I’ve developed a mostly intuitive process of layering, wherein each layer is grounded in its own reality, and plays between being preserved and obstructed as the painting progresses. This is one of the methods I use to complicate the time, space, and surface of a painting. I think the overall guiding sensibility of how I compose a painting is that when a moment in a painting is too strong or too continuous, I find I must break it in some way in order to move towards that sense of balance. A painting will usually start with a very freeform approach, where I am painting in a loose and expansive way, drawing from the aforementioned moments of memories and fantasies. As the painting starts to form and I grow more attached to what exists on the surface, I start to become more cautious and use more discerning ways of composing. I will either sketch on the surface directly with vine charcoal, which I can pretty easily erase, or take a photo of the painting and work on it in photoshop, or work with a combination of the two. I like using photoshop as it allows distance from the work that is not possible in real life. This can be useful in a lot of ways, yet I often need to tweak whatever I had sketched in photoshop for it to actually work in reality. Although limited in its own way, I enjoy using charcoal because I can work directly on the surface and follow real interactions with the physical painting that guide my intuition. I also like photoshop because it hosts a myriad of textures and colors that don’t naturally occur in daily life. I find my most successful paintings aim to find their own compositional balance between these two approaches.
Using various technical applications of paint and methodological approaches to layering, I tend to apply images sourced from life and my own imagination with a similar intention to find a sense of balance. For example, if one layer has a very loose and distant landscape, and it needs to be broken with something sharp and tangible, then I might insert a digital moment or bring in an object that exists on another surface to provide that breaking point. I keep doing this until the painting reaches a balance point between not knowing entirely what is happening, and having an uncanny resemblance to something you've already encountered. It’s still hard for me to define what that space is.
Clare Gemima: How do your multi-media works draw upon your personal experiences? And, how does your understanding or political perspective on society’s multigenerational matriarchy aid in your work’s portrayal of female empowerment?
Ellex Swavoni: The empowering aspect of my practice comes in the form of information and a “world building” framework. Treading reality in a black female body can be an arduous experience that requires a bit of creativity and vast information to conquer. I’ve found that I feel the safest in my body when I’m controlling my narrative instead of internalizing the narratives written for me. The importance of black holes in my work speaks to the terrifying yet liberating existence in this singularity. I feel that a singularity (specifically a scientific singularity vs an AI singularity) is an unbound state where infinite possibilities exist; from there I conceptualize what freedom is. My multigenerational matriarchy allows me to see the iterations of the female design in my family tree, and understand how we’ve reacted to environmental conditions. Through them I have a combined 220 years of data to learn from in order to intentionally decide how I want to navigate my existence.
Clare Gemima: Could you explain the specific role of ancient African artifacts, comics, and physics in shaping your artistic practice? I am curious to know how your selected resources, those freshly discovered or intrinsic to you, have directly influenced your new body of work’s Afro-futuristic qualities.
Ellex Swavoni: I make Afro-futuristic works by context. Being a black woman discussing futures or alternate worlds, using technology like AI and 3D printing establishes me as a futuristic extension of the diaspora. The most important thing to consider is that I think the world and myself are information. Africa is the cradle of humankind; its cultures acknowledge the wealth of information in the cosmos, ourselves, spirit, and nature. It’s human behavior to observe and then crystallize an observation into some transmittable format. African artifacts are the best at being objects of pure information in my opinion. They have patterns, geometric forms, fractals, materiality, and rhythm; it feels like infinite amounts of data stored in them. I’m continuing that history by crystalizing my own speculations into objects. My practice also involves a bit of pseudoscience; I loosely connect philosophies across sciences, religions, and comics. World building requires a framework so I do a lot of research to conceive the rules of my universe.
Atlanta Art Week ran from October 2 - 8, 2023. For more information on Atlanta Contemporary Fall’s open studios, please visit: https://www.atlantaartweek.co/participants/atlanta-contemporary
As well as In Unity, As in In Division, running at Johnson Lowe Gallery from October 6 - November 18, 2023: https://www.johnsonlowe.com/exhibitions/22-in-unity-as-in-division/ WM
Clare Gemima contributes art criticism to The Brooklyn Rail, Contemporary HUM, and other international art journals with a particular focus on immigrant painters and sculptors who have moved their practice to New York. She is currently a visual artist mentee in the New York Foundation of Art’s 2023 Immigrant mentorship program.view all articles from this author