In Devin Troy Strother’s paintings, delicate paper figures—often black and naked—participate in lurid activities, including wild house parties, drunken fights, and rides on the backs of leopards. The paint colors are loud, and so are the titles: “Aye Guuuurl You Know You Got a White Guuuurl on Yo Back Tho” and “Shiiiiiet, Man There’s One Too Many Niggas at This Party Tho.” But Strother’s paintings, while certainly lavish, are also insightful narratives and interpretations of the American experience. There are subtle references to pop culture and homages to artists like Joseph Beuys and Yves Klein. “I’m trying to combine different aspects of our culture and make them work together,” says Strother, who splits his time between New York and LA. The artist’s third solo exhibition at Richard Heller Gallery opens on September 7, and we spoke to him about art, race, the American experience, and Gucci Mane and Goosebumps, of course.
The title of your upcoming exhibition is Look at all my Shit. Is that a reference to Spring Breakers?
Yeah, in the movie, James Franco’s character says, “This is the fuckin’ American dream. This is my fuckin’ dream, y’all! All this shit! Look at my shit! I got… I got shorts! Every fuckin’ color. I got designer T-shirts! I got gold bullets. Motherfuckin’ vampires. I got Scarface. On repeat. Scarface on repeat. Constant, y’all!” The quote resonated with me because there’s an informal message that is said by every artist having a solo show: “I made all this, now look at it!”
The movie also made me reflect on the idea of showing my “artwork” to an informed and educated audience, and the play between high and low within my own practice. Spring Breakers takes four upper class white girls and propels them into a world of partying, drugs and crime—a high-to-low move. It’s similar to what goes on in my head when I’m trying to compose a painting.
When you show your work in a gallery setting, to an informed and educated audience, what kind of dialogue do you want to create between them and your work? Or more simply put, what are you trying to say?
The main thing would be my relationship to race and the viewer’s relationship to my relationship. But what I want the work to communicate, at the present moment, is the transformation of one culture to another, from “Black” to “American,” and what these two words really mean, culturally. I think my work communicates that Black culture is American culture and that I’m not presenting it as a “Black” thing but a human thing, an American thing, a cultural thing that is familiar to so many.
I’m never really sure what I want from the viewer. I know I want something, but I guess all I really want from them is a moment of their time, and I hope it activates something inside them, whether it be anger, laughter, intrigue, disgust or indifference. I’m not picky.
Besides Spring Breakers, are there other pop-culture references in your new work?
National Geographic and the NBA are two big influences with the new work for this exhibition. One being this documentation of heritage and culture, which shows me something that is in one way so familiar, but at the same time so foreign and far that I can’t even identify with it. The other being this celebration of assimilation and dominance. I have a vague interest in the NBA, but I have a certain amount of pride in just watching it. It’s the new jungle, in so many ways, for me.
Can you list some artists you are most inspired by?
Henry Moore, Eva Hesse, Elad Lassry, Jason Rhodes, Tupac, Gucci Mane, Louise Nevelson, Martin Kippenberger, Henri Matisse, Jasper Johns, Joseph Cornell, Max Ernst, Andre Nickatina, Bone-Thugs-N-Harmony, David Hockney, Rose Wylie, Jacob Lawrence, Philip Guston, Too Short, The Westside Connection, Robert Rauschenberg, Bruce Nauman, Keegan McChargue, Cam’ron, Wes Anderson, Larry Clark, Harmony Korine, Joyce Pensato, Frank Stella, Luc Besson, my grandma, Urbyn Michaels, Trenton Doyle Hancock, R.L. Stein, Jesus, the Coen brothers, Daniel Day Lewis, John Baldessari, Josey Wales, Jonathan Lasker, Yves Klein, Amanda Ross Ho, Franz West, my daddy and Yuri Ogita.
You mentioned R.L. Stein, the author of Goosebumps—favorite novella or TV episode?
Damn. Well, when I was younger, I was a bad kid who hated reading, but I was always down with the Goose though. My favorite books were subjective, because I had a crush on a girl and read whatever she read. I was stoked when the TV show came out, so I didn’t have to read the fuckers anymore. But my personal favs are: “Go Eat Worms,” “The Haunted Mask 1 & 2,” “Say Cheese and Die,” “Monster Blood 1 & 2,” “The Scarecrow Walks at Midnight,” “Night of the Living Dummy,” and “The Girl Who Cried Monster.”
Do you use your paintings to talk about personal experiences too?
Yeah, all the time. My titles, a lot of the times, document shit I’ve been told or overheard from another person’s conversation. More so recently, I’ve been using actual experiences, like when I lost my virginity to a white girl. That has become a whole series in my work so far. And my experiences going clubbing became the basis for my first show here in L.A. I think all the work is some kind of personal experience I’ve had but just magnified and abstracted to a fantastical point, in order to have a weirder appeal, than just a personal thangy thang.
Who are all these people in your paintings?
The little black people in the paintings are my minions, and my cultural stand-ins. They work to direct the viewer through the painting, they work as signage and advertisement, they work sometimes as shock or a reference to the past, and they work as a marker for a new way of thinking about certain cultures. They also work as tiny Africans who hunt panthers in basketball jerseys. They have a wide range of talents.
You’ve said that the people are aware that they are in a painting, and that you are the creator of the paintings. So are you their god?
In a weird way, I am, but at the same time, I feel like I’m acting in service to them. It’s like my life revolves around them. The paintings put me into new situations all the time—like me doing this interview is because of them; they made this happen in a backwards kind of way. Sometimes I think I’m a slave to the paintings, like I do the painting’s bidding. I just tell niggas where to stand.
Portraits by Brigitte Sire for BULLETT