Blog / In Her Own Time: A Conversation With Deborah Grant

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By Stacy Lynn Waddell

Deborah Grant is a straight shooter. She would be the first to admit that her particular brand of honesty is not for everyone. The first time we met in 2007, her incisive intelligence, no-nonsense approach to being a New York artist and lightning-fast sense of humor bowled me over and we have been comrades ever since.

Grant has participated in numerous solo and distinguished group exhibitions that include Freestyle (Studio Museum in Harlem, NY-2001), Black Is, Black Ain’t (The Renaissance Society, Chicago-2008), The Old, Weird America (Contemporary Arts Museum, Houston-2008), Greater New York (P.S.1. Contemporary Art Center, NY-2005), and Reinventing Ritual: Contemporary Art and Design for Jewish Life (The Jewish Museum, NY-2009). She has attended residencies at the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture, Skowhegan, ME (1996), Studio Museum in Harlem, New York (2002) and the Headlands Center for the Arts, Sausalito, CA (2004). In 2011, Grant was awarded the coveted William H. Johnson Prize, an honor given annually to an outstanding early career African American artist.

Her current solo gallery exhibition entitled The Crowning and Provenance of King William was recently on view at Steve Turner Contemporary in Los Angeles, CA and the artist is already back at work in Harlem preparing for her solo exhibition at The Drawing Center (NY) slated for 2013.

Over the years, Deborah and I have had one-intense-conversation-after-another about painting, appropriation and influence. In one of our recent talks Grant reveals (despite an enviable art career) that she is painstakingly teaching herself to paint through the act of appropriation, how she developed her idiosyncratic Random Select working process and that she does not believe that artists should keep their eyes on their own work.

SLW: You talk a lot about teaching yourself to paint; yet you have been formally trained in art school What’s that about?

DG: I actually did learn to paint in school. I learned traditionally with oils, but I did not want to smell the fumes from mediums and paints over a long period. Around that same time, I had read a Chicago study that proved a connection between the paint medium Japan Dryer, Abstract Expressionist painters and alcoholism. I didn’t want to take any chances.

SLW: Yeah—those guys could not even afford food sometimes, but booze was plentiful. Jazz and Blues musicians were sometimes paid in extended bar tabs and booze.

DG: It’s true! I just didn’t want to go down that path.

SLW: So, the paint pen signals a shift in your notion of painting?

DG: Yes it did. Shifting to paint pens lead me to an all-over density style of drawing. The tangle of line and forms looks different from far away and then as you move closer you engage with the density. Paint pens afford me a particular type of layered density. Xylene (the medium in the paint) dries fast and allows me to move more fluidly through the process. I had seen Jackson Pollock’s Blue Poles (1952) as a kid. It was a seminal piece for me. Then, in 1999, I saw his retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art (NY).

SLW: What other influences led you to shift to an all-over-density style?

DG: I was thinking about figuration and looking at classic works like Hieronymus Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights (1504) and Leonardo da Vinci’s process of observation that included looking at several things at once. Also, my Grandfather owned a Ham radio and he drew. In my piece, Suicide Notes to the Self (2008) the guts of a radio or mechanism or the interior undulating guts of something are evident.

SLW: What was your first all-over-density piece?

DG: It was 1998. I was in graduate school at Tyler School of Art in Philadelphia. I started making these densely detailed drawings on Arches 300 lb. watercolor paper that I would cut into smaller sizes. I wanted to make a large work, so I cut up and pasted the drawings onto the surface of the canvas. After graduate school, I saw the Jean Michel Basquiat retrospective at the Brooklyn Museum (NY) curated by Franklin Sirmans, Kellie Jones, Marc Mayer and Fred Hoffman. There were photocopied drawings mounted to the surface of these works! It was like a confirmation. At that point, detailing became even more important to me.

SLW: You have sighted some pretty important influences. Did appropriation initially present itself as a means of paying homage to these influences or was there something else at work?

DG: Unique voices are easy. Through a relationship with appropriation I feel that you can work through things. Artists need to look at everything, take things from the world and make it their own. Things change in my act of mark making with my own hand. By doing this, I am finding my own voice. It is valid to look at work and devise your own ideas from it if that work is in the public domain.

SLW: Yes, but where do you draw the line? When does appropriation become stealing? How much is too much?

DG: The key is how well you transform those aspects into something that is unique and of your own hand. If you are going to steal, then DO IT WELL!

SLW: Appropriation is a hot-button issue. I am still not sure how I feel about it even though I engage in the act myself.

DG: I do not understand the issue with appropriation-especially now. It’s a well-worn aspect of this cut-and-paste digital age. Ultimately, I do not want to reinvent the wheel-I want to add a spoke to it and enjoy the process along the way. More importantly, I am willing to fail.

SLW: Whoa! That’s not something that you hear artists admit to regularly…

DG: No–it isn’t, but failure is a necessary part of the creative process.

Accepting this allows you to put your guard down. Picasso was a master appropriator.

SLW: That’s true. His interest in African aesthetics is clear. Anyone else come to mind?

DG: Yes—of course! There’s Barbara Krueger, Glenn Ligon and Kara Walker. Kara being the most notable to me of that lineup.

SLW: How so? In her use of history? The silhouette?

DG: The first time that I saw her projection pieces, I noticed how both the tools and process were not edited out of the presentation. That showed no fear. I strive for that type of fearlessness and disclosure. People may see similarities and make connections to other artists in my work, but I am going through my process. That is critical for me.

SLW: Your process involves continuous transitions. To some degree Random Select was born out of a desire to be hyper-inclusive to whatever you came across as you move through the space of your existence…right? These experiences then could be translated to a surface in your dense all-over style

DG: Exactly. With Random Select things come into my life and I make decisions about how to deal with these issues and events. In doing so, I am constantly asking questions.

SLW: Do you plan to continue working in this fashion?

DG: Yes-In The Picasso Papers by Rosalind E. Krauss, she writes that through appropriation, Picasso was able to balance and sustain himself at the end of his career. I want to be able to do this as well. Working in this way, allows me to develop ideas so that they become clear to me. I am always developing a voice-a style. I deconstruct and then reconstruct. I still feel like a young painter at 43 who is growing and developing. This is important to me. If I continue to persist through painstaking elaborations and critiques, eventually the elements that I am working with will become my own.

SLW: How does this play out for you? You have shifted styles and approaches throughout your career. What are the ramifications of your choice to work in this way?

DG: Well, there are always consequences-even with commercial success. Commerce traps an artist. It forces you to work within a more enclosed space. Once I get popular, I will tweak things again. (Laughs) Adrian Piper, Vito Acconci and Bruce Nauman have played around. Again, I am teaching my self to paint. It is a learning process for me. This is why I cannot have assistants.

SW: So everything comes from one set of hands? You have often spoken about needing a great deal of time to conceive an exhibition.

DG: Yes and I like this road rather than the recognizable road. When it becomes easy you’re screwed! You’ve created a situation where you are pleasing but not necessarily growing. Is the artist taking charge of their position or are they getting in line to get paid? I always thought that being an artist was about questioning the world.

SLW: Ah—so you prefer to swim against the current rather than with it?

DG: It’s about people keeping up to you not the other way around. I prefer to invent from the invention itself. The combustion engine did not belong to Henry Ford, but to a French engineer. In 1996, while in residence at Skowhegan, I saw William H. Johnson’s Moon Over Harlem (1943-44) and immediately responded to its relationship to the folk tradition and the simple lines of the work. My work during that time was in direct response to seeing that piece. As a resident at the Studio Museum in Harlem in 2002, I had to dive headlong into zines, comic books and conspiracy theory to make my work there.

SLW: We often talk about (and long for) that childhood moment when things were pure and you followed your instincts without inhibitions. Take me back to a time before art school—–to Deborah Grant: The Kid That Loved to Draw. What where you doing then?

DG: Oddly enough, pretty much what I am doing now—appropriation. (Laughs). In the 1970’s my Mom would cut masterworks out of discarded art history texts that we would get from the Brooklyn Museum. She would frame these works and hang them on the walls. That simple act was the start of it all for me!  The most memorable of these was an 8 ½ x 11-inch image of Pablo Picasso’s Guernica (1937). I would make transfer prints of Guernica from Playdoh and then trace the transfer to make contour drawings. I was learning to draw by tracing! This is the way most kids learn. I figured it was the closest that I would get to the actual painting. During this process I had a kind of bodily experience as I felt that I in some way became a version of Picasso himself.

SLW: This makes me think about Robert Farris Thompson’s seminal text Flash of the Spirit (1984). In it, he writes about how a spirit presence is formed when something is created from the raw.

DG: That’s it! I am inventing and reinventing from the inside/out while trying to find my voice and the fact is, it may take some time.

Deborah Grant lives and works in Harlem, NY. She is represented by Steve Turner Contemporary in Los Angeles, CA. You can see more of her work here. Pictured: Suicide Notes To The Self. 2009 Deborah Grant.

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