Wes Mapes in conversation with
Over a phone call between Amsterdam and Brooklyn, Wes Mapes catches up with American artist Derrick Adams to talk about creativity, education, the challenge of commerce, popular culture and the black experience in the United States.
Wes Mapes: How would you describe your artistic practice? Who are you as an artist??
Derrick Adams: For me, my basic existence as a person is kind of spilling over into creativity. Visual art is more like a second language to me and a way to present ideas to people, to viewers in a way that they can connect to other types of visual symbolism. Thar they can also understand the structure of images in the way things are put out to us and how we embrace them or reject them through art or sound or so many different formats.
WM: You work in so many different disciplines. You range from performance, video, sound pieces and graphic and sculptural works. How important is it for you to incorporate all these mediums? But most importantly, why do you do it?
DA: For me, I see these things as being equally valuable in our experience with art. It seems very natural to think about the way people see and the way people absorb imagery or experiences through the senses. I’m always really conscious of audience and what they may be exposed to before coming in contact with what I’m doing. I’m always thinking of a general population and what their interests are beyond art or without art. Everyone’s been exposed to visual culture. It’s all around us. Being more aware of those things really helped. It’s like starting where people are and bringing them to a place of engagement that is beyond what they may or may not have experienced in a visual art context. But also, being very mindful of what they have been exposed to on a daily basis through visual culture.
WM: How would you communicate that through two different type of mediums. For instance, a sound installation or video versus a sculptural piece. What would these different types of pieces communicate? What is the reason for the different mediums for you?
DA: For me, it’s understanding what the history of those mediums have been able to accomplish and the artists who have done that and using those same tactics within my practice to get results that are not necessarily different from the previous generations but expounding on it. Photography has created a certain system of narrative and structure. Sculpture has done the same; the way people engage with sculpture is to walk around it or to feel it as a physical presence in a space. Video has a relationship to television and cinema. Everything has an already formed language and history. It’s about using that system and that history in my work to talk about things to redirect the conversation to things I want to talk about. It’s like being aware of the system. Being aware of how the system operates and using that awareness to redirect or heighten certain levels of consciousness and awareness of what we see and how we engage with that. You can even build on top of it. You know, you don’t always have to tear it down. You can actually just build on top of it and create something out of it. Use those histories as foundations to make new work.
1. Floater 28 (unicorn), 2016. Acrylic and fabric on paper. 50 × 50 in. From the “Culture Club” series
2. Floater 30 (pink donut), 2016. Acrylic and fabric on paper. 50 × 50 in. From the “Culture Club” series
WM: How did you get into art in the first place?
DA: I’ve always been interested in art since elementary school. I’ve always made art. I’ve always thought of myself as an artist, even in grade school. It was really more about having mentors and role models along the way to keep me focused on that goal and that’s what I’ve had the privilege to have – this community of creative people directing me and reassuring me of what to expect in the career of art. Which has never been really about fame or celebrity. It was more about being excited with the experimentation of materials, and understanding that it can be a very isolating experience and to enjoy that isolation. From learning that and being engaged with people, those conversations have seasoned me in a way where I can appreciate all those quiet moments and art making that I have witnessed from other artists.
WM: I remember an article I read about you in which you said something to the effect that a lot of young artists want to get on, they wanna get in and make the money.
DA: Yep. Get on, but you have to also be excited about the process of what you are doing versus the outcome of what you’re doing and how it is being perceived. It was really more about appreciating the position of what an artist is and what they have to contribute to society on a daily basis and not necessarily something that should be looked at as celebrity or a quick career, but more like a joyous process of learning about yourself through art making and being able to keep making it with the idea that maybe no one cares or maybe no one is looking. How does that feel? That can also be a motivation to keep making work!
If you think about the artists from the past, from the 70s, especially the black artists from the 60s and 70s, they weren’t selling any art. They were making art for 40 or, 50 years and just now they are finally starting to get exposure for what they have done. For the most part, a lot of artists are revived by me. They weren’t known internationally and now they are becoming more internationally known in contemporary culture or modern culture. There is something to be said about artists who have been able to make their work in isolation or away from the spotlight and the quality of that work.
WM: You’re preaching to the choir here.
I remember reading that and it stuck with me.
DA: A lot of artists now are just making work for shows. They make work for art fairs and for shows. Thats an ongoing battle for my generation as well, but it’s less of a battle for a younger generation because that’s the offer that they are getting, versus my generation where I have seen what can happen quietly and in silence. They have not had that privilege of seeing those types of artists make work. So for them success, is an art fair or knowing you have a show coming up that will motivate you to make art, but that’s not the way for them to make art.
As an artist who is getting exposure and notoriety, I’m also challenged with those situations where I’m being asked to do things for shows or for art fairs, so for me it’s a constant negotiation whether I’m interested in doing that or not. Or does it compromise any integrity of my practice. I’m contemplating that consistently. I don’t think that the new generation of artists has that idea of contemplation. To be asked to put work in an art fair or to make work for a solo show is what motivates some artists versus just having the work ready.
WM: Versus just doing it for yourself. You said earlier about artists being important to culture, what can artists offer to society?
DA: An artist who is focused on making work and to developing their craft can offer society the results of what happens with creative people who are allowed to envision the world, to respond to it from their perspective to see that as an invaluable position. Just allow them to be creative without this idea of commerce. However, one of the selling points for young artists going into school is that they can finish school, make a lot of money from their art, and be rich. I tell people it’s important to go to grad school, not because it’s going to make you famous or it’s going to make you a lot of money. It’s not about that. It’s about if you are an artist or creative, wouldn’t you want to be exposed to as many facets of what you could be before you die? Grad school has this other component of being an artist where you get joined by other intellectuals who are interested in the same things as you are. They have discussions that you will not be able to have outside of an academic environment.
WM: Agreed. Which leads into our next question, what’s the best advice you could give to a young artist entering the art world?
DA: My advice for most artists is when you are considering your position as an artist, how committed you are to it, when you are considering moves to get to that place, don’t be as concerned with the monetary attachments to these different levels of achievement like grad school or getting a studio and all those different things. If you believe in investing in yourself, then the idea of money is just absurd because why would you be an artist? It’s the most ludicrous profession to be in if you’re concerned about money. It’s the worst profession to be in. If you’re making art because you want to be rich and make money and be famous, that’s the worst position to be in. The odds of that happening are so rare, it’s like the lottery.
WM: It’s like what you were saying about the process before. Just make the work. Don’t do it for the art fairs, for the glitz and glamor, the celebrity. Do it for yourself.
DA: And I’m not saying you won’t achieve those things either by only focusing on the work. You can just focus on your work and all those things will come to you, if it’s for you. Those things will happen. Why are you even thinking about it?
WM: It’s like if a brother is trying to get to the league (NBA, NFL) and his family will say, make sure you finish your degree.
DA: Yea, exactly. The more you know and the more you are exposed to in the field of art, the more options you have. There are artists who of course sell their work. You can sell work on Instagram now. You don’t have to have a gallery to sell work. What you should be more concerned with is where is the art going? Who is collecting it? Where are they storing it? Will you be able to come get it later on if you need it for an important show? Who are the other artists this person is collecting, those things are all very important to the future of any
artist’s career. Who has your stuff? You know, it’s not about selling just work. I mean if you’re just selling work then maybe you’re just a craftsperson if that’s what your focus is.
WM: What’s the best advice you’ve ever been given?
DA: I met Elizabeth Catlett one time when I was 21 years old. I’m at this book signing for her show in Maryland and I asked her, whats the advice she would give to young artists? She said to me, make art everyday. Part of my prolificness is based on that advice. Since that conversation with her I believe that I’ve been more driven and more focused to take advantage of the position that I’m in as an artist and speak strongly from that through my art making.
WM: You’re getting game from a legend. So who’s your favorite artist?
DA: David Hammons.
WM: I knew you were going to say that man. What’s your favorite piece of his?
DA: It’s a body print called The Wine Leading the Wine.
WM: Is it from the series of body prints he was doing in the late 1960s and early 1970s in Harlem?
DA: Yes, when he was greasing his own body, imprinting it on paper, and sprinkling the result with pigment and graphite to make these body prints.
WM: He’s so on point. Who or what has been your greatest inspiration – inside or outside the art world – to what you’re doing?
DA: I would say the urban dweller is my inspiration. It’s what my work is influenced by all the time. I look outside for my inspiration all the time.
WM: To me your work is also an artistic expression of the black experience in America. Almost like a kaleidoscope perspective of black experience. Can you elaborate on that a bit?
DA: Yea, it is an articulation of it. I really think about the culture and what is happening in the culture. As an artist I try to articulate it in a way that is exalted to a level that even the people who inspired me can be inspired to see what I’ve made from them. It can be abstraction using certain materials that are taken from the dollar stores or area stores around my neighborhood. It can be symbolism that is reflective of the culture in some ways. It can be so many different things translated into an art piece. I want kids to grow up and see different versions of themselves in my work. I love that my audience is the future. I don’t think about people now. I don’t think about audiences now. I think about the future. I want younger people to look what was being made right now within black culture and see that as an alternative to what other people are making, how I was able to present a certain level of empowerment and hope and prosperity through what I make. I’m putting out images that reflect the normal experience of being black in America and any other places where people are proud of
WM: How do you communicate this to people who are not black?
DA: They can see. They can see how I present my work and the subject. I don’t present my subject in comparison to any other cultural imagery. I don’t use western culture as a barometer of my subjects at all. My subjects are in their own space that is usually a space of blackness and a space that is not in any way juxtaposed to whiteness or any otherness.
WM: It’s just itself.
DA: It’s just itself. They’re just chilling. It’s not even trying to be overtly political. The politics in my work are the fact that I’m not comparing my subject to other subjects.
WM: You also play with a lot of references of popular culture.
DA: Yes, I just look around and see what’s not being shown or made within our culture and I make it. Basically, I look around and see what I don’t see and I’m like, you know what, I’m gonna make it! When you’re exposed to art or seeing art all the time, you can get an understanding of what is not out there. What happens a lot of times is you make two choices, either you can be troubled by what’s happening in society and make work about that. Which will also highlight that problem and make that problem attached to your interests as an artist. Or you can still understand those obstacles and those challenges and you can deal with them outside of your art practice. And make your art about what you want to see in the world versus what the world is imposing on you to make.
For me, I don’t want anything that is oppressive, deals with colonialism or anything that doesn’t make me feel empowered to be attached to my art. I think we have to have to be truly multicultural and have a true spectrum of what is contemporary art and especially within black culture, what is contemporary? It’s always been a challenge for us, to think about what we should be making. In order to be truly contemporary in every form we have to have various types of art being made. Everyone can’t make what I’m making. How interesting would that be? There are some artists who want to speak politically and some artists who want to speak about colonialism. There’s nothing wrong with those things. As an artist, I am always challenged to look around at what I’m seeing and if I see all my friends are making art about a thing that seems to be covered, I’m gonna go a different direction.
WM: My last question, you describe your practice about being focused on the fragmentation and the manipulation of structure and surface, in exploring your self image and forward projection. This sounds like a deconstructivist type of approach?
DA: It is. I look at things that are non linear happening within society outside of my door, or my studio or my home life and I extract certain things that I think need more focus and exposure and I make that particular thing. Something that is based on what people may wear or people may talk about or participate in. Within urban culture sometimes we don’t even think it’s a big deal. I see certain nuances in urban culture that are very ceremonial and moral driven and a lot of other things that are very poignant and need closer investigation or a platform. It’s more about pulling those things out of very fragmented existences to intellectualize them within art.
WM: That’s a great ending right there. Take care of yourself and thanks for the time my brother.
DA: Thanks a lot. Later.