An Interview with Dominic Chambers
This is an edited transcript of an interview with artist Dominic Chambers, who we hosted on our podcast, Two Virgins. The full podcast episode can be found on Spotify here.
Dominic Chambers is an artist from St. Louis, Missouri with a BFA from the Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design and a MFA from Yale University's School of Art. His work largely focuses on rethinking the black intellectual across many different artistic mediums, such as large scale canvases as well as works on paper.
Sam: I think you have an exhibition that opened pretty recently - “The Shape of Clouds on Water”. It opened in September, right?
Dominic: Yeah, it opened on December 18th.
Sam: What has it been like having something open during a time where it feels like everything is closed down?
Dominic: *Laughs* It’s been very surreal. I think the fact we live in a pandemic overall is a very surreal thing in itself, you know? Where we collectively are under the same umbrella. There’s no one who can tell you differently. Every single person has been affected - to the degree with which we’ve been affected is, of course, different.
Nonetheless, this pandemic has been a very big eye-opener for a lot of people. Having an exhibition open - not only is it just an exhibition, but it’s my first institutional solo exhibition. For me, I wasn’t expecting to think that my first institutional solo show would happen in the midst of a pandemic itself. That’s not the introduction I was expecting to have, but you gotta take what you can get. It was great, though. I think that a lot of the work that I produced for that show deals with leisure and contemplation and allowing yourself to take a step back and to just kind of be. I think that the only benefit of this pandemic is that it forced people to kind of stop. It forced us to slow down, it forced things to shut down. I think there were so many moments that when the pandemic started people were thinking about, well, “Now [I] have all this free time because things have slowed down, [I] should find other ways to do things you wanted to put your mind to.” I’m not necessarily sure I believe in that. I’ve always asked people “When’s the last time you sat down and did nothing and felt good about it?” So that work in the exhibition is totally about that. The citizens of Pittsburgh can go there and see the exhibition. They can see that and hopefully engage with these images and probably go home and just sit and think about them. That’s totally okay too.
So I’m happy that, you know, the trajectory of my practice and the things I’m invested in kind of paralleled with this pandemic. It’s [my work is] “slow down, stop, and think”, and this pandemic kind of forced you to do that, anyway. It’s securing your own autonomy again, for your self-care.
Sam: On that note of leisure during the pandemic, what are some books you’ve been reading? What are some activities you’ve been doing in leisure which have kept your mind occupied?
Dominic: Oh man. So I decided to reread “Kindred” by Octavia Butler. I really love her writing, and “Kindred” is such a good book. The way I structure my reading is I read books during different times of day: when I wake up and I have my coffee and I hang out, I’ll be reading “Kindred”.
But, at night before I go to bed, I’m either reading “Shadow of the Wind” by Carlos Zafón, or a collection of short stories that I’m quite fond of out of the book “Unaccustomed Earth” by Jhumpa Lahiri. Because I’ve read that book already, I can go through it and find my favorite short story and just read it - one of which is “Hell Heaven”. I have a few books I’ve picked up, such as “The Nickel Boys” by Colson Whitehead - that’s gonna be on my to-read list as well. I’m also gonna read Dante’s “Divine Comedy”, because that’s the classic book and I figured “What the hell, before the year is out I might as well read it.” That’s what I’ve been doing - mostly finding books I wouldn’t usually have time with. The Divine Comedy is so damn long - it’s a very long book - you need to actually be committed to reading this thing. So I figured there’s four months left in this year, might as well knock that book out. I always try to pick at least one beast of a book a year to really tackle.
And I will say, finding different ways to work out is really important to me too. I love fitness and I love going to the gym, but, of course, you can’t [nowadays]. So I did a lot of Instagram challenges with some friends of mine, where we just did push ups and workouts on Instagram. It was great because you had your community. So, those are two things I held - my reading and my fitness are really important, because I’m a bit of a “high-strung” person.
Teresa: It seems like you have a lot of rituals and things that keep both your mental and physical sanity in check, and a lot of your work also has to do with the concept of black intellectualism. I was wondering at what point in your life did you prioritize those things and wanted to incorporate that into your art.
Dominic: I went to community college for three years in St. Louis. It was Florissant Valley Community College in St. Louis - it was in the neighborhood of Ferguson. At first, I didn’t want to go to that college at all - I didn’t want to go to any college. I’ve always read - I’ve always loved graphic novels, I loved anime, and I loved comic books and whatnot - as a result of having these kinds of interests, I wasn’t really equipped to do anything else. I figured “well, I’m just gonna work at Target or some shit and just make my money and hang out in a studio apartment for the rest of my life.” But, I was dating a girl at the time who told me if I didn’t go to college, she’d break up with me. So I ended up going to college.
You know, my professors were really interested in the fact that I was reading so much. I was reading about French neoclassicism when I was in college - they thought that was so odd. I think that I had, one, a degree of professors who fostered this interest in intellectual activities such as reading within me. I thought that was great. I was already in school for art, so might as well.
But I became acutely aware that my peers and even other professors found it so odd that a black kid from the north side of St. Louis could be interested in reading, or in things that were seemingly off the beaten path. I was researching stoicism, existential philosophy - all these things that were seemingly arbitrary relative to where I came from. That to me was always a problem, because it played into the narrative around African Americans within the United States. When we [African Americans] were slaves, you weren’t meant to pick up a book. If you were caught with a book, you could get your damn hands cut off, or they would beat you or assault you. So this relationship between the black individual and intellectualism was seemingly quite vast in their discrepancy.
Even now, I think it’s very hard for people to imagine a black intellectual. Outside of the ones that we come into contact with in institutions, but when people think about the black population collectively, they don’t assign intellectual activities to our being. That has always been a problem for me, as an individual who does come from these environments where I didn’t really see anyone that wasn’t black at least until I got to college. To me, I thought my peers were very intelligent. So I wanted to look at the way our imaginations are constructed, to a degree. You know you can’t conceive of this idea of intellectualism and blackness at the same time. So, their dichotomy to me is very interesting. I wanted to make sure that when I made work, I wanted to highlight black individuals as intellectuals. Not only black artists, but actual creative individuals as well. Because not everyone I paint is an artist, like these two people behind me, in this painting, are from the old school of drama. They’re actors and directors. But they’re equally as intelligent, right? I think those things are important.
Sam: I totally agree with you. It’s so important to move intellectualism out of academic spaces, and I think I see that a lot in my life. Another question we had was about your painting process. How does your painting process work in general? How do you choose what you paint?
Dominic: It’s interesting. I think that I have a different kind of logic depending on what form of painting I’m doing. I’ve structured my practice into a conceptual trilogy - a conceptual triangle if you will. It deals with magical realism but also deals with this idea of “The Veil” by W.E.B. Du Bois. The third part would be this idea of perception, and they all are connected.
So this idea of perception is borrowed from Josef Albers, who was a modernist/minimalist painter and dealt a lot with color theory. The way I approach paintings in the Josef Albers series, if they’re larger I think about the kinds of individuals I want to paint, because so much of the perception that I’m focusing on has to correlate to the theme. For me - and this’ll make sense when I talk about my process - Josef Albers talks about this idea that color is entirely by perception and has the potential to deceive you, right? For me, I think about that as a way we engage with the world. [For example], I am African American. That is one side of me. But then you have the context in which you find my body, and that creates the socialized construct of how you engage with my body. But if I went to Africa, or Honduras, or Jordan, because they have different racial logics and different racial paradigms they would engage with me quite differently. If I went there, I’d be much more aware of my Americanism. So you understand that you’re living in a very liminal space. When I’m approaching the Albers works, I’m typically pursuing individuals who are black, but who aren’t necessarily American. They can be black, but they can be from the Caribbean, they can be from the UK. In talking about how our perceptions influence how we engage with those bodies, that’s a big part of how I approach those paintings.
Whenever I think about “The Veil” paintings which are - oh, I don’t have it right up, I can show you a good example - but I think about a collective “us”. The veil that Du Bois talks about is how black individuals live within [the veil] - and it’s not exclusively black individuals, it could be women, the trans community, the LGBTQ community. It [the veil] stipulates that we have trouble seeing someone for the entirety of who they are. When I create the wash paintings, I’m thinking collectively about the kind of images I want to see. I typically choose group photos of my friends and I, or friends and black individuals engaging with one another. I’ll cover them with this large - I guess I throw paint all over them - then I reveal it. For me, the covering of the image is the veil itself, and oftentimes this veil is produced in abstraction. Oftentimes we all have scripts and thoughts in our heads of who and what people are, and that is the veil we are projecting onto that body, or those groups of individuals. For not, you know, being something that we readily understand or recognize.
For example, there’s a painting that I have called “Step Into the Shade.” And it’s nothing but friends and I just laughing and smiling while we were in LA. But often when you think about the black experience, you think about us [my friends and I] under some sensationalized criminal activity portrayed by social media, or trauma, or in the news. I’m interested in bringing our attention to the forefront - that we do engage in a very complicated space, and that our perceptions are oftentimes, one, wrong. Or just very incomplete - there are things that we have to constantly question, but also, this sense of self determination and accountability. We have to acknowledge that we do have our own prejudices and biases that we do project onto individuals, and once you acknowledge that you have to check it. You understand you have certain scripts that have been socialized into your mind.
So when I create the wash paintings, the fact that you are confronted with this wash of paint over these bodies hopefully connects with your psyche as a visual metaphor. Although you can see it, that’s how you engage with those bodies anyway. I don’t know if any of that makes sense, but I also can give you visual descriptions. I’m not talking in the abstract.
Sam: It totally makes sense. Definitely a lot of different concepts, like the veil and color theory, being thrown around, but I think you explained it in a way that made sense.
Dominic: Yeah, I have a very theory heavy practice. I break them all down in different categories, I guess.
Teresa: For me, I’m very aware of Du Bois and his work, largely because I’m in Philly and Du Bois is really important in Philadelphia. But when you paint these with your series that have to do with the veil, are you painting that series with any audience specifically in mind? If an audience isn’t familiar with Du Bois or his theory, what do you want them to take away from that?
Dominic: No, I don’t think I have a particular audience in mind whenever I make the works that deal with the veil. Mostly because I think that we all struggle with it. What’s great about the era we live in now is that our perceptions are something that’s constantly being questioned. Things aren’t always what they seem to be anymore. Like a good friend of mine, she’s gay. But her partner is trans. If you saw them walking down the street, you’d assume that they were a heteronormative couple. Until you find that they’re not anymore. And I suffer from that. I see things for what they are and it turns out, I might’ve been wrong. So I don’t have a particular audience because we’re all complicit, we all have these scripts in our minds.
I hope that when people engage with the works or if they read a statement about it, or if they start to creep around on my Instagram or start probing my background, that they do come across the books that I’ve been reading. That is important for me, more so than anything else. The reason literature is so important to my practice - not only does it just keep me intellectually on my P’s and Q’s, but I want to introduce those books to the public and hopefully, they read them and become familiar with these ideas and these theories that people have been writing for quite some time. I would prefer that outcome more than anything else. Perhaps you can background check that too.
Teresa: You spoke a little bit about people getting a sense of what you’re reading and what inspires you. I know that in a lot of art classes that I take, this topic of the artist’s statement often comes up -
Teresa: I was wondering how does the artist’s statement play a role in your work, and how important is that statement to your series or your paintings?
Dominic: Not very much. I’ve always been polarized by the artist’s statement - it’s a very odd thing. For me, I write my artist’s statement because it’s a technicality, I feel like I need to. But the role it performs doesn’t necessarily matter a whole lot to me in terms of my work. I write it if I’m applying to things or if it’s requested upon me to hear my statement about what this particular grouping of works is about.
A lot of what I’m interested in is very much in the work. I think I’m very clumsy in a lot of ways with how I make my images. I leave little bed crumbs to my psyche. You know, if you’re seeing a black individual with a Josef Albers format projected over his body, I hope that will spark in your mind, at least, a question as to why. I think that having a healthy curiosity is the most interesting way to engage with an art object. I don’t think anyone engages with an art object assuming they know all the answers. I would hope that if you engaged with any art object, independent of some statement that’s next to it, that you just have a healthy amount of curiosity.
Sam: Teresa and I are both photographers, and we’ve both done a lot of darkroom photography -
Dominic: Are you guys undergrads? I never asked that.
Sam: Yeah, we’re both juniors in undergrad.
Dominic: Wow, y’all are impressive. I was not doing this when I was in undergrad. My God.
Sam and Teresa: *Laughs*
Dominic: There are so many impressive people, and y’all are doing the work. That’s really incredible.
Sam: We just love talking to artists. It’s our dream to connect with so many of the people we really look up to.
Dominic: It’s just very jarring to me. Y’all are doing a podcast and shit - like wow.
Sam: We’re just having fun.
Dominic: That’s dope - that is so tight. That’s amazing.
Sam: Thank you. We really appreciate it. We love your work, and we’d love to support it in any way. But like I was saying with the photography, we [Sam and Teresa] both do a lot of photography and we noticed how many different mediums you tend to use with your work. Are you inspired by different mediums - does photography inspire any of your work? We kind of connected some stuff in the Albers collection to “Dodging and Burning”. How do different mediums affect the work that you do?
Dominic: I adore photography. I also buy art, and I have a decent collection of photographers. I probably buy more photographers than I do painters. Mostly cause I just might be a dick, and there’s very few painters that really excite me. I think it’s very hard to make an incredible photograph, and when you find those artists, like, that’s their thing, in my mind you can’t pass it up. I think it’s really beautiful. I definitely look at lot at photography - if you saw my Instagram feed, I follow a lot of photographers. I look at their work a lot and I love their compositions. There’s something about the natural compositions that photographers can manipulate that really inspires my work. I’m always saving them or looking at them. D‘Angelo Lovell Williams has his compositions - just genius, I think they’re beautiful. I’m really inspired by photographers.
Teresa: I think it’s cool that a lot of your art - you can tell you intersect mediums. With photography, especially with silver gelatin print, you don’t have color, but color largely informs your work. So I noticed that in the Primary Magic series, there are two paintings that sort of have a similar composition - “The Dark and Beautiful One” and “The Blue Sugar Baby”. It’s [the paintings] both women reading, but one of them is washed in more dark tones and one of them is in more blue tones. What does that say for you, and why that contrast between colors?
Dominic: The Primary Magic series is all about magical realism. Magical realism for those that don’t know - cause I worry that I’m bringing out a lot of esoteric terms - is essentially the acceptance of magic within the rational world. It’s a literary genre, and it’s one I’m quite fond of. Within the Primary Magic series - and I’ll explain the title - it’s about this idea that when you’re engaging with literature, your imagination is heightened and the world or space that you’re finding yourself in is a product of your imagination that’s fueled by the book that you’re reading. The book becomes a vehicle for transforming the space around you. In my mind, that’s what happens when I read - I’m no longer present in the rational world. I’m in the story, because I’m reading the book.
The reason I focused a lot on primary colors - there were reds, blues, and yellows - I was interested in the history of color fill paintings. There were black paintings too. I think it was mostly just an investigation of color for me. More so than anything else. That black painting, “Dark and Beautiful”, that you brought up was the first all black monochromatic painting I ever made. I only made it because I wanted to see what that would look like, and it’s one of my personal favorite paintings. And there were two friends of mine, one who was a PhD student and one who was at the school of drama. I just thought they were cool women, and they wanted to be painted and I was like “Sure, I’ll paint them.” I think it’s great to just show women of color who are also engaging in reading as well. Really, it was just - interesting color - that’s what it was. I wish it was deeper than that.
Sam: Yeah, Looking forward into the future, I know you have this recent gallery opening. What have you been working on lately? What has been inspiring you? Dominic: I’m just happy to be able to work, man. Things have picked up so fast in this career, and it’s been very busy and stressful. I’m a studio rat; I love working, I love getting in here and wrestling with my work. Miles Davis, when someone asked him what’s his favorite song, he would always say it’s the song he hasn’t played yet. For me, that’s how I think about my painting practice. I don’t have a particular favorite, I’m just excited to make the next one - I just want to know what it looks like.
There are shows coming up like group shows and what not. I’m not doing any solo projects anytime soon, mostly because I have not had time to work. Yeah, I’ve just been working, reading, taking my time getting back to my studio, getting here.
Dominic finishes showing his studio to Sam and Teresa.
Dominic: I plan on not doing anything for the rest of the year, except for working. I don’t mean producing a lot of work, I’m gonna read more, I’m gonna get my body back in shape because quarantine diet's hit me hard. Yeah, I need to just work. That’s what I’m focusing on right now. You know, all the dealers and gallerists are hitting your phone up - “What have you got for us?” I’m like, nothing bro. I’m trying to work. Y’all won’t leave me alone, man, I’m just trying to get these things done.
Sam: Yeah, feel like that’s a good problem to have, though.
Dominic: It is! It’s a very good problem to have. I prefer that problem as opposed to other problems. That is real. You’re 100 percent correct about that.