Let’s start with the beginning of your affiliation with Penn. What brought you to Penn?
I went to an arts magnet high school in Baltimore, and it was like a very preprofessional arts conservatory — arts all the time — art everything. Most of my classmates went to art colleges like MICA or RISD. But for me, as I started applying to schools, I didn’t want to go to an art school. My art has always been informed by other things. I was thinking about other things I was interested in. I love art, I love the practice, I love learning about art, but I am inspired by other things that I’m learning and reading, so I wanted to go to a great university. I originally had been applying to PAFA [The Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts] in Center City, but I also visited Penn. I was like, “I just want to go to Penn. I want to go to a school where people are as passionate about business or medicine as I am about art,” to allow that [type of] environment to inspire me — which it really did.
What was it like working in Addams [Fine Arts Hall] when you went to Penn?
Addams was interesting. I loved the studio. I loved my studio-mates there. I had them when I was a junior, and then when I was a senior, and I loved that experience. You also have the architects with the fine artists in there, and I feel like half the time, seeing the architects working all day and night would kind of get me in gear. I was always surprised there were no couches in Addams Hall, so you’re always standing and being tired all the time. We’ve been trying to get one in there for years — but I guess that’s purposeful! [laughs]. It’s like, “keep working! keep working!” [laughs].
At Penn, students take a variety of courses both within and outside their majors. How did you interact with the interdisciplinary nature at Penn?
I definitely came into Penn with an interest in all things. Penn has a little of everything, whereas PAFA, for example, is very conservatory. I took a video class, a mixed-media animation class, a graduate drawing seminar, printmaking, and even a Wharton class about product design, which had a mix of engineers, entrepreneurs, and a few artists speckled in. Having several perspectives guides my thinking. I took an English and Religious Studies cross-listed [course] called “The Devil’s Pact in Literature” [RELS 236], and there was a big creative project, where I used my art within the larger sphere of literature and religious studies. I was able to use those things for multiple purposes.
Do you think that [interdisciplinary practice] is more in line with contemporary art, today?
That’s a great question. Yes. Every barrier that’s been on a technical level has kind of been broken — though maybe not quite, I’m sure somebody will surprise me. But I mean, like in the 1900s, it was like “aw, man we can use paint for this, and we can use architecture for this, and we can use the natural environment” — so it was a lot about technical barriers that were being broken. But now, we’re in a time where all those doors are open. It’s more about how artists are using the tools that are in front of them to speak about something. So, you see a lot of artists that use mixes of science and art, or social commentary, or even artists that are straddling the line between being performers and artists. There are artists that are between being philosophers and artists, and artists between businessmen and artists. It’s kind of going reciprocal into a renaissance time —like when you had Da Vinci, who was designing machinery, making portraits, doing science, mapping out the figure, doing the proportions of the body. So, [today,] it’s less of “I’m a painter that just paints.” I mean, there’s still artists that do [just paint] and there always will be — but that’s the cool thing, too. If you want to be that kind of artist, you can. You could specialize all you want. But it’s less about what the artist does [today], and more about telling the world what you’re doing.
Can you talk about some of the gaps between being a student in Fine Arts at Penn versus being an artist in the professional world?
I feel like [having studied at Penn] both informs and guides how I go about being an artist now. There’s also learning how to live life. It’s like, “how do I get out of a structure of deadlines and classes?” The semester structure is really great and convenient. It allows for a lot of learning, but it also has an arbitrary confine to it. I feel like when you get out of school, you’re trying to fit things into that model, and it’s just like, “man, this is taking much longer than three months.” It’s about how to use that [model] and not becoming complacent in it — or becoming completely amorphous — but still allowing some of the rigor and structure of school to carry through in staying focused. As an artist, you always like to be learning things, and you can only make art about what you know. So, if you’re not learning new stuff, your art is in a static place. At Penn, it was great. I was learning new things. Every new thing you learn opens up more options for you, artistically. So, there is a challenge for when you’re outside of school of where you’re getting that information from — whether it’s listening to the news everyday or picking up books and trying to read through them. Maybe I should take my own advice [laughs].
Who have been some people you’ve been looking at for inspiration?
There’s a good friend of mine — he was a grad student here at Penn — Jacolby Satterwhite [MFA’10]. His art is just on another level. He has a drawing base in [his art], but it all also has a performative outlet to it. It’s very idiosyncratic. [He does] almost language-type drawings that he uses as the basis of motion-driven three-dimensional animations that he then interacts with [both] physically and personally. So, it has a video endpoint, the use of his actual body, 3D animation, drawing, and some costumes. I like artists who are doing a bunch of different things. I really love the Dutch artist Folkert de Jong. I love Sterling Ruby’s work, and Ryan Trecartin — he’s another artist who’s on so many different levels by incorporating furniture, geopolitical philosophy, and reality television. His work is as overwhelming as the world we’re in, so that’s great.
I’m [also] really inspired by contemporary musicians — I mean whatever Kanye West is doing, that’s always inspiring and crazy! [laughs.] But I really love Sufjan Stevens. I guess his genre would be folk, but he has some jazz as well and indie rock. It’s kind of indefinable [music]. It’s beautiful singer-songwriter ballads to really orchestral, electronic, synthesized things that break down what music and sound are and visuals that go along with it. I really love Arcade Fire and what they do. I really enjoyed their use of narrative as a unifying artistic element in their last album, Reflektor, within which they could be a little more experimental sonically.
Even someone like Steve McQueen, the director of 12 Years a Slave , comes from a very strong fine-arts background that has allowed him to move into big studio, budget-driven film projects. He still has an artist’s sensibility with what he’s doing. So that’s inspiring to me.
In your presentation, you were talking about using an El Greco painting as a reference in one of your recent paintings. You were thinking about the distortion of bodily proportions and the pronounced emotion through the exaggerated facial expression. Can you talk a bit about drawing inspiration from a historical master like El Greco?
I love El Greco. For some reason, I keep coming back to him. There’s something strange about his work — his work seems ahead of its time. I feel like art is in this continuum, I feel a kinship with artists of all times and generations — even though [their art] might have been done hundreds of years ago. You can feel yourself saying, “aw man, I’m doing the same thing they were doing.”
I don’t think we’ve gotten better as a culture or made better art than past times. I think we’re all making it together. Artists have a finite lifespan, so each artist is going through that journey [of living as an artist] in a really similar way. So, even if it’s someone a thousand years ago, five hundred years ago, or two hundred years from now [into the future], we’re all going to be thinking about the same things.
In my studies of your art and your thought processes behind it, it seems to me that you’re speaking to a universal audience, but grounding your artistic voice in specific things.
That’s exactly what I’m going for. I want to make work that resonates with a lot of people. That being said, I think the most powerful way to go about [the universal] is to dive into what is really, wholeheartedly, specifically, idiosyncratically interesting to you — diving into something very individual and then exploding that outward.
It shows through in your technique, too — like how you use yourself as model in your representational pieces, but then you try to obscure that, as you said in your presentation.
I feel like that’s where my power lies: in the fact that I have a more thorough perspective if I start from the personal. I might be moved or inspired by something that’s happening in the world — like the situation happening in Ukraine — but I don’t really have a [direct] connection to it. So, if I’m trying to make a work about [Ukraine], it’s kind of just speculation. So I have to go with the subject matter that is most specific [to me] and that I have the most credential to talk about, and hopefully, through that, to expand it in a way that anyone can see it from my perspective. I start with me and make it into something that’s less about me.