“I found myself with 15 years of Western painting and art history studies under my belt, but suddenly realized that my own autobiography was more important to me than the 400 years of Western painting history that I had learned. I urgently wanted to figure out a way to abandon that conceptual sphere and to find something concrete that mattered to me.”
Alexandra Giniger interviews Jacolby Satterwhite.
THE TRIPLE-POST-MODERNISM OF JACOLBY SATTERWHITE
Vibrations of the Outer Cosmic World
While walking through Soho late one night, exhausted from the multitudinous art openings that sparkle as the City’s stars, I heard a loud, explosive, “bang” from behind the floor-to-ceiling glass window of a small, store-front space. A seemingly external force drew me to investigate, and I soon found myself transfixed. Previously on the verge of sleep, I awoke, refreshed and reborn, inside of the experimental world and mind of the much talked about, more-than-performance artist, Jacolby Satterwhite. Satterwhite was in residency at Recess, the experimental studio/ exhibition space, and I had stumbled upon a workshopping session for his new piece, Grey Lines, part of The Matriarch’s Rhapsody series. Wallpapering the space were hundreds of pencil drawings – different scenarios and plans for the future – and each visitor was asked to select one work and enact it, in the now, in front of a camera and a green screen. Try as the aliens to Satterwhite’s world did, no one could embody each scenario and enact the potential in the present like the artist himself. Completely unpossessed and unaware of the building crowd, Satterwhite seamlessly danced and moved on, an extraterrestrial being descending upon our present, to guide us towards what might be: a new, Afrofuturist planet being formed before our eyes.
Jacolby & I caught up in a Harlem speakeasy, over the soundtrack of saxophone…
Jacolby Satterwhite, The Matriarch’s Rhapsody (still), 2013.
Courtesy of the Artist and Monya Rowe Gallery, New York.
When I first viewed the drawings hanging on the Recess walls, I assumed that they had emanated from your mind and had been drawn by your hand. As it turns out, these drawings are some of the hundreds continually produced by your mother, which you not only bring to present life, but also endow with an immortal future through your art. Did you always view you mother’s drawings as belonging to the world of fine art, and when did you decide to include her work in your practice? Further, at what point did you feel the urge to embody your mother’s concepts physically, thus bringing them to the immediate consciousness of your artistic audience?
When I was a child, I witnessed my mother creating her drawings and I was amused at the idea of them representing an entrepreneurial venture, or adventure. I told teachers at school that my mom was making all of these drawings for the Home Shopping Network and for QVC, and I was incredibly inspired by the idea of her taking an independent role in our household through a very raw, essential and stripped down place. That was very interesting to me. I studied drawing as a 7-year by copying manga comics and anime, and eventually my mother allowed me to assist her and to use her materials and crayons. As I became more sophisticated with my skill set, I deviated into my own painting studies. When I matured into adolescence, I decided to go to boarding school to study art and then continued to undergrad and grad school, at MICA and UPenn, respectively. I found myself with 15 years of Western painting and art history studies under my belt, but suddenly realized that my own autobiography was more important to me than the 400 years of Western painting history that I had learned. I urgently wanted to figure out a way to abandon that conceptual sphere and to find something concrete that mattered to me.
My artistic process at the time was based on a crisis with paintings, an obsession with politics and the black body, the white body, the Asian body; and my work just became so post-structuralist. Instead, I wanted to find something that was completely fragmented to work with, which turned out to be my own autobiography. So that’s when I decided that my mother’s work was important – when I looked at her drawings and realized they were really sophisticated and very beautiful. I began to see, as I was carrying her drawings around, that they were made from a place that was necessary and a place that allowed her to survive. I wanted to find a way to have a relationship with art in the way that she did. The body is something that you have a full and personal autonomy over, so I began to experiment with performance art. I wanted to figure out a way to use her drawings as performance scores, and eventually, through a lot of failure, trial, and error, I came across a few animation processes that allowed me to trace and construct her drawings in a 3D sphere and so create arenas within which I could perform. That’s how it all came to fruition.
Jacolby Satterwhite, Reifying Desire 4 (still), 2013.
Courtesy of the Artist and Monya Rowe Gallery, New York.
These drawings by your mother, who has been diagnosed with schizophrenia, are acutely familiar to you, having been a part of your everyday life from a very young age. Yet, by dissecting and then expanding these formerly familiar objects and imagery, you make them unfamiliar to yourself and to your audience. Through this act, you are able to draw out new meaning and envision a future galaxy from your own and your mother’s lived and collective past. Do you feel that your work embodies the Afrofuturist movement in that you take your mothers’ plans and diagrams for her “American Dream” and both imbue them with possibility and ground them in [sur]reality? Why do you feel that her entrepreneurial inventions can only see life within a cyborg and space-like, animated world?
Jacolby Satterwhite, Country Ball 1989—2012 (still), 2012
HD digital video and 3-D animation
Courtesy the artist.
Through desperation, a part of your soul comes through, a part of your id, a part of your psychology. I’m not didactic in my work, but I am a surrealist. I strive to operate from that arena. To me, reification, the process of going from a place that is completely empty and making it concrete, is all about honesty. Honesty comes from allowing yourself the process of trying to merge things together that don’t necessarily seem to belong. That’s why I chose to title my work, Reifying Desire. My mother’s drawings are usually abstract, and crystalline, and sometimes completely confusing, and I’m trying to make them real. I’m trying to make sense out of them through repurposing her work. The process of communicating with ideas and objects and bodies and space, and then making further content out of these things, is actually the realization of an alternative universe.
I think the main motif of my work is incongruency. My work is where symmetry does not exist. I’m trying to force things to find some kind of alignment, no matter how asymmetrical they are, and to make abstraction concrete through reification. My mother’s drawings are a good fraction of my work, but so are the live bodies that I’ve outsourced and the live performances that I have archived. I take these incongruent archives and force them together to make narratives, to make content. When I stitch things together within these otherworldly spaces that I create, politics and desires, all that weird id stuff, becomes revealed.
You identify your art as “queer,” but not necessarily in the straight-forward sense of the term that one might expect. To you, queer embodies everything non-mainstream, non-normative. Your work brings to mind a quotation by Sun Ra: “Subtle Living Equations/Clear only to those/ Who wish to be attuned/ To the vibrations of the Outer Cosmic Worlds.”