Q&A | Jarvis Boyland at Kohn Gallery

by Christopher Andrew Armstrong

Flaunt Magazine - Jarvis Boyland - Portrait.JPG

Growing up in the South isn’t easy. Not only do you have to deal with the overbearing humidity during the summers, but there’s also the sea of neighboring red states which blanket the United States map each election cycle, the conservative attitudes polluting a majority of its residents, and, of course, the reality of the South’s ugly history which you must confront each time you’re walking down the street and see a Confederate flag posted on a neighbor’s porch. The burdens of living there are even heavier when you’re a person of color, or, heaven forbid, your sexuality is anything other than hetero. Jarvis Boyland, an emerging black, queer artist from Memphis, Tennessee, currently based in Chicago, experienced these burdens throughout his childhood. Instead of allowing the discomfort of his background and surroundings to overwhelm him, he’s using them as catalysts for his work.

Boyland’s most outstanding pieces focus on intimate portraits of queer, black men in the comfort of domestic settings, free from the prejudices which follow them throughout their life. Although relaxed, by deconstructing their anxieties, the men are inherently defiant in their abode. On Saturday, April 6th, Kohn Gallery opened On Hold:, an exhibition, which, in conjunction with NY-based artist Heidi Hahn's stellar show, Burn Out in Shredded Heaven, continues on until May 23rd. Flaunt had the lovely opportunity to chat with Boyland on his experiences growing up in the South, the inspiration behind his work, and the power behind portraiture.

How has your experience growing up queer and black in the South impacted your work? Are there any figures in particular from whom you’ve drawn inspiration? 

I was coming of age in this very polarizing, oppressive, and truly depressing part of the country where I didn't feel comfortable expressing who I might like to be…I didn’t have community in the way that I define it today...I would say that the stiffness and discomfort of the figures in my work are about more than that stagnant state of oil painting; they are imbued with my southern identity…I was just thinking this morning about the gay men I knew growing up were at church. Two of them have since passed from AIDS– there was this clear but unclear acknowledgment of their sexuality in a church that was very conservative…but in retrospect I wonder what it was like for them growing up in this rural part of Tennessee my family referred to as “the country.” I think I’ve always been inspired those early memories, those social encounters that groomed a peculiar southern Baptist pageantry or what I often mention as “limpness.”

I’m curious to know more about the process to create these intimate works. Did you base them directly from photographs? If so, did you take the photographs? Are you all posing deliberately or did you hope to take snapshots more organically? What was the timeline?

I see the home as this incubator that molds the facade of black masculinity and our social teachings…In the series On Hold: the idea of a Slumber Party was stuck in my head for some time. I’m fixed on this idea of leisure and depicting the black body in repose rather than lifeless as a consequence of injustice, drugs, and disease that greatly affect black people.

The posing is pretty organic but I take hundreds because sometimes really beautiful and interesting poses will happen in between shots….I want to create these really grand scenes that together contribute to that thematic narrative, like film stills….I love the transcription of the information from photo to painting, its fun to recreate and collage from a host of source images…I only paint people that I know and so its a special clarity that I think comes through in the paintings.

You employ lots of color, yet it doesn't overwhelm. What drives this subtlety and how do you achieve this balance?

I had really brilliant painting professors at the University of Memphis, namely Amelia Briggs who demanded that we spend an hour looking at the still lives we were painting and mixing color, even colors that didn’t make sense and try to use it all before the session was over…I am forever moved by the works of David Hockney, Barkley Hendricks, Kerry James Marshall or photographers like Tina Barney. I love fashion editorials, movies and just my surroundings honestly, small things on the bus or walking down the street are inspiring. I try to bring all those influences into the work.

These works not only depict you, but also fellow artists D’Angelo Williams and Cameron Clayborn. I understand you went to Skowhegan School of Painting & Sculpture together. What led you to bring them in?

I knew of D’Angelo and his work through a mutual friend of ours and then we finally met and were roommates at Skowhegan so it was really obvious to include him. D’Angelo’s understanding of family, home, identity I think is very similar to my own. He just knew what to do when we started taking the photographs it was amazing, that confidence is clear in the portraits of him. Cameron I meet a few weeks before Skowhegan at an opening in Chicago, so basically I spent a great deal of time with them both and we all have this relationship to the south, Memphis, Tennessee specifically and so yeah, we just started making work with each other at Skowhegan. It feels really serendipitous that we shared that time, that landscape together.

Why is portraiture powerful for you and for these paintings?

I am committed to depicting the lives and experiences of queer black men and the radical notion of them considering–loving one another in my work. At Skowhegan, I was introduced to the Other Countries anthology through the work of Tiona Nekkia McClodden…these experiences and conversations have been the catalyst for a lot of the work I’ve made.

Painting is my way of celebrating people while they are here. The men I paint are real, they are people that I know, trust and admire. They are my friends and lovers. I think portraiture at large scale feels close to measuring the depths of our vulnerability, our complexity, that’s powerful.