Photos: Jerry Buttles and Ania Eaton
DS: What did you have for breakfast?
WTM: 100 grams of oats with water, 2 scoops of protein and amino acids.
DS: That’s quite specific.
WTM: It is... most of my mates think it’s odd. I can tell you exactly what I eat every day. 6 meals every day. The discipline of the training and eating feeds into the rest of my life and my work. I’m much more productive when my day is structured.
DS: Do you get up early?
WTM: Yeah, I’ve been getting up at five thirty the last six weeks. I get up and eat, go to the gym at six thirty, train ‘til eight, coming back, sleep for an hour, eat several times and then start work.
DS: Wow, that’s pretty impressive.
WTM: It’s just what works for me at the moment. The cooking and eating takes up most of the morning, then there’s Chewy Lewis to take for a walk, drawing to be done…I don’t really start really getting into painting until five in the evening, at least. Seven is when I really start to get going, seven to midnight is the perfect time. Now everything for the show is finished and at the framers I’m not getting up so early, I’m a bit more relaxed.
DS: How do you go about making work, and specifically making work for an exhibition?
WTM: It all starts with drawing. I draw every day and most of it never amounts to much, just constant sketchbook dribble with the occasional gem. When I have a show coming up I have a general theme of ideas that I want to include. I fill up a few sketchbooks and then go back and find the strongest drawings that I feel would make good paintings.
The aim is to make beautiful pieces with depth visually and contextually. I always try to create with an authenticity of style and ideas, and reference things respectfully.
DS: The show is called ‘Too Blessed To Be Stressed’, can you explain it, in a nutshell?
WTM: Its about appreciating what you have, being positive, putting positive energy out there. Just living in this country, this city, we are privileged, and I think we get caught up in our own lives and lose sight of these luxuries.
DS: I heard if you live in London... you’re living with something like the 1% wealthiest people in the world.
WTM: Exactly. That’s mad, but that’s what I mean. These paintings are all about that, it's about counting your blessings, they’re an observation of my own character and other peoples character, while we live in this crazy city, kind of swallowed up in it all. It’s an awesome feeling, but it’s easy to lose sight of that and how lucky we are.
It’s about stepping out of it, or yourself, to re-appreciate your position and what you have and to not worry or compare with anyone else.
DS: So is it very much about London?
WTM: The tones are very ‘London’ I think and obviously there is the distinctive London architecture running throughout the works. It certainly is a large element of the show, I have a lot of love for the city culturally and visually and wanted to try and capture that in the works
DS: So what about music. Do you listen to music while you work. What music are you listening to, what’s the soundtrack to the show?
WTM: Generally soul, reggae and hip-hop… I find the music I listen to can effect my mood and that can be distracting. I switch it up, J Dilla to Joni Mitchell, Stevie Wonder, today I was listening to MF Doom special blends. But sometimes there are just times when it’s silent and I’m just lost in the work.
DS: painting and drawing can be a meditative state.
WTM: Yeah, totally, Its almost as if painting can be like a form of lucid dreaming, or meditation, but as soon as you acknowledge that then the peace is broken and you’re not there any more. When you’re in it though it’s the best.
DS: Any other surprises for the show?
WTM: As the title of the show is about appreciating what you have, I wanted to give something back. It is hard work to live as a creative in London but none-the-less it is a privilege to do so. I wanted to put something back into the creative community in East London, an area that has inspires me every day. I chose to donate to the Eastside Educational Trust, which helps disadvantaged and disabled children participate in art.
I’m drawing and hand screen-printing the raffle tickets, so even if you just buy a ticket you’re getting a limited edition print, but you can also win quite a nice piece of original art. The tickets are cheap because I wanted it to also be an accessible way for someone to own an original drawing.
Tickets are available on the night of the show, or through www.stolenspace.com
DS: Nice idea. I just saw the ticket on your Instagram. Looks really nice.
Love these paintings by Amy Bennett who works with Richard Heller in LA. Born 1977, Maine. 2002 MFA New York Academy of Art.
Bennett’s paintings of fictional narratives explore themes of fragility, isolation and vulnerability. As a still life for each painting Bennett builds a detailed 3D model. The paintings are representations of a miniaturized world playing at reality, depicting suspenseful scenes in which something meaningful could happen at any moment.
In my opinion Chris is in all respects an MVP amongst artists. He is truly is a living part of art history. Shit, he is one of those people that will change the world. He keeps an accepting yet critical eye on the evolution of art, his craft, and humanity as a whole. He is a complex, deeply feeling, unbelievably intelligent and talented, compassionate thinker and creator. A man who dwells in intellect and logic as well as mysticism and spirituality. He can break you down with Goya, can school you on James Baldwin, can go deep into Miles Davis' catalogue, can tell you about the entire history of the American South, and can turn around and have a whole conversation about the cultural relevance of Dipset while drawing something that will make your brain melt. We have had many insane adventures together, and it makes me happy to say that this is only the beginning. Oh and I heard he loves Bleu Cheese. -John Felix Arnold III
JFA III: You and I have known one another since our first days of orientation at SFAI back in 2006. I remember that familiar expression of "What in the world is this place?" Coming from St. Louis you entered the Bay Area with a focused, intelligent, driven, undeniably relevant and assertive voice to bring to every conversation whether it be visual, academic, philosophical, or hilarious. What has kept you here and why?
CB: When I touched down in San Francisco and found myself in an art/academic environment surrounded mostly by students that had very little experience when it came to applying ideas that actually resonated outside of academia, I felt lost, confused, but also very determined. As far as what has kept me here, I would have to say that it is the amazing spirits that are in my life. The Bay is brilliantly open! The creative people that are around me constantly keep me on point, feeding my hunger.
JFAIII: You frequently use a character known as the Trickster throughout your work. I have seen this character since our first late night studio sessions back in 2006-07. What exactly is the trickster and how does the trickster archetype tie into the historical legacy of American Blues Music?
CB: The trickster is an idea that has captured my imagination and thoughts for as long as I can remember. As a kid I used to read a lot of Greek Mythology and many of the stories that I was naturally pulled to were ones dealing with humans attempting to overturn the laws of the natural world- to challenge the gods and goddesses. My first fascination was with the stories of Icarus (to this day I see him as a trickster figure because he dared to touch the untouchable). Prometheus was another figure, because he stole fire and brought it back to humanity. To me it's the challenge of inverting the norm (whether it be for a benevolent or malevolent cause) that personifies the trickster. Many of the figures, whether real or fictional, I later began to appreciate all had that in common- they posses a unique ability to challenge the status quo and bring the gods fire back to us. Sometimes they succeed and other times, because of a multitude of human shortcomings, they come crashing back down too earth. The blues are deposits of human experience; humility, pride, desire, hatred, love, and loss all dance together in the same song. I feel that the context/environment that gave rise to the blues was so hostile that in order to create a genuine testimony of ones experience you had to posses an uncanny ability to signify- to create a coded language that was only understandable by the initiated. So for me the blues and trickery go hand and hand. You couldn't navigate the terrain of American apartheid, being a person of color, without being slick (and if you were a woman of color then you had to be twice as slick, research Zora Neal Hurston, Nina Simone, Ma Rainey, Etta James, Big Momma Thornton...etc.)
JFAIII: Your work carries a testimonial narrative, this exhibition in particular. How does the testimonial inform your conceptual framework?
CB: As I work and grow as a human that happens to be very passionate about making images and story telling, the importance of testimony grows with me. To tell a great story is an amazing ability, to tell a great story based off of one’s personal experiences can change the way we see the world. If you look at Richard Pryor and the legacy of his work you'll see that much if not all of his work was testimonial. He was talking about himself- he was speaking to the audience saying hey this is the world through my eyes- this is how I see things to be. He was testifying and that's why his work was so powerful- there were many comedians before and after Pryor but very few had his ability to tell his truth so sincerely. Pryor created a mirror through testimony that allowed the audience to see itself -sometimes they laughed other times they cried, but he drew you in and you became a part of his world. In my work the testimony creates the world - the gravity in which the figures I create reside within. My weight is their weight in a sense. I don't remove my experiences from my work - my work is my insights and observations -the vehicle I use is storytelling. In this exhibition I used created figures from the people in my life. Even the animals that appear in this show are based off of people I know. Some are adaptations of characters I read about, and felt compelled to re-situate them in a way that was more complex and nuanced, such as "Sueshu Aye" (a re-imagined version of a character, named Crazy Sue, that appeared in Joel Chandler Harris' book) and so on.
JFAIII: You have stated in the past that your work is influenced heavily by the Afro-Surreal Movement. Can you elaborate on specific personalities and what about this movement drives you?
CB: I have always worked within the realm of the surreal, using my lived experiences and intuition to generate the images and objects I created. It wasn't until 2008 that I came into contact with the Afro -Surrealist manifesto, written by D. Scott Miller, an Oakland based writer that I realized what it was I had always been working towards. The manifesto gave words to what I was unable to articulate but always moving towards, which is to say, a language that was situated within the liminal. D. Scott Miller spoke to a language that was about the re-mix- the re-hashing of historical, contemporary and possible future narratives. Taking from one's past to make in the moment and hopefully speak to what will be - but with no intention of holding on to any one idea. Before I get into a list of figures that sort of personify Afro Surreal, I want to say that even before the naming of the movement - the movement existed. Writers such as Amiri Barraka, Henery Dumas, Toni Morrison, Charles Mingus...(yes Mingus -read his auto biography and you'll see why), Avery Gordon, and Paul Betty to name a few. Musicians such as Screaming Jay Hawkings, Sun Ra, Nina Simone, Dr.Octagon, Lonie Liston Smith, Wu-Tang Clan (Ghostface in particular) Leon Thomas, Pharaoh Sanders ... etc.
As I sit here and thinking about it ... These artists pulled from multiple aspects of the world around them - they mashed genres together, styles from various parts of the world collided with their personal narratives and histories to make new compositions that spoke to the what was, to the what is, and to the what will be. They were unabashedly creative and shattered "the taken for granted" all their works unapologetically confronted the status quo, made visible the invisible, and made you deal with it on their terms. Making something sincere and engaging by pulling from all your human experiences and information learned along the way really appeals to my thought process because it confronts the prevailing myth of "purity" (his idea that art is for arts sake - that art is absent of the political- paint is paint surface is surface that sort of thought) if that were true why don't we just go to the hardware store, by a gallon bucket of paint and place it in the middle of a room and be done with it all? In my head all creative acts are political - they offer insight (direct or indirect) on social relations. As humans we don't exist in vacuums and what we create doesn't either. Afro Surreal merges the political with the poetic imagination, creating new possibilities of thinking and seeing.
JFAIII: What brought you to re-introducing and re-inventing the stories of Br'er Rabbit? And please for those here who are not familiar with Br'er Rabbit please explain its roots into your new incarnation of this narrative.
CB: It was about seven years ago that I began to draw theses figures I named "Folk Blood Water Babies," which were these twisted clown like figures that referenced Francisco Goya, black face caricatures, The Cheshire Cat, and a slew of art historical figures. At the time I was reading a lot of stories about High John the Conquer and the Devils Daughter, Charles Mingus' auto biography "Beneath the Underdog," Ralph Ellison's "Invisible Man" (being completely taken back by the trickster figure Rinehart), Franz Fanon and Avery Gordon. So this narrative about power, mythology, inheritance, coded language, and a sort of mysticism was stirring around in my thoughts. The "Folk Blood Water Babies," were sort of vessels for this internal dialogue I was working out- they acted as a sort of symbolic langue for what (at the time) I was unable to articulate. Then one night, about three years ago, I sort of re-remembered the Br'er Rabbit stories (it sort of fell out of my head and into my drawings) and began to read and research them. I began to not only rediscover these stories but also their origins that led me on a journey into not only United States history but Senegalese history as well.
You see there Br'er Rabbit stories are actually from Senegal, which is really interesting when you think about Carl Jung's ideas about the collective sub consciousness and mythological archetypes, and have been told for hundreds of generations prior to ever existing in the United States. In the past, I imagine, that these stories were solely concerned with human observations of the natural world -hierarchies that existed in nature and relationships that existed between human beings (tales of morality and the dangers of hubris). It wasn't until the slave trades and the institution of chattel slavery in the United States that these stories took on politically subversive qualities. Once in the United States, as you can image, folks experiences began to change so naturally the stories began to change, adapting too a more hostile environment. New characters were invented, older characters were re-named, and the symbolism shifted in order to speak about (without speaking directly about) structures of power and the dangers of this new world. This is the shift occurred. Prior to the slave trades these stories challenged structures of the natural world, the elemental gods and goddesses, in order to subvert the normative. Now, because of, the institution of slavery, these stories have become politically subversive- forever shifting how they are interpreted. It isn't until the late 18th century that Joel Chandler Harris, published "Uncle Remus: His Songs and His Sayings," that the United States is sort of formally introduced to these stories. Fast forward a few decades and you see several versions of Br'er Rabbit in our pop culture lexicon Disney's "Songs of the South," and the most famous being Bugs Bunny. The thing about these versions (and the proliferation a of countless others) is that they flatten the complexities of the hare - sterilizing the histories, experiences and knowledge base contained within these stories. I was drawn to the underbelly of what was presented- the shadow- and found something that deeply resonated with my own perspective.
What captivates me, about theses stories are the levels on which they operate. On one hand they operate on a universal level but on the other they speak (or don't speak) to a very specific reality as well, a reality that is at the crossroads, Robert Johnson and the Devil shaking hands.
JFAIII: As long as I have known you music has been one of your biggest sources of fuel, specifically Blues. Who are some of your favorite blues musicians? Lets see...
CB: I'm will just ramble of a list of artist that come to mind as I type this.. Little Walter, Ma Rainey, Muddy Waters, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Peaty Wheatstraw, Blind Boys of Alabama, Lightning Hopkins, Sunnyland Slim, Charles Bradley, Black Magic Sam, Sun House, Skip James, Big Momma Thornton, Nina Simon, Etta James, Howling Wolf, Olu Dara, Tina Turner, Blind Willie McTell, Valerie June, Diana Washington...
JFAIII: Your personal aesthetic is based on a sort of re-mixing, not only the materials you work with but also various histories, literary genres, political ideas...etc. How did you come to this particular way of "mashing" forms and ideas together?
CB: My ideas come together through a lot of trial and error, reading a lot, listening to music and spending a crazy amount of time in my sketchbooks. I'm drawing constantly - it's my way of thinking and working out problems. Most of my insights and personal aesthetics come from me drawing. I am equally attracted to the grotesque and the beautiful so a lot of my personal aesthetics are reconciliations between the two. In terms of the materials I use I would have to say that I look for the best way to get my point across. As I said earlier I'm not into the idea of purity. Rather it's the remix that draws me -how the various materials I choose interact with each other and create meaning. The sensual also play a heavy role in my work as well. In working with patterns and surfaces I feel that they are a sort of language in themselves and how you arrange one pattern with another can create a new way to speak about reality or at least my own perspective on things. All in all my sensibilities grew organically, over time, experimenting with different literary and visual forms, taking ideas from various writers, visual artists, historical periods and contemporary movements and molding them to my personal experiences.
Christopher Burch is an artist, events organizer, and educator based in San Francisco CA and St. Louis MO. He received the Painting Fellowship for his graduate studies at the San Francisco Art Institute (MFA 2008) and is a graduate of Columbia College with a BFA in 2002. He worked with The St. Louis Freedom Schools as a program coordinator and arts instructor from 2000 to 2002. From 2004 to 2006 he worked as curriculum developer for the Center of Creative Arts (COCA) in St. Louis Mo creating several yearlong educational/residence programs within four St. Louis public schools. In 2008 to 2009 he worked for the East Oakland School of the Arts (EOSA).
After leaving the springtime feeling that White Walls exudes this month, you will enter two new shows at the Shooting Gallery. The first, Reflexive, by local artist Poesia carries the vigor of spring into large-scale, colorful, and spiritual canvases. Combining his penchant for street art with his knowledge of art history, these paintings feel like history unfolding in the present, as immediate access points to an old visual archive.
The project space this month is dedicated to the work of Georgi Tchkhaidze, bringing work from his participation with the gallery in early 2012 back to the light of day. Because the Shooting Gallery has more space than just about anyone else in SF, it’s great to see them re-exposing the work of past artists, who many viewers were not able to see at the original opening. I hope they continue to do so for those of us who may have missed the first show. Go check it out – this may be your last chance.
Words & Photos: Rachel Ralph - rachel(at)fecalface.com