Words + Art : Darryl Westly
I believe there’s a difference between seeing and looking. The distinction lies within understanding that when we “look” at something we are forming our first perceptions or concreting the existence of the object, act or person being gazed upon within our minds. When we look, we have taken the subject of our gaze out of the realm of ignorance or the imagination and allowed it to exist as a part of our reality, or our truth. To see on the other hand is to attribute a value, a meaning or weight to the initial act of looking, to move past the original and accepted objective truth of the existence of what is to form a personal hierarchical notion of importance that in turn shapes how we see and understand ourselves in relationship to the world around us. To both see and to look is to be in conversation with the world around us, and I believe in many ways this is the best way to describe my work - as born out of conversation between myself and where I have looked, a documentation of the relationships born out of the conjoined experience of looking and seeing.
This in essence forms the basis of the body of work that is interior/exterior which is simultaneously an examination of the self (interior) in relationship to society (exterior) and a reference to the formal compositional elements of the paintings themselves as comprised of a foreground, midground and background and the usage of techniques of photorealism, abstraction, occlusion and the literal physical space between the viewer and the observed painting to reveal and obfuscate different elements (and thus meaning) within the image.
When we look at George Floyd lying dead under the weight of an officer’s knee - when we look at images of communities set ablaze, towns and cities divided by class and race - when we look at riots, violent police and peaceful protestors - the frustration, fear, pain, sadness and anger we feel becomes the palette by which we paint a picture of reality, of the truth. Seeing is inherently proactive, indivisible from the act of living itself and reality is an amalgamation of what we allow ourselves to take in, of how we educate ourselves. In this way I believe COVID and George Floyd birthed in many of us a sense of agency and awareness of our place and participation in society at large and the difficulty of but necessity of change in manifesting a fuller, brighter and more cohesive portrait of this world we all share.
Though I believe we all have our own roles and ways to help and give, I encourage people to support Black Artist Fund, a fundraiser dedicated to providing Black and African American artists with grants to help support their work and practice. Founded by Claudia Eng of 10011 Magazine, I am a part of a board that consists of 12 members that assist in nominating recipients voting on public submissions and sourcing funds. We accomplish this through a mixture of direct donations, philanthropy, collaborations with artists, companies and institutions. To date we have raised upwards of $62,000 and distributed $10,000 in grants.
You explore the nude female body in several of your paintings, what is the origin of that?
I feel that in order to depict a person, whether it be a portrait painted in oil or by prose, is an exercise is empathy, and even more so in regards to the portrayal of a feminine body in a state of nature. My very first portraits were of people with whom I was very intimate. I believe that it is very important that a relationship of trust exists between the artist and model similar to that of a director and an actress. There is a responsibility that is two fold, one that concerns the artistic vision and integrity of the auteur and the other being the preservation and consideration of the actress’s dignity and craft. Crucial to my work with the human figure is the importance of evaluating the male gaze and its inevitability of the impact of patriarchy as tied to the proliferation of Western European cultural and society norms of beauty and the Black Oppositional gaze as espoused by Bell Hooks. I am dealing at once with the deconstruction of the male gaze and deconstruction of societal ideals. Not all bodies are considered equal or are desirable by our cultural institutions and this is due partly in fact to a lack of representation. So, in many ways paintings such as Odalisque 2, Bathsheba and Diana in Repose are about opening up a conversation of aesthetics of beauty, how memetics have informed what we innately understand as highbrow, kitsch, the norm or the other both as a society and as individuals. This is something that I am still in the process of unpacking and exploring with my work. I am currently in the process of designing/prototyping a suite of works with model and artist Julia Valentine, the subject of paintings Odalisque 1 and 2.
How do you in your words describe your style of painting?
My friend and artist Cameron Welch once described my work as process based conceptual painting, and collector Brian Feldman used the phrase “digital impressionism”. I think both together give a very good insight into the mechanics and histrionics behind my works. I would personally add the descriptor allegorical as a caveat.
You are originally from Chicago, but moved to NYc for art school and ended up staying. How has NY shaped your work?
I believe New York is unique in that it is both the quintessential American city but is also decidedly international. It is a cultural hub that belongs more so to the world than it does to the US, and has had a discernible impact on me as an artist and a producer of art. Particularly in that during my time living here, I have been consistently confronted and entranced by an array of different cultures, communities, and points of view that have allowed for the ideas concepts behind my Interior/Exterior series to take root and grow, such as my visit to Lebanon and the Beirut Art Residency in 2016.
What contemporary artist are you currently inspired by, not just style or body of work, but impact on art history?
Jeff Koons. I believe his work functions as a counterpoint to the narrative of American Exceptionalism, democracy, capitalism, and wealth. Series such as the New, Made in Heaven, and celebration invariably deal with concepts of the American ID that are particularly relevant today as we as a country struggle to define, and redefine what America stands for and represents. As a cultural figure, Jeff’s impact on art history is undeniable. He has created more work and explored more territory than multiple artists combined achieve in their lifetime. In addition, the complexity and variety of his art stands as a testament to another American ideal, that of reinvention, and one we are seeing play out right now both on our streets, and in our hearts and minds.
I think as we move forward as our country we should do our best look back and reevaluate the tenets and values on which this country was founded. Particularly cogent today are these words of James Madison from the Federalist No. 63 (Federalist Papers),
“As the cool and deliberate sense of the community ought, in all governments, and actually will, in all free governments, ultimately prevail over the views of its rulers; so there are particular moments in public affairs when the people, stimulated by some irregular passion, or some illicit advantage, or misled by the artful misrepresentations of interested men, may call for measures which they themselves will afterwards be the most ready to lament and condemn. In these critical moments, how salutary will be the interference of some temperate and respectable body of citizens, in order to check the misguided career, and to suspend the blow meditated by the people against themselves, until reason, justice, and truth can regain their authority over the public mind? What bitter anguish would not the people of Athens have often escaped if their government had contained so provident a safeguard against the tyranny of their own passions? Popular liberty might then have escaped the indelible reproach of decreeing to the same citizens the hemlock on one day and statues on the next.”