Each year, the Gibbes Museum of Art and Society 1858, a young Gibbes patrons fundraising group, award the 1858 Prize for Contemporary Southern Art to an artist living and working south of the Mason-Dixon line. This year, seven artists made the short list: Jim Arendt, Sonya Clark, André Leon Gray, Jackson Martin, Jason Mitcham, Damian Stamer, and Stacy Lynn Waddell. We'll be posting a short Q&A with one artist each week.
Born and raised in Raleigh, N.C., André Leon Gray is a self-trained artist whose work confronts questions of race and humanity. Gray works primarily in mixed media and assemblage, as well as painting, drawing, and installation, creating what he calls "eye gumbo": eclectic concoctions "thickened with a roux of black culture, marinated in social commentary, and seasoned with consciousness."
: Could you tell me a bit about how you've developed your work?
André Leon Gray
: My art developed out of a need to express my observations of the "hue-man" condition. I am interested in the way that art can be a tool to question and examine the influence of history on the present.
: Has mixed media always been your medium of choice?
: I started with black and white photography as an entry point to my art career around 1994. My first solo show had about 67 photographs, including one mixed media piece which used some reclaimed wood as a frame. That led to exploring the use of discarded objects, since it was an inexpensive way to produce art.
: Tell me about the role race plays in your work.
: Knowing that race is an artificial social construct, I use my artwork to address how this man-made ideology divides us as humans on our planet. Unfortunately, the belief in it has manifested in various forms, which I address in my work. As a whole, we don't discuss race and its impact on our culture, relationships, or daily lives. With this in mind, last year I started
to write a script and I am currently in pre-production on my first short film. It examines the historical and contemporary influence of an external force on an American of African descent who succumbs to its power despite his quality of life as a successful architect. As a side note, the first half of the film takes place in Charleston.
: What do you find compelling about doing assemblage?
: All objects vibrate at the molecular level. With this in mind, I combine various objects to create a new vibration and tell a new story. The power that is present in my work comes from using reclaimed materials, which contain their own embedded history; then I add my own symbolic embellishments and psychological associations to transform mundane objects into a commentary on various subjects.
: How do you think being self-taught has affected your work?
: Being self-taught or self-trained, as I like to call myself, has given me the freedom to create without the influence of prescribed approaches to art making. Sometimes I create work initially in an improvised and intuitive manner. Then, I would draw sketches and make notes about the work. If something wasn't working, I would change it. I approach it in various ways. I may see a discarded object and know immediately whether or not I could use it for my work. I held onto a piano keyboard for five years before I included it in a tribute to Thelonious Monk. Since it is not as common to see a self-trained artist exhibiting in contemporary spaces, people assume otherwise and ask me where I went to school. I must be doing something right.