Written by: Amarie Gipson
Toward the end of his residency at the University of Chicago’s Arts + Public Life program, I travel to visit the studio of visual artist, Jarvis Boyland. “Hey Kootie K,” we greet each other with an embrace, as I enter the room and unload. Located across the street from the Garfield Green Line station in Chicago’s Southside, the studio is filled with the warmth of a long-awaited summer. Sheer splats of fuschia paint on the walls are leftover from a body of work that debuted earlier this spring in “On Hold,” his first solo-exhibition at Kohn Gallery in Los Angeles. Jarvis swivels on a rolling chair wearing a signature pair of navy blue pants paired with an oversized black t-shirt that commemorates an exhibition at The Underground Museum curated by the late artist, Noah Davis.
With his lavender painted pinky pointed and a firm grip on a small paintbrush, he zones in on the bottom of a tall canvas. I watch in awe as he renders the flesh of the subject, an aspect of his practice in which he devotes the utmost care. The work underway, Pop Out, (2019) is a joint portrait of Jarvis and Breanna Robinson, a native Chicagoan and new media artist. The two friends stand with interlocked arms dressed in richly colored satin and sheer fabrics surrounded by shopping bags with vintage garments spilling out. The bottom left of the frame features a cameo from Shorty, Breanna’s beloved cat. The painting, which takes its title from a popular Chicago phrase, is a meditation on the process of getting ready and an ode to the city’s significance in his life.
Classically trained at the University of Memphis in Tennessee and deeply inspired by artists like David Hockney and Kerry James Marshall, Jarvis’s practice celebrates the lives of Black queer folks, specifically Black gay men. In 2017, we were brought together by our good friend and writer, Ade Omotosho during a curatorial fellowship program. For the past few years, we have become bound by our passion for art, our Southern roots and love of Blackness. In one of many conversations, we discuss the origins of his work.
Jarvis Boyland, Pop Out, 2019. Oil on canvas, 78 x 50 in. (198 x 127 cm). Courtesy of the artist
Amarie Gipson: You have been based in Chicago for the past three years and I feel like we have similar reasons for moving here. What brought you to the Midwest?
Jarvis Boyland: I took my first trip to Chicago in 2015 with one of my best friends and fell in love, like I was always supposed to be here. I visited the Art Institute of Chicago and was overwhelmed by it. I went home and immediately started to google opportunities in Chicago for the next summer. That led me to the Andrew W. Mellon Undergraduate Curatorial Fellowship Program, through which I met you and the rest is still being written. The pace felt new but still very closely tied to the culture and traditions of the South. Chicago has the resources to evolve my work and a strong sense of community, especially amongst queer folks. There is a grind here that feels familiar. In a way, the origins of my work are here and it’s a place that I know that I will always come back to.
Let’s talk about the origins of your work. What was your work like when you first began painting?
I started painting at a young age- with oils in undergrad which is my primary medium right now. I was making these generic still lives and portraits of friends. My university’s art department is pretty small,fortunately, I was able to work with my professors pretty closely and take up space. I admired a lot of their paintings and wanted to borrow from them in some ways. I painted Black Boy and Girl with the Hoop Earrings after Trayvon Martin’s death and everything that spiraled out of that. I felt like as an artist it was my job to respond to this through my work but then conversations in critique became draining and I had to start elsewhere, finding what I was supposed to be saying. In the summer of 2016, I was living in the Chicago loop as an intern at the AIC. Kerry James Marshall’s Mastry exhibition was on view at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago and I got to meet him. I saw that show over and over again, amazed by the technical aspects and the ways that he showed nuance in painting Black bodies in various settings that seemed both fictional and at times very specific. There was an awareness, a commitment to depicting Black bodies in his work taking over this museum that was incredible to witness. You can argue that some of the figures in his work are queer, their gestures are very curious.
That’s interesting that you mention the queer subjects in KJM’s work. Is this when would you say you began to focus primarily on Black gay men in domestic spaces? What brought on this specificity?
Spending that entire summer in Chicago marked a pivotal shift in my work. This was also the summer of the Pulse nightclub shooting, the deaths of Philando Castile and Alton Sterling and the beginning of presidential campaigns. I returned to Memphis thinking about my identity and how much it expanded that summer. It felt really important that I address these revelations through painting somehow as I started my senior year of undergrad with— Feels like we only go backward (2016), a painting of two friends who were dating at the time. I met Robert working at the Art Institute of Chicago and he really took me under his wing, introduced me to his world beyond work. I don’t recall the moment I first met Mark but I remember spending a lot of time with them, observing them. Those paintings were my first attempt at depicting the complexity and interference of identity and the sort of convergence within the household. The work became more about the room and the relationships between the people.
One of the most alluring aspects of your work is the color palette. How does your personal style influence the aesthetic qualities of the environments you create in your paintings? I'm really curious about your affinity for the 1970s.
I’m not sure where the obsession began, but the 70s is a fantasy era to me. There was a collective aesthetic that I’m drawn to. I’m also a huge fan of David Hockney, my favorite works of his were created in the 60/70s. I see parallels in our stories and I’m a self proclaimed student of Hockney. The 70s was a time of sexual liberation and curiosity that predates the AIDS crisis of the 80s and 90s. So I think about that a lot in my decisions to render Black men.
There were so many ideological shifts that were transforming the nation during that decade. It seemed like a celebratory time a far as pop culture is concerned, with things like Soul Train, anti-war and women’s liberation movements. It’s fascinating to think about those events in terms of pop culture and design.
Exactly and style was characteristic of all those changes. It was a political tool. I can always identify those distinct design elements, be it a garment or a home. I’ve collected a lot of things that I wear and use in my real life but that I also stage in the paintings. I’m interested in the tailoring, design, and sophistication of the garments. I try to collage these histories through the paintings in terms of the palette and also the way the figures are dressed.
I want to go a bit deeper into the development of your taste and growing up in Memphis, Tennessee.
Memphis is a bible belt city and has a majority Black population. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated there. It has a crazy history of slavery and the Confederacy but is also know for people like BB King and sites like Beale Street. I remember stumbling onto a copy of Richard Wright’s Black Boy at a local library, which was set in Memphis. I loved the cover and I read it until it literally fell apart.
Are there any standout characteristics of your childhood home that have impacted your work?
I grew up in a 1950s style home that sits on a hill in the Orange Mound neighborhood. There’s wood paneling in the dining room and a bathroom that’s wrapped in this very opulent dark green, peacock wallpaper with pink flowers. The bathroom is my favorite.
Bringing it back to who you are, I’m curious, if you can describe what the moment you came out as a Black gay man was like. When did this happen and what was the experience like?
I had a formal and yet very private coming out in that my mother literally pulled me out of the closet. In 2015, the summer gay marriage was legalized, my mom sat me down and asked me. Of course she knew but I finally felt I could admit it. There was a lot of back and forth about “lifestyle” and “choices” and choosing God. There are specific moments from my childhood that I think might have held me back from being myself up until that point. I believe in people’s capacity to grow.
Being Black Southerners, there’s a shared experience between us that reflects in our attitudes and the way we conduct ourselves. I think the audacity, straightforwardness and the way we move and speak seems to be something characteristically Southern. How has the South impacted you?
The South is a very polarizing place. I think the difficulty of talking about myself or my work is that I can only show you so much of who I am through a work, you can only understand so much. When I say I am from Memphis, I'm not sure what that means to people but its the main point. You probably feel the same way about Houston. I often describe the heat, actually Houston is the first place I experienced heat more intense than Memphis. There's something about the conditioning there, having to be hard and soft––proper and ghetto. The contradictions of “good mannered” expectations. Southerners are hustlers, savvy folks. I am better able to understand and appreciate how Memphis has molded me as I go further away from it. I wouldn’t be who I am if I didn’t grow up in the South.
Any predictions on how your work is going to evolve?
I never really know what’s going to be the next painting, and it’s part of what makes the work exciting. A lot of the situations that become paintings are happening in real-time. I know I want the paintings to communicate a gesture to something more thematic instead of narrative-driven. This conversation took shape when you saw the image for my latest painting Pop Out. That painting is definitely a direction, I’ve been thinking about how to make something like it for years and so I hope to make more paintings feel like it, that surpasss it, that challenge me.
Jarvis Boyland, Feels like we only go backward, 2016. Oil on canvas, 72 x 96 in. (183 x 244 cm). Courtesy of the artist.
Amarie Gipson is Houston born writer, critic and curator based in Harlem, NY.
Jarvis Boyland is Memphis born visual artist based in Chicago, Illinois.