Painter Dominic Chambers opens up about his process and what he’s been making in quarantine

Dominic Chambers in his studio in New Haven.
Dominic Chambers in his studio in New Haven.

Dominic Chambers’s depictions of joy, lounging and reading help rethink the Black intellectual. The St. Louis, Missouri native earned his BFA from the Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design in 2016, and soon after completed his MFA at the Yale University School of Art. His large-scale canvases pay homage to literary narratives and mythologies—and, in particular, to African-American history. The artist, who also collects, is exploring vibrant color-field paintings that feature moments of contemplation and leisure. The dichotomy is striking.

In a recent conversation, Chambers discloses his lifelong passion for studying the arts, among other things. He elaborates that he’s always loved drawing, but that he is still finding his footing where painting is concerned. Viewers, and the art community, would undoubtedly disagree, although there’s no arguing with the artist’s humility. Chambers also admits that the coronavirus pandemic has presented a time to deviate from his path—to slow down on the production front and take time to explore new and innovative ideas. Quarantine, however, has brought with it a great deal of stress, the tension linked to political unrest notwithstanding. But, during the Black Lives Matter protests that started in late spring and remain ongoing, Chambers has found solace in his studio. In contrast to the current climate, he began to experiment with images of Black leisure—of members of the Black community at rest, reading and meditating in their spaces.

It’s all in homage to the acquisition of knowledge within the Black community. Black intellectualism has been vastly underrepresented in the visual arts, Chambers explains, and the Yale MFA grad wants nothing more than to ensure Black people can be, in his words, “celebrated as intellectuals by the collective.” Chambers goes on to emphasize that in his view, art is as much an intellectual activity as reading. The arts are a means by which we engage with images, a means by which we solve problems and connect with others. To maintain this sense of intellectual stimulation, Chambers has commenced a new project inspired by the work of the late Josef Albers—a modernist who dealt expansively with color theory. Stay tuned for further insights into the artist’s mind and studio.

Charles Moore: When did you realize you could draw?

Dominic Chambers: I would say when I was at community college in Flo Valley, definitely—I really learned my drawing shots. I figured out how drawing can be used. Drawing is definitely the tool that led to my thinking about painting: how to approach a painting, how loose the painting can be and how those things are interchangeable. And that’s probably the thing I still return to, to this day—knowing how to draw things out, how marks function with one another; it's all drawing to me.

CM: I've talked to quite a few artists during COVID-forced quarantine and I've heard mixed feelings regarding how productive they've been throughout this time. How have you remained focused, or not?

DC: I think for me, there are two parts to this answer. Yes, of course, the quarantining that has affected a lot of artists’ production has affected me, and then also the mental aspect, like the stress, that we all deal with given the political climate of our society. For me, I thought of the quarantine as an opportunity I could use: as a way to explore other investigations in my studio practice that I otherwise wouldn't have time to do, because so much of my time is dedicated to producing work or shows. Because the quarantine forced everything to slow down, no one was visiting my studio, which allowed me to deviate away from my traditional work-making path and explore a set of ideas that I've had for a while. That kind of stuff has been my summer project so far—for example, this Joseph Albers series.

And then there’s my mental and emotional health. During the Black Lives Matter protests and the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, among others, I thought that the only way that I could maintain my mental health was to create the images that I felt like I needed to see. For example, a lot of my studio practice revolves around this idea of Black leisure or concentration or meditation. I was seeing that we were all living in a time where Black people were being hyperactive, yet again at the fate of injustice. All I saw, all over my newsfeed, my Instagram page, my Facebook, was a saturation of these kinds of videos, images and posts. I felt it was even more important for people to engage with images of Black people who can rest. But what does that mean, to make images of Black people resting in the wake of unrest? What kind of political work does that do? And I've been wrestling with myself in my studio. So that's where a lot of my thinking as a painter is coming from now, and my necessity to make this kind of work.

CM: Speaking of Black people who can rest, I know in the numerous studio visits that I've done with you, the work I’ve seen has shown not only Black people resting, but also reading. And, the portrayals are almost always of your friends or colleagues.

DC: Yeah. I love to read. And I think this idea of the acquisition of knowledge for the Black community is always such a fascinating issue because, 400 years ago, you would have been killed for picking up a book or speaking well. Even now, there’s this assumption that within the Black community, the reading levels are significantly low. That, to me, is a problem, and I've always had a huge issue with it, considering that so many of the writers that influence people today are Black. It's contradictory. People are revisiting these very heavy titles with complicated ideas. Part of my practice is to address that history. So yes, Black people do read and we’re actually very smart, and some of the smartest people in this country. But I am also examining the fact that there is no place where, historically speaking, you can find images or moments in time where Black people are celebrated as intellectuals by the collective.

Almost everyone I paint are artists, because most of my friends come from the Yale School of Art. But I want to make sure I address that for me, art is an intellectual activity, and painting is an intellectual activity. Like any other political activists that we appreciate, artists are no different. It's so important for me to show these people who are reading as artists as well as intellectuals.

CM: I want to hear more about your Josef Albers series.

DC: Josef Albers was a modernist and abstract painter who dealt a lot with color field theory. His idea of color deals with relationships that can happen when you orient two colors next to one another, and the possibility for a third color. In other words: a merge by the relational contrast or a comparison between two on an opposing spectrum. The idea is that the ability for color to function is based off how I perceive things and how I process information. To me, there’s something really poetic about that, when I think about this idea of Black skin or Blackness, and our relationship to the Black body as being exclusively built off of our perceptions. And, how Black bodies in relationships with other things dictate how those things change. I decided to start making these two-tone, large-scale square paintings because I really love Albers’s most famous series, “Homage to the Square.” These works are not only a visual metaphor and a tribute to Albers, but also a tribute to this idea of double consciousness.

CM: Okay, let's dive deeper into the two pieces I'm looking at now. We’ll start with the canvas with the greens and blues and yellows, with the male figure wearing glasses, sitting down with water and a bridge behind him. Tell me about who this person is and what inspired the landscape, the color selection and his body language.

DC: That is my friend Afrikanus Okokon. He graduated from Yale this year. That pose was actually inspired by a larger painting I did of him. It’s about the idea of being seen looking out the window. The original painting was black and almost fully monochromatic. Because I’m interested in Black leisure and relaxation, I utilized this idea of stillness as a way to have bigger conversations around that subject. I didn't want to make a whole lot of images of people just sitting down doing nothing—there's so much more that happens with your body language. For example, here Africanus is looking out at something, but the viewer cannot know what he is looking at. It’s like he’s dissociating from the world that we're in and looking into a world of his own. What does it mean for Black people to look out the window—what is that experience? For me, growing up in the hood of St. Louis, every time I looked out of my window, some kind of chaos was happening. Every person has a different relationship to even just looking out the window. Using body language, I was able to create an image and facilitate a conversation about something else entirely, and that's how I'm starting to think about my paintings now—how to express nuances through body language.

dominic chambers painting
“After Albers (Kenturah)”

CM: This next painting is of a female reading in a chair. I can't really tell if she's reading a book or a pamphlet or a magazine. It appears that the sky is her backdrop and she's sitting on a chair that could easily be indoors or outdoors, sleeveless, so the weather must be nice. Yet, she’s faceless, the literature covers her.

DC: That painting in red, yellow and orange is my other friend, Kenturah Davis, reading. She’s sitting down in the chair in this static composition (unusual for her). I thought of this idea of rendering the subject of identity itself, and Kenturah wanted her identity to be pitted and almost curated. I made that image with her in mind, and it only exists because of our collaboration regarding how an image can function. In most of my paintings, the environment that my subjects are in is fictional. These are not real, tangible places, and, in particular, when my subjects are reading, I want to think about reading as a transformative tool. The space around you differs based on the contents of the book you're reading. I want the viewer to wonder what the subject in the painting is imagining. And, you can't necessarily pinpoint what you're seeing as a hundred percent true—or it could be, or it could just be the fact that she's reading a book.

CM: You had two shows recently with Anna Zorina Gallery in New York and Luce Gallery in Turin. Tell me about these shows and the work that was in each. Do you have any shows coming up?

DC: In March, Anna Zorina Gallery gave me a solo booth at the Armory Show and all the pieces sold. I also had a solo exhibition with Luce Gallery in Turin. The body of work I presented at that exhibition was my “Primary Magic” series, which focused on Black leisure, comfort and mediation while also exploring color through an analogous pallet utilizing one of the three primary colors as a base in each work. As a follow-up to the Armory Show, Anna Zorina will have a gallery exhibition in September that will focus on a body of work I call the “Wash” series. The show is titled “All This Life in Us” and the work will focus on Black joy, comradery and, again, leisure. The Wash works are paintings that depict Black youth, mostly friends of mine, within imagined landscapes, conversing with one another or simply resting. However, the images are rendered illegible to the viewer because of a large ‘wash’ of paint covering most of the surface area, veiling the subjects within the image and disrupting the viewer’s relationship not only to the subject, but also to what is actually happening within the spaces those Black bodies occupy.

CM: Awesome.