Growing up during the digital revolution, many of us find it hard to see the appeal of artists who define themselves as painters. Although, the idea of living a painter’s life—you know; sleep until the sun sets, dinners, parties, sex and painting all night with a constant flow of cigarettes and wine leaving all regular responsibilities behind—is very easy to romanticize, it’s hard to understand the attraction to the limited medium with so many digital alternatives around. Even those magic 48-frames-per-second Blockbusters barely manage to keep our attention, let alone a one dimensional painting. But of course, there is always the exception that proves the rule (Cecily Brown, Glenn Brown, John Baldessari, Ed Ruscha, Yayoi Kusama, David Salle and of course Basquiat and Dali). Last week, our digital director Lars Byrresen Petersen met what could be the next exception; the artist Cy Gavin.
The 30-year-old Pennsylvania-native might present most of his work on traditional canvases, but they are in no way one-dimensional. His colorful paintings consists of so much more than merely paint; he employs pink Bermuda sand, blood, the ashes of his late father and staples to lift the image off the fabric. The artist’s first show ‘Overture’ received rave reviews from the likes of The New York Times, who compared him to legends Francis Bacon and Kerry James Marshall. All the while still completing an MFA at Columbia University. Gavin’s pieces demand the viewer’s attention; the almost omnipresent black figure—sometimes in the shape of a pair of legs, sometimes entangled in a black cloud—set on vibrant backgrounds provokes reflection that is relevant both yesterday, today, and most likely tomorrow.
Lars Byrresen Petersen: What was your first experience with art?
Cy Gavin: Mandatory bonding time with my sister and my father; we would all draw together before I would go off to first grade.
LBP: At what age did you know you wanted to become an artist?
CG: I was a teenager in rural Pennsylvania in a very repressive religion that didn’t allow me to associate with children outside of that sect. Drawing, writing, and painting offered an escape. My teachers wanted me to pursue physical sciences or the humanities because these were my aptitudes, but my family and their community wanted me to become a minister. My art teacher in high school, Jocelyn Mellquist Robison, believed I could pursue art as a career of some kind. She was a confidante, mentor and ambassador to my parents; she really made those years bearable for me. I would bring in one 16″ x 20″ painting every week in a little garbage bag and she would give me serious critiques. That sounding board allowed me to take my work more seriously than I might have otherwise. At her request, representatives from MICA came out to my high-school in the middle of nowhere and discussed their program. They were hosting a nation-wide portfolio day in Baltimore. There I met Patricia Bellan-Gillen, a painting professor from Carnegie Mellon University back in Pittsburgh. She was the only representative in the whole place who liked my work and could see what I was trying to do. The prospective students that attended, most from art magnet schools, had brought drawings of cones, cylinders, armatures and nudes. I brought two garbage bags of paintings and sketchbooks full of strange drawings from my imagination, birds that I would see in the field (I was once a competitive birdwatcher), drawings of opera singers, and caricatures of family and church members as animals. Prof. Bellan-Gillen said my work was “sensitive” and told me she would not only make sure I was admitted, but she would give me a grant to study because she knew that money was a prohibitive factor for me. As soon as I stepped away from the table, I cried because it was at that moment that I first realized I had found a way out.
LBP: When did you first think ‘I am an artist’?
CG: I have always felt that way, but as a child, I think all of the kids I knew did too. Only as we aged, fewer and fewer kept believing it. There was a really crazy and emotional moment in adulthood when I realized I was finally able to survive by making work alone, and not subsidize my practice through freelance gigs. I just walked around the city for a couple of hours taking that in, then bought myself a bottle of champagne, bought Sister George, my cat a nice piece of salmon from Zabar’s. Then the next day, a little hungover, it was back to work.
LBP: You employ several mediums in your practice, but both your last show and the upcoming one consist of paintings. Why painting?
CG: At Heaven’s Command, the show this April at Sargent’s Daughters, is a collection of paintings, but also a video. In the video I am singing – I am performing as an Elizabethan minstrel, in white-face, in a cardboard costume I made and brought with me to specific sites in Bermuda. So even in that video there is drawing, painting, performance, and sculpture. It’s important to me to feel free and nimble in the studio – I never want to form an artificial or arrogant allegiance to a medium. Above all, I want to honor an idea and I will do whatever it takes to find the best way to express and accommodate that idea. That often means experimenting with new things and taking risks, making messes and mistakes, breaking things, researching new processes and mining friends and strangers for advice. It also means exploring the expression of an idea in several different media until I figure things out.
LBP: When I say painting, it always sounds (to me) a little one-dimensional, but in no way are your works flat. You use many different materials – one of the most noteworthy probably being your father’s cremains. How did that happen and what kind of emotion did you attach to it?
CG: My sister and I met for dinner around what would have been my father’s seventieth birthday. She mentioned a desire to return my father’s remains to Bermuda, his birthplace. Thinking of my two-dimensional work as a kind of time-capsule, it was not a great leap to think of this work then as a reliquary. I asked my sister to divide the cremated remains with me and in the work that followed, I combined them with my blood, pink sand from Bermuda, and diamonds. My father used to bring back Zip-Loc bags of this pink sand for me and my sister when we were children (we were never included on his trips there). I was thinking about philosophical materialism and how the materials I use all come from the earth – I was consider my own role in these cycles of renewal. I saw the possibility to unite these organic materials from different origins and anoint them a renewed and complicated identity so that happened.
LBP: It’s hard not to romanticize artists – especially painters. I imagine long nights filled with red wine, cigarettes, music and painting until the sun comes up. What is your practice like?
CG: Long nights, scotch, pot, music and painting/making other things until the sun comes up. My studio has a small balcony and I have a [growing] flock of sparrows and pigeons out there that harass me until I feed them in the morning.
LBP: I think one of the hardest things to understand as a viewer of art is how the artist knows when a piece is finished. How do you know?
CG: I work on usually two or three projects simultaneously. That way when I come to an impasse with one or when it becomes familiar to the point of distorting my objectiveness, I cover that piece up so it isn’t in plain view. I then move to the other project/s and have a fresh eye for that work. I volley between projects like this until I reach a point when in returning to a piece, I find nothing that really irritates me. Then it feels that I am done. Rarely the process will take so long that when I return to it, I have no interest at all in finishing it – then I’ll destroy it and ask myself whether the idea that brought about that failure is somehow still worth revisiting.
LBP: Your new show opens April 1. What can we expect?
CG: This show is a group of work I made between Summer 2015 and the present, during and immediately following a series of visits to Bermuda. One reason that drew me to Bermuda was a longing to understand its unique role in the Trans-Atlantic Slave trade. Because of its location in the middle of the Atlantic, the British used Bermuda as a way station for vessels bearing trade goods and enslaved people from Africa. I was thinking of how Bermuda may have been the first land these stolen ancestors would have encountered while en route to the American colonies, Mexico, the West Indies, and the Caribbean.
When I arrived, I found that locating information about this history was incredibly difficult. I was astonished and enraged to find no real mention of slavery at all in the Historical Society Museum in Hamilton – whereas the most banal minutiae of the lives of white colonists were dutifully presented.
I began interviewing long-time residents – people of color – and I found that the history of the island that they knew did not coalesce with the represented histories that l found in the Historical Society and elsewhere. Furthermore, in the outlying incidents where slavery was addressed, it was packaged in the language of folklore! So this sparked my interest in Bermudian figures of resistance: Sally Bassett (accused of poisoning slaveholders and burned at the stake), William Force (conspirator of rebellions who was exiled), and a young escaped slave named Jeffrey (who was recaptured and probably executed). I visited and stayed in the sites where these people would have been at critical moments in their lives, drawing, writing, filming, and photographing every detail as best I could. This was very emotional work for me.
I wanted to establish my own personal relationship with the island, its geology, climate, and flora/fauna, so I put my camera, tripod, costumes, books and clothes all in a limestone cave along Bermuda’s South Shore and I slept under a tarp on the beach there. It was important to me to become familiar with how the place felt before trying to make sense of my experience against memories of places I’d heard about from my father, or places I’d read about. I also collected materials from all of these specific places for use in my work.
As my time in Bermuda progressed and as I visited again, I realized many of the systems that oppressed people of color were still operative in some way today. For instance, in the 1920s a black community, Tucker’s Town was razed to the ground by the government to make way for what has now become sprawling golf courses and resorts. Then in October 2012, the current land owners, Rosewood Tucker’s Point Golf Club took it upon themselves to bulldoze Marsden Methodist Memorial Cemetery, a twentieth century Tucker’s Town burial ground that had survived the destruction of the 1920s. Apparently the cemetery was an eye sore as it was inconveniently placed near the club’s driving range. While immediate family members of the deceased appealed to the government and protested, it effected no equitable outcome. The tombstones were never replaced atop the tombs – the earth there is barren. Two paintings in the show address this situation, with the hope that in keeping this kind of expropriation in the public consciousness, when the next flagrant act appears, as it is likely to, history may not repeat itself.
In an effort to better understand the culture that brought about the British colonization of the New World, I began researching, and learning English songs from the period directly preceding Bermuda’s founding (1609). I spent the summer nights skateboarding around Riverside Park and listening to these songs. I learned about fifteen, all in Elizabethan English and all songs that by chance seemed to speak to the experiences of enslaved people at this time. In thinking about how music can shape behavior for a society, it was interesting to look at these songs and to think of the Elizabethan minstrel against the American application of that term in the parodies of enslaved black lives. Interestingly, it is in the Elizabethan period that literature and lyric begin associating color and complexion with value judgments of an individual’s character (eg. a sanguine complexion = lustfulness). I was showing Joan Jonas mock-ups of these performances and she convinced me that they had a lot to do with my paintings and that the video should only be presented alongside the paintings. I am taking her advice and I really look forward to presenting this work in this context.
LBP: Do you have a favorite piece of the ones that are on display?
CG: I do have a favorite piece – it’s called Jeffrey’s Cave. It is the view of the Atlantic Ocean, looking out towards Africa. The ocean is seen through the aperture of a cave in Bermuda that sheltered a runaway slave named, Jeffrey. Jeffrey lived there for a month while an enslaved girl sneaked food and supplies to him by night. The girl was followed, he was then captured, and probably hanged in a gibbet on Bermuda’s Gibbet Island. I slept in this cave while in Bermuda and in the painting have tried to capture what the site felt like at night as the waves send sea spray high into the air under a moonlit sky.
Cy Gavin’s At Heaven’s Command opens April 1 at Sargent’s Daughters.