Creative energy is often contagious. According to author Elizabeth Gilbert, it can also be fleeting - you either use it, or you actually lose it - as the idea floats off into its next inhabitant. The idea that a cluster of artists and makers working together can breed increased creative production and enrichment isn’t a new one, but it’s certainly tested: Artist residencies have long acted as incubators for artistic and intellectual thought, inspiring residents to take their practice or their process a step further.
June’s Fountainhead Residency didn’t steer away from the opportunity to deepen their practice, fueled by the immense dedication and energy each has devoted to their time in Miami. “I think there’s a way that this experience provides a concentration and hyperfocus,” says Didier William. “I feel like I can almost zoom into all these ideas in a way that I can’t at home - narrative, surface, materiality - in part because I’m in studio all day, but also because I’m with three interlocutors who see it the same way.”
William, along with Coady Brown, Mark Thomas Gibson and Pat Phillips, are each interdisciplinary artists that fuse mediums, processes and materials to create narratives around gender, identity and body politics. Though on the surface their practices appear entirely different, there is a meticulous attention to detail and a capacity for reimagining narratives that threads their work together.
“I think they are all really trying to give people an entry point into their work, in a way that is open armed but at the same time causes them to think,” says Kathryn Mikesell, the Fountainhead Residency director.
Curiously, the artists are intertwined on several personal levels. Gibson and William both grew up in Miami, before decamping to the Northeast after college. Gibson, William and Brown are each Yale graduates; meanwhile, Brown and Phillips have been dating for several years. Their roving connections have made the residency that much more personal and intimate. “We’ve been getting comfy and enjoying each others’ time; it’s common for some residencies to turn into competitiveness, but that’s not the case here,” says Gibson.
Each of the artists has a different focus or purpose while at the Residency, but all have been feeding off the energy both within their shared home and beyond its walls. “Being around the people of this city is affecting me most of all,” says Gibson, “and having these people around me that are working hard gives me the energy to think I can do that too.”
“We’re all at different points as makers and dialed in to what we’re doing, but we’re picking up bits and pieces we might not unpack until after we leave this place,” says Brown. “Sometimes it’s hard to see the effects of a residency while you’re there,” adds Phillips, “but what happens after is always the most important.”
The most striking element of Brown’s canvases is her use of color; Brown works with overly saturated hues to make the paintings appear otherworldly. Because her work is often based in the everyday - scenes from domestic life, travails in a dimly-lit bar - Brown uses color as a way to distort the viewer’s sense of reality. “I like the color to be not quite right, to be over the top and dramatic so that it’s obvious that this world is distorted” she says. “Using color in exaggerated ways helps me to do that.”
Though her subject matter is often taken from life, Brown rarely uses photographs as a frame of reference. Instead, she scours fashion magazines and music videos, or draws almost entirely from memory, careful to select moments or scenes for their aggrandizement or ambiguity. She often works with her own image, manipulating herself into multiple characters. “Sometimes I’m more masculine or feminine, sometimes I add versions of friends or intimate partners, I see it like I’m writing fiction and turning people into characters,” she says.
In her paintings, Brown experiments with different textures, adding a shallow relief to an otherwise fluid painting style. Light also plays a heavy role in the work; it adds another layer of fantasy to a painting, while suggesting that her subjects can shift or bend to the viewer’s interpretation. “People like to think of themselves as autonomous and self-contained beings, but we are completely shaped by our physical environment,” she says.
At Fountainhead, Brown has nearly completed two paintings that focus on the complexity of relationships, whether romantic or platonic. Each of the figures within stand out with a characteristic flourish of color: In one, one subjects’ pants are deep cerulean, blended exuberantly at their edges; the other subject’s skin color is a faint lilac. The paintings will likely wind up going to art fairs, where Brown will be showing with a frequent gallerist collaborator.
Mark Thomas Gibson
Gibson’s drawings evoke the romantic darkness of a Southern Gothic panorama, its imageries are rich with grotesque caricatures, dark humor and transgressive thoughts. His usual protagonist - an existentially tortured werewolf - is based on Gibson’s own worst fears. “I’m terrified of werewolves,” says Gibson. “The ability to be a human being and then a monster is terrifying. In the case of a werewolf, you’re living your life and you get attacked, left for dead, and actually survive. The worst part is, the next month you’re the assaulter, you’re perpetuating violence and trauma.”
In his drawings, Gibson likens the wolf to colonial trauma - the notion that oppression invariably leads to a cycle of struggle and harm. His work is designed to expose that unending sequence, utilizing the concept of manifest destiny as an entry point from which to discuss America’s twisted history and resulting ideals. “Manifest destiny a term that was coined in the 1830s. The idea was that America had this god given right to all the land that constitutes North America,” says Gibson. “It wasn’t just a physical ownership but a providence; that’s the kind of power that comes behind the idea that everything you do is ordained by God.”
Gibson’s works considers this concept by highlighting how American victimhood has allowed rampant colonial violence to persist even in our modern world. His drawings, often compiled into stunning, black-and-white books, reflect this sordid history. Ku Klux Klan figures, graveyards, hidden dangers and dense forests or murky waters are common motifs.
Born in Miami, Gibson spent his time at Fountainhead researching Florida history for his next illustration book, entitled “Behold a Black Wolf.” Loosely based on a distant relative that was a vigilante at the turn of the 20th century, the work is set in that period in Florida’s steamy, lawless frontier. “Kathryn has been instrumental in helping me research and gain access to Florida’s historical archives,” he says.
Earlier this year, Hyperallergic published an article detailing where each of the Whitney Biennial artists are coming from, drawing the conclusion that the exhibition invariably favors East and West Coast artists located predominantly in New York and Los Angeles. Hailing from Pineville, Louisiana and boasting two large paintings and a floor-to-ceiling mural in the 2019 Biennial, you might say that makes Pat Phillips an outsider artist - and he’d probably agree.
The mostly self-taught artist honed his skills painting graffiti on abandoned trains and buildings, in the neighborhoods dotting the perimeter of his mostly white suburb. His father – a former military firefighter who eventually took a job working at the local prison - inadvertently inspired his most recent body of work, though it wasn’t so obvious to him when he was growing up. “I honestly never thought of the privilege and insular nature of where I grew up, we were just being kids and my parents were simply trying to provide for us,” says Phillips. “But coming back as an adult, and being able to actually see the amount of prison labor being used around my city by private companies, it really got me thinking.”
While completing a residency at Skowhagen, Phillips began making work that drew awareness to the prison system, and its propensity to keep black and brown criminals in the system. “I think the shift from chattel slavery to the prison system is simply that the language about the individuals has changed,” says Phillips. “We went from a society that convinced its citizens that blacks were subhuman, inferior and, in other words, 'deserving' of slavery, to simply telling someone that these prisoners deserved it, because they committed a crime. A lot of times we are talking about people who are incarcerated for minor offenses.”
In drawings, paintings, and mixed media works, Phillips explores the system’s obvious tendency to exploit prisoners for free labor. Snakes, dogs, fences and flags figure prominently in the work, suggesting fear while highlighting the remedial jobs prisoners might work within the confines of America's landscape and its corporations. The work shown at the Whitney, “Untitled (Don’t Tread on Me)” is an amalgamation of these concepts. Phillips often works in the moment; he might sketch a figure but leaves the marks and gestures to happen at random. “No two paintings are ever approached the same way,” he says.
At the Fountainhead, Phillips is considering his work’s next direction, taking the time and space to consider what he might be drawn to next. He’s also preparing for an upcoming solo show, and may include some of the pieces he’s made here within that exhibition.
William is interested in exploring what happens when non-native people claim a new space and call it home. But rather than focusing this narrative exclusively on the problematic nature of colonization, William turns his own authoritative gaze onto the potential and perhaps requisite futurity embedded within the diaspora. As a Haitian-American born in Port-au-Prince, he infuses his work with the mythological, the historical and the personal; each of his paintings incorporate figurative and abstract elements, harmonized with varying textures, materials and techniques. “I think of the mythology of Haitian vodou, the history of Haiti’s successful fight for independence, and my own personal narrative as a gay black immigrant, as a way to re-map specific systems of identification and re-think about what happens in the diaspora,” he says. “What happens to lineage and ancestry in that transition?”
His work serves as a reminder to honor the deeply complex legacies immigration leaves behind. It rejects the idea that black and brown bodies must be categorized and understood and subsequently consumed. Looming, shape-shifting figures dominate the canvas, with intimate marks and carvings adding to their visual depth. The persistent appearance of eyes, carved into his wooden panels, serve to remind the viewer that their gaze can’t define who or what this figure is supposed to be.
“I’m interested in the potential for these figures to deny every form of restrictive cultural symbolism attached to them,” William says. “I want to deny a binary idea of gender. They are simultaneously heroic and vulnerable, ageless, and don’t allow for easily digestable or palatable containment.” His process reflects his own unwillingness to break the figures from reality - William doesn’t work with live models, preferring instead to invent the figure. The figure is always centered, however, with each work starting from a drawing and evolving onto the panel from there. Wood and acrylic are frequently used, with printmaking techniques often incorporated. “I want the work to be just as complex and rich as the real world and lived experiences I am in,” he says.
At the Fountainhead, William is preparing for an upcoming solo show at James Fuentes gallery in New York, while preparing paintings for Art Basel Miami Beach 2019, where he’ll show with the same gallery in the Nova section.