Paul Stephen Benjamin makes nuanced works about the color black as a way to investigate “blackness.” He sees the color black as a portal to many things; not just race. He received the Forward Arts Foundation Emerging Artist Award in 2009 and his work was recently included in the exhibition “Coloring” at the Atlanta Contemporary Art Center, where he had a studio for 5 years. Carl Rojas visited him there, shortly before he moved his studio, to discuss the evolution of his work, the palpability of blackness, life in Chicago and Atlanta, and what’s in store for him this year, including a show at Georgia Perimeter College this fall.
Carl Rojas: When I saw your work in “Coloring,” I became enraptured by the interplay of letters that spelled out “black power” and of images of popular black figures like Beyoncé and Martin Luther King Jr. The media creates these images that are everlasting—you don’t forget them. How do culture and the media play into these images? Could you talk about the cultural implications of the videos you choose?
PSB: My mindset is informed by the ’60s and the Civil Rights movement. So when you see Martin Luther King Jr. and Beyoncé, these cultural paths and histories are crossing—this idea of power, our heroes of today versus yesterday. The TV has become the avenue through which all these things are communicated. History is being revealed to us on TV and across the Internet; you can send things out right now—boom. Whereas in the 1960s, we were fortunate to get anything; information was more canned and more formatted.
CR: We grew up watching these old-school, low-def sets you’re using. It’s more appealing to watch the videos on these than a flat screen.
PSB: You know what’s interesting: I would say that the majority of Americans who are probably watching TV are still watching something like this [TV set] because of the cost of flat screens. There are people competing with me at the thrift store to buy these. It’s amazing.
I have a difficult time getting rid of things that are functional; that is part of my process of repurposing and appropriating things. It’s also about the history of things. I did a series called “Antiques and Heirlooms” using old furniture. It was about family and the things that we sometimes preserve and sometimes don’t.
CR: What video is playing right now?
PSB: It’s Nina Simone singing Black Is the Color of My True Love’s Hair. Some of my work is about the color black. It’s a reference to the article “Black is a Color” that Raymond Saunders wrote in 1968 in response to Ishmael Reed’s article about the state of black arts. He was interested in formal qualities as well as blackness being a part of art, but he said it shouldn’t be the art. To put those things in art complicates it. In the song Nina Simone sings “black is the color.” In Saunders’s article, it’s “black is a color.” I altered her voice so that she says Saunders’s version.
I’ve worked with this idea of black—the color black—for 8 to 10 years. It started with these collages and assemblages [points to wall]. I started doing work without the color black in it. I was looking for this idea of unity, so that when you are up close you see individual elements, but when you step back it’s an abstraction.
I’m curious about the relationship of the color black and “blackness.” What is its visual aspect, what does it sound like? I’ve done a video work titled O Say made of a stack of old TVs playing videos of people from the 1960s to present singing the national anthem. There’s a cacophony of sound. In some instances, there’s harmony, where you have Michael Jackson and the Jackson 5 from the 1970s in sync with James Brown singing at the Mohammed Ali/ Chuck Wepner fight in the late ’60s and then Jimi Hendrix playing in ’68.
CR: What’s that pile of objects with text on them?
PSB: That was part of a work called Monolith that was included in a show at Georgia State. It was a large installation of these blocks of quote fragments, like “He is somebody” and “Unfortunately he has no clue.”
CR: What are they taken from?
PSB: They’re quotes from different African Americans about Obama. There are things like Andrew Young making a comment about Bill Clinton being more black than Obama, that he probably has slept with more black women than Obama. But then you also have people like Jay-Z saying: “Rosa taught us how to ride. Martin taught us how to march. Obama taught us how to fly. Let’s get fly New York.” You got Snoop Dogg, who said: “He cleaned half the shit in four years, let’s give him another try.” You have Farrakhan, who said: “He can’t lace his shoes.” You Have Condoleezza Rice. You have all these elements layered together over time and across cultural boundaries, like Snoop Dogg and Jay-Z in a conversation with John Lewis.
CR: What brought you to Atlanta?
PSB: I’ve been here about nine years. I got married, and for the first two years I was commuting back and forth to Chicago, where I’m from. I had a studio there and was working on a commissioned piece for the city. I’ve also lived in Minnesota and Wisconsin.
CR: Is that where you went to grad school?
PSB: No, grad school was one of those things that I always wanted to do, but work and life got in the way. I thought: Yeah, school’s great, I’ll get to eventually. I didn’t want to pay for it. Here, Georgia State has an excellent program and good funding to subsidize that process, so going back to school was a no-brainer.
CR: Did you get your bachelor’s in studio art?
PSB: I got a BA in communication.
CR: Did you ever work in a different field?
PSB: I did. For a number of years I worked as a buyer for a major retailer. I’ve worked as a divisional planning manager. That’s what led me into art. I’d been doing it kind of quietly, and then decided that art is what I really want to do. Fortunately at the time, I didn’t have any debt, I didn’t have any kids, I didn’t have anything that would prevent me from doing it. I had a little money in the bank and I was like, you know what, I’m going to go for what I’m passionate about. I have a lot of friends who are doing very well financially but who are very envious in some ways. Yes, I tell them, but it’s not as easy as you think.
CR: You have to hustle. I am always amazed by the competitiveness of folks in the art field. I’m in the business world most of the time, and people look at us and think we’re dog-eat-dog, but artists aren’t shy about competing either. It can be aggressively competitive.
PSB: I think it depends. There are some artists who are definitely quiet and waiting in their studio for someone to knock on the door, and there are some at the other extreme, who will go knock on everyone’s door.
CR: There’s been a lot of discussion about the number of MFAs being produced and the associated cost. People are going into debt and will not necessarily be in an empowered position when they leave school. What are your thoughts?
PSB: I have some conservative views and some liberal views. People are empowered to make decisions, and they need to understand the importance of those decisions. It’s no one’s fault that someone goes off to get an MFA and then struggles and doesn’t want to be an artist.
I left a very lucrative job with benefits to start again from nothing and with no benefits. Whose fault was that? That was my decision. Everyone thought I was crazy, but those are the decisions I had to make. I went to two state schools. I don’t owe anybody. You just have to understand what you’re getting into.
CR: What made you decide to get your MFA and what has it done for you as an artist?
PSB: A guy named Nathaniel McLin, who would quote Kerry James Marshall. He wrote the forward for Kerry James Marshall: One True Thing: Meditations On Black Aesthetics. He would say that if you’re going to play in the ball game, you need to know the rules. So, what are you going to do about that? I understand and appreciate McLin’s viewpoint. But the difference between a formal education and self-education is that the parameters have been set, and that makes it a lot easier. That was important for me—the community, the challenge, the structure.
CR: Viewers have to spend a little time figuring out what the heck is going on in your work. You don’t get it in two seconds. Which artists have inspired you?
PSB: That’s always a tough one. There are so many things—definitely growing up in Chicago. There were certain institutions that focused on artists of color that, as a child, you were directed to visit, like the DuSable Museum of African American History and South Side Community Art Center. Artists like Charles White, Romare Bearden, Jacob Lawrence, Archibald Motley.
Also important were the AfriCobra artists, a group led by Jeff Donaldson. It was very similar to what Bearden did with the group Spiral, but it was in Chicago, so it had artists like Wadsworth Jarrell, Nelson Stevens, Barbara Jones-Hogu. It was basically about the black power movement. They created their own manifesto; it was about how to create work that the community could afford and that would empower them. Some are very beautiful works, but one of its challenges was the evolution of contemporary art over time, and that work was rooted in that time period.
Having that community of artists became an educational source. Daniel Texidor Parker and Patric McCoy are co-founders of the collector group Diasporal Rhythms. Patric’s father was accepted and later denied entry into a school because of his color. He and Daniel, along with members of the collector group, host an annual tour of their collections, opening their homes to the general public. Both gentlemen have opened their homes to students from local high schools and colleges. Recently, works from their collections were exhibited at the Logan Center at the University of Chicago.
CR: I think of Atlanta as a racial relations lab. The New York Times has written about a reverse migration of black folks moving back to the South. What has your experience of Atlanta been like?
PSB: I did a series of black-and-white landscape collages called “Between Here and There,” which was about this idea of reverse migration. I had gone to places in the South and taken pictures, and even when I was still commuting back to Chicago over that year and a half, there was this feeling of returning.
One of the things I find interesting is the popular notion that Chicago has an enormous amount of diversity, but it is still one of the most segregated places. But Atlanta is very diverse. I see the different communities coming together, whether they are dealing with each other or not. There are so many ethnicities on my block: Latin, Indian, Asian. There is a rich culture here, a rich history. It’s exciting to be here. There is great potential, but when is something actually going to happen? You don’t want to keep having potential. You want it to manifest, to flourish into something.
CR: Has Atlanta changed your work?
PSB: Being here over the last eight years has been a great period of growth—I’m married and have two kids. But for me, the work hasn’t necessarily changed; it has evolved. All the things we can discuss about my current work are in the others as well. It really started with my interest in the color black. These pieces are only using black paint. I’m not creating values or tone by adding a tint to it. So, how can I continue to push? What is my interest in black? This painting ABCKL kind of initiated the black works. I was thinking of my kids and the word black in its most simple form—if I put the letters in alphabetical order, it is still black.
CR: There is something wonderfully deconstructive about arranging the letters alphabetically. You kind of depoliticize the word.
PSB: It’s interesting that you say that. Sometimes people look at the word and say, “Oh, this is political work.” I am not trying to make this about identity politics or to change things. Is this about identity? Is it about how I look or how I view things? I may be allowing people to see that, but I am not trying to change someone’s thoughts.
CR: What are these other text paintings about?
PSB: Part of the inspiration was commercial paint colors. One color I found was called New Black. So the whole conversation about black became more interesting. You have [Studio Museum of Harlem director] Thelma Golden talking about “post-black.” You have Touré’s book Who’s Afraid of Post-Blackness, in which he tries to give a bigger definition of it. You have all these parallels. So then, I’m going to take this New Black paint and put it on tarpaper, and I’m going to mix it with these other colors I’ve found, like Watermelon. When I put New Black and Watermelon on tarpaper, what does that mean?
The title of this one is Well-Bred Brown, another commercial paint color. I mixed Well-Bred Brown with Cotton. Then there is this series “well-bred, bred well, well-bred well-bred, bred well,” and it just went back and forth. What does that mean? Then you start talking about eugenics.
CR: When did you do this?
PSB: This series has been this last couple of years. Again, it’s been about fully looking at the color black. What does the color black sound like? Can it be defined? What does the color black look like? Is there a specific look? What does the color black smell like? Is there a definitive answer? I don’t think there is. I think that is what Touré’s book is talking about. There are so many different kinds of possibilities because of the number of people. We are no longer constricted by predefined roles. Those boundaries are constantly being broken.
CR: Radcliffe Bailey has also said that his work is not political and that he doesn’t want to be identified as a “black artist.” It poses a conundrum because his work is very much about the black experience. A new piece of his titled Pensive is a sculpture of W.E.B. DuBois in the pose of Rodin’s Thinker. DuBois was the first black man to graduate from Harvard. His concept of “double consciousness” was about the psychological challenge of reconciling an African heritage with a European (white) upbringing and education. These ideas are not overt in Radcliffe’s work, but they are a part of his art.
This is the whole conversation behind “post-black” that Thelma Golden talks about. A lot of artists don’t want to be considered as separate, but their works definitely speak to those issues. I guess the best way to say it is: If you’re a doctor or a dentist, do you want to be characterized as “the black dentist” or “the black doctor”; black is not a specialization, like neurosurgery. For me, it’s not a matter of people identifying me as black, but there is the possibility of being marginalized when that is all you’re associated with. So, when people see me as a black artist, they get tunnel vision and think, “Oh, his work is about that.” But it’s about so much more.
CR: But if a viewer looks at the wall label and sees Cotton, Watermelon, New Black and the materials, doesn’t that really set up the race association?
PSB: The pieces are generally titled for the specific color, so this would be Lowe’s Valspar New Black 4011-1 and Home Depot Watermelon Slice HD222. Then in the checklist, you’d see tarpaper as a material. What’s interesting is that people look at the titles and go, “Oh, it’s Lowe’s paint.” For me, the conversation is that Well-Bred Brown is even an offered color. When I come across New Black, my mind goes: What is Old Black? Then it might jump to changes is terminology from Negro to colored to African American. One of the most interesting experiences is when people look at that label and say, “Oh, I get it.”
CR: You are also presenting it in this context and you are grouping these colors together that are really loaded, like Cotton and Watermelon. So when they say, “Now I get it,” do you think they are not actually getting it?
PSB: I think they get it. I find it interesting when they don’t understand what “ABCKL” is. I’m interested in layering concepts and ideas as well as the aesthetics and composition. That’s what Raymond Sanders was talking about.
Carl Rojas is brown and happily married to the editor of BURNAWAY.