If you look at the historical narrative of art,
we do have to contend with this idea of
the quote-unquote "Old Masters."
And I had to recognize that
in that pantheon of Old Masters
there are no black Old Masters.
One of the senses you get from the work
that we call Old Master works
is that the work was based on
their knowledge of some things.
There were either ideas or principles,
there were things about the way we see,
that they seemed to know.
And they used that knowledge to construct
these pictures that functioned in very particular
and very specific ways.
And so what I was always intrigued by was
what it was they knew that allowed them
to make those kinds of pictures.
So for a young person who was interested in drawing
and making images myself, looking at what I was doing
and comparing it to what I saw in the books
or what I saw in the museum,
the discrepancy between what I could do and
what those pictures seemed to represent was vast.
So I wanted to figure out how to close the gap
between what I was doing and what they had done.
And I felt the only way I could really do that
was to know what they knew.
I went to art school,
like a lot of people go to art school.
And once you go to art school then you've signed up
to be a part of this sort of systematized and
codified idea of what it means to be making art.
And it has very specific parameters within which
one is asked to operate.
All of our expectations are calibrated in one way
or another against that codified narrative of art history.
So that's the system, the structure, basically.
And so those painter portraits, the one that the MCA has,
is a portrait of a painter who's painting
a portrait of herself.
And that image on the easel is the painting
that the spectator is looking at.
So it's a doubling.
The reason why the painting behind the figure
is a paint-by-number painting is because
paint-by-number paintings are a system.
It's a system that allows anybody
who wants to try to make a painting to be able to make
a painting that's like one that they already appreciate.
But you can see there's a kind of arbitrariness to the way
the paint is being applied
to the paint-by-number painting,
which means that the subject in the picture is
taking liberties with the way in which
the system determines the way you represent
this already outlined and defined image,
even of oneself.
I never think of the paintings I make as self-expression.
I think of them exclusively as platforms for an idea.
Since the idea of representation is
really interesting to me,
I make a lot of work that's about that idea.
And then I'm also interested in how you
reference culture and history in pictures.
So to a degree I have a fairly detached
personal relationship to the pictures I make
because I'm trying to make pictures that are about
bigger ideas than the things that affect me individually.
You can't quarrel with things that were done
200 years ago, 300 years ago, 400 years ago.
Those things are done,
and they were done within the context of
people who were idealizing themselves.
For [Peter Paul] Rubens to be painting those fleshy,
naked women the way he was painting them,
that's not problematic.
Because that's what he was interested in,
that's what the culture was interested in.
That's what they were supposed to do.
Now if I'm painting fleshy blonde women,
and that's my ideal too,
then that's a problem. And it's my problem, actually.
That if I can't perceive within myself
enough value in my image,
or the image of black women,
or construct a desire to represent that image
as an ideal, then that's my problem ultimately.
And if I can't figure out a way to raise that image
to the same level that it performs at the same frequency,
then that is also my problem.
But that's my problem to solve.
The inability to solve that problem, to me,
is a failure of imagination.
You can’t underestimate the value of a figure in a picture
that seems self-satisfied.
Especially given that the history of black people
in the United States,
and in other parts of the world, is that
it's somehow compromised and always traumatic.
If a part of the goal is to normalize the presence
of those figures in museums
and artworks and things like that, then you have to
have a sustained engagement with those figures
under a variety of conditions and circumstances
so that now it becomes ordinary to you.
But for the moment it matters
that they are uncompromising
in terms of the presentation of their blackness.
They are uncompromising.
One of the things that makes the figure stand out
so completely from the ground is that there is
never any black paint mixed in any other color
in any other part of the painting.
It's all pure color.
And the black becomes a color too,
within the context of all of those other colors.
From the very first image, which is The Portrait
of the Artist as a Shadow of His Former Self,
where that figure is essentially flat,
you can demonstrate that the figure can evolve,
over time, to something that's more sophisticated.
That I don't have to abandon the blackness of the figure
if I want it to not be a cut-out, flat shape.
I can actually make it complex even within
the context of the blackness.
Now if I want to be competitive without reinforcing
the dominance of the artists
who were doing their own thing
then I have to figure out how to project
the image that I want to see represented in the world
with the same kind of force,
with the same kind of complexity,
with the same kind of integrity.
And so if we go back
to why this idea of mastery is important,
it's precisely because if you want to get in the game
you've got to play it at the level that the people
who are playing it at the highest level are playing it at.
And the only way you can do that, really,
is to know what they know,
be able to do what they do, and then figure out
how to put all of those things together
and synthesize them in such a way that
you can project your ideal into the world,
so that it has an equal chance
of assuming the preferred position
as any of the other things that were already out there.
That's how you do it.