Sydney Vernon’s beautiful and contemplative work as a painter lends its inspiration in part from her family’s own photographs and caught our eye last year when she emerged with her first solo exhibition When We See Us at Thierry Goldberg Gallery in New York. A great feat the exhibition, considering as well that she is still yet pursuing her BFA from the Cooper Union in New York and timed at the height of an ongoing pandemic. “The pandemic is life changing”, says the artist, adding that her practice has become much more dialogue-driven.
Sydney Vernon, My Fair Lady, 2020
C-P: You are in the midst of completing your BFA at the Cooper Union in New York and emerged in the art world with your first solo exhibition during a year, which due COVID-19 rendered the world in a state of inertia, or apathy if you will. As a young artist, what sort of considerations did experiencing this tumultuous reality prompt forth in your practice for the time to come?
S.V: I consider a lot of the same things I did pre-pandemic but they have a very different frame now with all that’s gone down. Those considerations being: black beauty, familial history/ancestry, appropriation, motion, colour, the commodification of black art, the importance of learning from black art history, pattern recognition, visual literacy, philosophies of liberation, and how all of this is tied to my own praxis. For me this question of emerging is also tied to my identity as a student. As you mentioned I’m completing my BFA in New York, so in a way I’m really fortunate because in this time when a lot of artists have been isolated, I’ve been in classes continuing my education. My instructors have been offering support, and I’ve been figuring out how to make art with my cohort. I think about the way art is made as a community a lot, even if we are quarantined in our studios alone. I appreciate the support during irl/url virtual studio visits, where dialogue and venting all goes into the work.
The pandemic is life changing. I consumed a lot of content before COVID hit. During COVID, I started consuming way more content because I was at home; television, movies, magazine, blogs, social media, books, music, art, lectures, all of it. I’ve considered how I could approach new media and video. I made one video during covid and was really happy with how it turned out. I’ve considered performance and have made a few online through Instagram live and in person. I started paying for a lot by myself this year. Seeing how unsupportive the American government has been of its people made me consider how much my work is worth, and how it was a blessing to be able to support myself and others during this time. My practice has become much more dialogue-driven. I'm really considering how the collective we can support each other when something like this (e.g. a global health pandemic or global uprising in defense of black life) inevitably happens again, and what artifacts I can make now to provide evidence that I survived and tried to keep making.
C-P: The works presented in the exhibition at Thierry Goldberg Gallery consisted of scenes and images from your family's photographs. Furthermore, as you state in your Instagram account you also have "an archival impulse". As regards using family photographs as a source material, how do you go about the selection of which photographs to depict? Is the painted image a means of archiving the past or rather redefining it?
S.V: My Instagram bio is taken from the title of a text written by Hal Foster. It's a very dense thirty-page piece; so putting it in my bio reminds me to return to it every so often. Your question actually prompted me to reread it, and it’s still dense and I still like the underlying questions to Foster's inquiries. My personality is by design prone to impulsivity (or compulsivity), and that leaks into my lived experience.
I take lots of pictures and notes to remember things, and I think that's a major touchstone of existing in society. There is a black female subjectivity also entangled within these photos. The ones that my mother is not captured in, she has captured with her own camera, and is the reason they exist and that I can work from them today. I go for the clear and crisp images. The ones that I can digitally scan and see all of the details. I want to get as close to the moment as possible and see myself there. I think my work is a way to redefine my relationship to these scenes, so I can become an agent rather than a passive actor in my personal narratives. It's like a collaboration with the past –which I love the idea of– because history is something I have great reverence for. Also, I just like making my family happy. They love seeing these images and how they scale from family photographs into works of art.
Sydney Vernon, The Warmth of Other Suns, 2019
C-P: Which reflections come into play when working or reworking the images from a point of place in the future in relation to when they were first taken? What does that elicit in you and how do you carry that over to the painting?
S.V: I think about how images are made and read – photos as text. I also think about my current limitations and capabilities. I don’t privilege my hand in that way. If there is something I can't draw I won't spend time figuring out how to do it. Instead I'll reflect on how to create an image that addresses all of the things I feel are important. I reflect on my role as a practitioner, translator, sister, daughter, student, etc. I spend a lot of time thinking about connections and intersections and junctures and obstacles and what is better left unsaid and opaque when I begin to work/rework the images.
Sydney Vernon, When We See Us, 2019
C-P: One of your works is titled The Warmth of Other Suns. The title is, I gather, a nod to the seminal work by Isabel Wilkerson which bears the same title and which chronicles the Great Migration during the twentieth century. What considerations go into your choice of titles for your works and what significance does the choice have in framing in or contextualizing your works and how they are interpreted?
S.V: My piece The Warmth of Other Suns is directly related to that book. I often come across images and books that strike me in how I register them impulsively. Many pieces remain untitled until I understand what they mean to me. I named it that so I could remember to return to that book. I've actually only read parts of it but when I gave my piece that title I knew I could never forget it. Some of my titles are influenced by movies and poetry as well. I just hate forgetting things so I try to put as much value into my titles as possible.
C-P: Another significant event that has made its mark this past year is of course the BLM movement. How do you think a movement like BLM contributes to altering the gaze on figurative black painting?
S.V: It doesn't. I don't like this question. I’ll pose some additional questions because I think of them as two sides of the same coin. How does BLM contribute to altering the gaze on figurative white painting? How is one of the most contemporarily collected genres of painting being affected? Altered by what? Market pressures? Art criticism? Whose gaze? This seemingly omnipresent gaze is still a very specific audience of gatekeepers. I think people right now are more intrigued by black art. Again back to the impulse. I'm not sure what drives America's obsession with Blackness but it has existed pre-BLM. I'm not interested in disingenuous gazes. I'm interested in prison bailouts, and funding for early arts education in black and brown neighborhoods and exposing voter suppression in the States, and finding the antidote to working within a white supremacist society that creates new horrors everyday and perpetuates anti-Blackness. I think BLM makes black figurative painting even more political. I also think it makes white figurative painting more political. These genres should be assessed with the same critical and politicized eye because now we are paying more attention to the origins of painting and how rooted in supremacy it really is.
Sydney Vernon, Untitled (1996), 2018
C-P: On a final note, what are some artists who have inspired and are of significance to you as an artist?
S.V: Adrian Piper, Carrie Mae Weems, Cauleen Smith, Lorna Simpson, and Toyin Ojih Odutola to name a few.
Images courtesy of the artist.
This feature was originally produced for C-print's The Future Watch Issue in print, a close collaboration with the BA3 Class in Graphic Design and Illustration at Konstfack, and released (May 2021) and sold at Index Foundation in Stockholm (our main distributor).