Somethin' Suite: Okayplayer Interview w/ Artist Sanford Biggers
Judging by the glaring headline of Jerry Saltz’ New York Magazine cover story last month, you’d think that becoming successful in the realms of visual and performance arts was an effortless just-add-water algorithm. As if between its pages lie a golden talisman or step-by-step instruction manual to jettison even the most delusional SVA hopeful and moderately artistically inclined novice alike on the expressway to six figure endowments, wealthy patrons, and esteemed art museum solo shows. Upon closer inspection, Saltz’s piece is much more substantive than this. The only real pitfall, in fact, is when he manages to reduce one of his 19 bullet-pointed instructions to a mere footnote. “Be young, Post-Black, and From Chicago,” reads rule #4 before dropping a scant few sentences highlighting the work of Rashid Johnson and Theaster Gates.
The entry’s stark brevity is startling. Yet even the tongue-in-cheek nature of Saltz’ rule misses the mark in defining or explaining interdisciplinary artist Sanford Biggers’ magnificent career trajectory. While he proudly claims Los Angeles as his city of origin, the nature of Biggers’ Post-Blackness would best be left to a multiple-choice questionnaire administered by Touré. Saltz’s rule withstanding, Biggers has little tolerance for pigeonholing. Thinking outside the box has always fueled the engine of his bountiful imagination. “Within the art industrial complex, they want to delineate it: painter, sculptor, installation artist, black artist, conceptual artist, blah, blah, blah,” he says dismissively. “I just say that I’m an interdisciplinary artist and leave it at that. If I wanted to fit into a box, I would have gotten a corporate gig.”
Walking into his marvel of a studio space nestled away in East Harlem is like entering an alternate universe–one where tufts of sculpted cotton clouds hang suspended in mid air, intricate tapestry-quilts tell stories along the walls, and boomboxes from a bygone era languish half-melted like the remains of Radio Raheem’s ghetto blaster recovered from the cinders of Sal’s Pizza. Sanford Biggers is a consummate renaissance man. Whether composing musical numbers on piano to perform with his band, showcasing visual art pieces at the Whitney Museum, or shaping future generation of artists in his professorship at Columbia University, it’s apparent that he takes maximum comfort from having a variety of creative outlets. With a habitat like that, its not surprising if Biggers himself is an artistic chameleon of sorts. “None of my work is ever as simple as it seems,” he laughs. “That’s one thing I can say that’s consistent about my work.”
Earlier this spring, Biggers sat down with Okayplayer to wax poetic on the glories of artistic schizophrenia, the impact of the internet on art and popular culture in the 21st century, mashing up Alice In Wonderland and Soul Train, and the anomalous genius of the late art rock star Jean-Michel Basquiat. Read more after the jump:
OKP: You were born in 1970, part of the first post civil rights generation as well as well as the first hip-hop generation. There’s a lot of hip-hop influence in your work, especially with your pieces “The Bridge Is Over” (2006) and “Bounce, Rock, Skate, Roll” (2000). How do these factors shape your creative process?
Sanford Biggers: Exactly like you said, I’m a kid of post civil rights and hip-hop. I think my work is autobiographical, but it’s not directly a portrait of myself. To the extent that all artists’ work is autobiographical, I include aspects of hip-hop and song titles. Things that the music makes me think of a lot. So with “The Bridge Is Over,” you have the melted boombox. When I made that piece, I was thinking about hip-hop being dead. This was before Nas came out saying hip-hop was dead, so clearly I wasn’t the only person thinking it. Because everything became sort of hip-pop as opposed to hip-hop. That was like a memorial, this melting boombox. It was sort of a memorial to hip-hop. But one of my favorite songs is “The Bridge Is Over” and the battle between MC Shan and KRS-One. Now the bridge is really over, because hip-hop is dead. With the Vaughan Mason song [“Bounce, Rock, Skate, Roll”], I was grooving to all that stuff – the rollerskating jams and the pop lock jams – before the actual rapping started. That’s just one of my favorite cuts. So I did this piece that was actually riffing off of African memory boards from the Luba people. They get these plates of wood and they put these pegs in it. Then they put different colored beads and shards of glass on the board. The people who know how to read that can tell the history of the migration of a group of people. They can tell where the sacred watering hole is, the sacred caves are, where the moon hits at a certain time of the year – that was all right there on this little codex. So I used a piece of wood and all these roller skate wheels. When the wheels are taken off the roller skate and put onto the board, they look like big beads. So that was a reference to the Vaughan Mason song and the African memory boards.
OKP: Your piece “Cheshire” (2008) was perceivably a statement about minstrelsy. Earlier that decade, Spike Lee had released his film Bamboozled – which tackled the concept of contemporary minstrelsy in black popular art forms. Hip-hop group Little Brother released their sophomore album The Minstrel Show a few years after. Was there some kind of linked artistic consciousness facilitating a re-examination of the concept of minstrelsy during that period, or do you think it was just coincidence?