WRITTEN BY GIOVANNA PISACANE
Fondazione Stelline in Milan welcomed last March the first solo exhibition in Europe of the New York-based artist Reginald Sylvester II.
“The Rise and Fall of a People” is an exhibition curated by Michele Robecchi (Editor of Contemporary Art for Phaidon) which deals with faith and sense of community in contrast with nowadays’ alienating digital cult of the individual.
Within all my works I’ll always continue to have religious references.
I’m a person of faith and a believer in God.
REGINALD SYLVESTER II
Do you have faith? Do you think that you are making people think about faith through your work? Is that your intention?
Yes. It’s definitely my intention. I feel like in any situation, and for any individual, you need to have faith to succeed or overcome any obstacle in life. Sometimes you might not be able to see the end-goal or your prize, but you need something that can continue to move you and push you to overcome. Having faith, whether in god or something – for me, which it’s with god – that motivates you in your hardest moments.
Do you feel that nowadays society is lacking faith? Or faith is linked with a superficial kind of communication? What do you think?
I feel like, growing up, the prior generations and individuals pull in faith, whether it is from religion or just cultural beliefs. In today’s society, with this new generation of technology, it is all about the “self”. People have a lot more faith in themselves (which is a good thing) but I also think that it can’t always be about the “self”.
It can be dangerous in a way?
It can be dangerous, yeah.
What do you think about social media, about this ambivalent self – yourself in the media and yourself in your everyday life?
I’ve come up in the social media age and I’ve come to find that whether it’s in personal situations or work, I do think you need to have a certain attention to “self”, but you cant forget the most humane thing and that is us as people – and that kind of connects with “The Rise and Fall of a People”. I feel that what makes us people is not just our visual selfs but our interactions with each other.
Many years ago Walt Whitman wrote “we contain multitudes”. What multitudes do you contain?
I definitely have a very spiritual side to myself which sets the standard for everything else. I try to build from that because I feel that it is the most pure part of yourself.
I have my side that interacts with family and friends – and a work side. My work is my life, so my beliefs as an individual and my values with regard to family and friends and my morals and standards with work are all in a cycle; they work together. Once you get too heavy on one end, you start to make their things unbalanced, so I think you need to be equally yoked in every aspect. I think I have those 3 parts.
You are a very young artist. Who believed in you in the first place?
Definitely my parents.. My dad was an artist. They never forced me into work, but they always kept something for me to write on in my hands. My father had definitely seen something in me and guided me into art school and I’ve continued to meet people along the way in life that always saw that talent in me. Even with Maximillian William (Reginald’s gallerist): we’ve been working with each other for 3 years now and the work being where it is at (now) versus where it was at when we were at the start came from him seeing something. It has always been someone seeing something in me, and me being gracious of that – and working my butt off.
What would you suggest to young creative artists starting now? Which is your suggestion for them?
My suggestion is (clichéd as it is): don’t give up! A lot of artists think: “If I go down this road, I might be a star, regardless” or: “If I go down this road I’m gonna make more money” but I think you have to stay true to you and know what you really want as an individual – and whatever it takes to get to that place, you gotta go for it. You only have one life to live, so just don’t give up in the times where it seems impossible.
What do you think of today’s politics in America? Is it influencing your work? is it influencing artists in general?
Yeah I mean, it’s hard not to be influenced. Touching back on the title “The Rise and Fall of a People”, I think politics involves us as a unit – as a people overall. I think it’s hard not to pay attention to those things and it’s inhumane not to pay attention to those things. When you feel a certain way about something, you should express that and I think a lot of people are expressing how they feel about what’s going on in politics.
What did you think about the anger that this political situation brought up? Is it something that shows that people are still thinking about this kind of issue; that they are aware of being a person in the community?
I think if anything it shows that we need each other more than ever and we’re definitely in a time where self is more important than a group of people. I think in order for anything to continue to grow – a business or nation of people, a family – it can’t be about one individual: we have to come together in some way and find common ground to move forward.
Feminism has always been an issue but nowadays we are talking more about it: in movies, music.. What do you think about it? Do have opinions on these matters? Is it important for you?
My mum raised me as a single mother. My dad was definitely around, but I was with my mom most of the time. I also have 3 sisters. Women have been a great point of inspiration for many artists of the past, and for me. Even in the body of work I’ve painted: this piece here named “Diana”, and on the other side there’s “Eve”.. Without women we wouldn’t even be here.
Is your Family proud of you?
Super. Super-proud. I feel like you don’t expect to be.. we didn’t expect me to be where I am now, so.. it goes back to faith and wanting something and wanting to be somewhere and being relentless in your stride to make that happen. They’re very proud of my courage; not just settling for something. Really working, really investing to make something happen.
And your sisters: are they following your steps, what are they doing now?
My 3 sisters – the oldest of my sisters actually just had a daughter – I’m a big inspiration to them for sure. They see what I’m doing. As much as I do this for myself and because it’s what I’m passionate about, I want to do it to inspire them and to have some sort of security for them. It definitely helps them and I’m sure they like seeing their brother do things.
Can you please tell me about this painting “Turmoil in Babylon”?
“Turmoil in Babylon” is from my last show “Reaching for heaven”, which again is connected with religious motifs. This is the first painting that i painted in my new studio (in Brooklyn, New York) and it was me coming from this body of work which was all about form and colour and this painting set the precedent for everything else. I feel like we’re living in a modern day Babylon, as far as the United States goes. This painting represents the sexuality in the United States and the struggle and the successes and the triumphs, the battles that we go through being there.
This painting here, which is one of the last paintings that I painted for the show, it’s called “Heathen” (a self-portrait). I made this piece and it was in my studio – it hung on my wall for 2 weeks. From the bathroom you could see the reflection in the mirror and when I was brushing my teeth and I looked up I was looking at the piece and looking at myself. Again, it is connected to biblical references. My paintings are never planned: they come with momentum. They come naturally.
“Diana” this is the first painting I did since my last show. The last show was very abstract and I feel like I wanted to take a few steps back and find a balance between figuration and abstraction. And using the woman’s form – women are very curvaceous and have a lot of interesting parts to their bodies – this was that first painting that I made in order to find that balance. And how the name came up.. I painted this and sent it to Max through Whatsapp. And through social media he introduced me to Pablo Picasso’s granddaughter, Diana Picasso.The painting was unnamed and then I looked at her, I looked at the painting. We were talking to each other, there were some similarities – and of course references to Picasso in the painting – it seemed right to name it after his granddaughter.
“Eve” and “Adam”.
These two paintings, which I feel like they anchored the show for me, are linked. This one is titled “Adam” and and this one: “Eve”. A few years back I painted two paintings, a diptych called “Boy” and “Girl”. Those were my earlier stages, when I was first painting. And when I painted these two paintings I felt like these two were a more mature versions of them. At first I thought this is man and woman. And something came to me and I thought, this reminds me of Adam and Eve. They gave me like this religious aura. So i decided to call them “Adam and Eve”.
I painted these two figures not knowing necessarily why at the beginning and then I watched this documentary called “13th” which is about people of colour who are locked-up in the judicial system of America. There was this one kid in particular, his name is Kalief Browder, who was wrongfully accused of robbery – at 16 – and he was locked up in jail for 3 years in Rikers Island. When he gets out a year and a half later he commits suicide. That story really touched me – obviously being from New York; this kid being from the Bronx. While I was researching on the story, I was drawing and I kept in my mind that he seemed to be a happy and energetic kid before he was in jail. On the right, I painted him as he’s in jail; he is very in-shape, in order to be able to defend himself from others – he’s a lot more buff and muscular in this form. Still has a sense of a smile, some type of hope in his face. When you’re in jail like that they give you plea-bargains, so they say “say that you did this and we’ll let you out” and he was so courageous he would say “I’m not gonna admit to something I didn’t do. If I have to spend time in here I will.” And then the image on the left represents him when he was out and a little bit of who he was before. He’s a little happy – he’s his normal self. The numbers 060615 are the date that he committed suicide – branded on him, in commemoration of his death.
Do you think American is still a racist society?
In certain undertones, yeah. Yeah. Which is unfortunate.
Did you put together all these works with the curator?
I’m always open to receiving help in curating the best possible show that I can, so I showed the works to Michele Robecchi and together we made it happen.
Photo courtesy of the Artist and Maximillian William Gallery.