The artist painting beautiful, raunchy stories about queer life
Imagine the love child of Missy Elliott and Romare Bearden, raised by Ren & Stimpy, and embracing the intimacies of James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room … and you can begin to grasp the intricate complexities and exquisite nuances of African-American artist Jonathan Lyndon Chase.
Hailing from Philadelphia, Chase creates powerful images of queer black men that transform the very nature of representation. Disassembling the construction of gender, race, and sexuality by re-imagining the picture plane as a body unto itself, Chase creates a new visual language to experience the raw, visceral energy of life itself.
In Quiet Storm, a new exhibition of work currently on view at Company Gallery, New York, through May 6, Chase strikes like lightning, dazzling us with a series of works that break down all barriers in the name of freedom and self-actualisation. His interdisciplinary practice, combining painting, drawing, sculpture, and collage, remind us that the medium is the message – and it is within our power to shape the narrative to reflect the extraordinary possibilities that exist inside of our truth.
Here, Chase speaks with us about the ways in which art can become a space for healing, expression, and self-actualisation.
Could you speak about the concept of the Quiet Storm and how it found manifestation in this new body of work?
Jonathan Lyndon Chase: My mum was really the person who was my introduction to the “Quiet Storm,” the radio program that came on after midnight on WDAS-FM, as far back as five or six-years-old. It would come on with the raspy voice (speaking low and slow): “Quiet Storm.” It was really mysterious.
It holds a really special place for me, thinking of an early memory where I associated two things: gender and self-care. It was a ritual moment and a time of transformation for my mother. I could tell that she was going into a different space. She would just play it on the radio in the bathroom while doing her hair, as an act of self-healing. It was the moment when I understood that she was more than just a mother – she was a really complex person.
The music that they played was a multitude of things: it could be really sensual, it could be gospel, and it could get a little raunchy at times. I think that’s how bodies are. They are beautiful and raunchy at the same time, ever-changing. That’s how music and great art is, too. Throughout my work, the idea of poetics, rhythm, and visceral emotion – I associate that also with history with so much energy coming towards you and maybe even a lot of systems built to dismantle or destroy you. Music and art have self-healing, reflective, and meditative properties and it’s important to find a home within them.
The exhibition text talks about Baldwin’s novel, Giovanni’s Room. Could you speak about its significance as it pertains to this body of work?
Jonathan Lyndon Chase: I thought it was important to meet writer Tiona Nekkia McClodden in a place where we were two different people – two passing clouds if you will – and going to a place where it felt like home: a place of memory, history, power, and ancestry. All these thinkers and people in this place where it may be the crossroads of a multitude of identities, gender, race, sexuality; meeting at Giovanni’s Room to birth this experience.
For me, it really had a lot to do with finding yourself, your history, and learning about yourself through people who are different but familiar. It’s important in the pursuit of self-reflectiveness and home: it stays open, ever growing, and changing – hopefully (Laughs). Quiet Storm will be a note in this bigger conversation and history and genealogy that I am really humbled and excited to have something to say about with beautiful people who are still with us.
How do you use your work to create an empowering and dynamic space for conversations around the representation of queer black men in contemporary culture?
Jonathan Lyndon Chase: What’s at stake in my work is freedom and liberation, and then specifically: the possibility. A thought is a thought but once your options are no longer there, you’re a prisoner and that’s when things get really dangerous. I think people should have the freedom and the right to do what they want: “I want to wear a dress today.” “I want to look butch.” “I want to look femme.” “I want to cry.” I want the possibility to still be in people’s hearts. People are often so bogged down externally but also internally off the storm, tension, and conflict.
Society for queer black men polices our identities in ways that are damaging and dehumanising. I want to put work that talks about the power of desire, of beauty, of touch, of tenderness spreading that to lovers, friends, and family – then being able to look in the mirror and see that within yourself.
There’s so much power in feeling beautiful. There is power in desire. Not even from an external source, just from yourself. My work, I hope, can serve as some type of healing, meditation, or reflectiveness as a bridge to one’s self – or maybe even a hammer to throw into a wall. Fuck all the constructs, and the lines and the prisons that cage us from ourselves. You have one body and one life. When you really look at it in the grand scheme of things it’s really heartbreaking and absurd the way that society is built on bodies that are black and queer.
Our times are showing how the fabric of things is changing. There are a lot of fucked up things that are happening but there are also beautiful things happening. There’s always a rainbow after the storm. Trying to get to this image that is so loaded and charged with an emotion, I want people to have a better relationship with their body, which is home. Your first home is your body.
The impact of your work on the body is profound. Could you speak about the relationship between emotions and environment creates an aesthetic tension that can be physically felt?
Jonathan Lyndon Chase: There is the aspect of my bipolarity: I found out in undergrad that I was bipolar, probably for a very long time. Internally it’s like a starting off point. The highs and the lows of how I see the world can be really overwhelming and then really beautiful. It is a way that helps me be sensitive to nuances in different ways. That’s really something that someone who isn’t mentally ill can relate to on many different levels.
It took me a long time to talk about my bipolarity but I think it’s important to talk about intense emotions in a way in a space that you can just be. Mindfulness talks about just being and accepting emotions, like a storm cloud passing. I am trying to be honest with what I see and what I feel. A lot of my compositions are about the passing of time, the memory of touch, the duplication of a limb or a face, part of a memory, smell, taste lingering – and then there is dissociation and that can take many forms, not just as a person with mental illness. I think many people can relate to that on many levels.
When you are entering a space like Quiet Storm, you enter a safe space and eventually you have to navigate other spaces, interact with different people and energies. It’s like there is a thunderstorm but the flowers are always there. There is time, pacing, maybe in a heightened state of emotion like mania, speed. Thinking about how all of this is simultaneously happening inside the landscape of the body, and then the body inside a public space like a classroom or at work. The public and the private are always there.
Could you speak about your interdisciplinary practice of combining aspects of different mediums – be it painting, drawing, sculpture, and collage in order to expand the language of representation?
Jonathan Lyndon Chase: Wangechi Mutu talks about the female body as a warrior and that’s a place where all these components are coming together; I think a lot about how a painting is a body of the material. A body: people are a multitude of things: brothers, sisters, warriors, artists, makers, lovers, believers – we are all of these things. When thinking of the body as a drawing or a painting, I consider canvas skin and bone structure.
Collage has a deep, complex resonance with me in that I used to only have a certain idea of painting, very traditional about what it was supposed to be. There were so many barriers and limitations. As I continued to think about liberation and freedom, I saw the way that within a collage each piece comes from a different world or story – similar to how a body is. We are charged full of memories, experiences, and emotions, all of these things that I think a lot of times are happening all at once. Collage has helped me think about how parts of things, like memories and emotions, are not always bad: they just are.
How does art becomes a space for self-actualisation through taking control of the narrative and using it as a means to address your experiences?
Jonathan Lyndon Chase: It’s helped me. You know this thing about treat others how you want to be treated? Everything I just said – it’s still a work in progress, everything is under construction – like Missy Elliott’s album.
Having the tools to be able to deal with that quietness of just being a human and what that comes with, all of the beautiful and intense gifts, has helped me gain so much confidence, self-love, and power to help my friends and my family that maybe a different version of myself wasn’t able to do in the best ways. As a bipolar person, it is a meditation towards healing and helps ground me in the actualisation in that I am a real human.