“History needs to be rectified, corrected and moving forward art should reflect every lived experience instead of historically the limited viewpoints of those in a position of privilege.” Artist Devan Shimoyama talks desire, beauty and self-policing, reveals his drag persona and discusses redefining the queer black experience, the rise of identity politics in art and more…
YOUTH and SELF
“He Loves Me, (Not)” is a beautiful piece of a man in the garden playing, “He Loves Me, He Loves Me Not” with a flower. Is there a personal story behind this piece, or what was the inspiration?
In much of my work, I’m working from various personal experiences, but mainly ones that maybe feel more universal. Unrequited love or lust is certainly something that I was thinking about in making that painting. I think as a queer individual, that type of desire was more often masked or hidden for fear of more than just rejection, but being outed or inciting disdain.
Have you had the opportunity to connect with young men who have viewed your work and would the adolescent Devan react to your pieces if he saw them today?
I’ve connected somewhat with young men who have viewed my work in fleeting conversations at openings, during Q&As at artist lectures/talks that I’ve given at various institutions, and even just while walking through the Andy Warhol Museum while my solo exhibition Cry, Baby was running. Those conversations have given impetus to continue making work, and even expanding my practice into something more socially engaged when I’m afforded opportunities to have programming coinciding with exhibitions or project spaces. Adolescent Devan probably would be surprised to see that I’m a working artist at all! I was raised playing classical music in orchestras on viola and violin since I was about 7 years old and when going to college, I initially started out as a biology major. I didn’t have any idea what the contemporary art world was, how to immerse myself into it or what was possible within it until I just took a risk and changed majors in undergrad to get my BFA in Painting at Penn State University.
How were you introduced to the art world and is there a particular piece that even at a young age had a formative influence on you?
Growing up in Philly, I went to a lot of museums but didn’t actually see much contemporary art until I was in college. One of the first contemporary artists that fascinated and excited me was Wangechi Mutu. I saw an exhibition of her work, got a chance to have a studio visit with her while a senior in undergrad and just felt like her practice was so expansive in its research concerns as well as how the work takes form in such an interdisciplinary way.
What piece of advice given to you that you’ve applied has transformed your life?
Brian Alfred, artist and former professor of mine once asked me in reference to being an artist saying “so do you really want to do this? You’ve got to learn to love and need to be in the studio all the time.” And that has truly helped me work consistently and make changes if ever I feel as though I don’t want to be in studio or don’t want to work. That means that I need to make a change somehow so I can continue growing and exploring and making.
Your self portraits amongst other themes explore self love. How do you show yourself self love and do you have any wellness rituals you would recommend our readers try?
I show myself love by treating myself after working really hard. I do that through taking time off to read, go to the movies, making spontaneous trips to visit friends, getting a tattoo, etc. But I also make sure to have a good skincare regimen. I know that sounds maybe a little silly, but skincare makes me feel really good! Having the right serums, moisturizer, toners and all that really makes me feel ready for the day to begin and ready for bed in the evening. That skincare regimen bookends my day.
“Understanding the social aspects and the psyche of humankind is just as important in creating a fictional world and through those worlds, one can explore and unpack issues within the real world with a more creative thought process.”
ARTISTRY AND ACTIVISM
The title of the piece, “Keep It Goin” is a homage to the track of the same title by Cakes Da Killa. As admirers of Solange’s latest album, “When I Get Home” is it too hopeful to anticipate a future piece of yours sharing a Solange track title?
I’ve made paintings titled after music by Cakes Da Killa, Kelela, SZA, Doja Cat, Tierra Whack and others. Sometimes certain lyrics, song titles, or general vibe of an album just seeps into my head while working and then it just feels right to name the work after it. As for a possible Solange title, I haven’t been listening to the new album so much compared to her previous ones so I don’t know about that just yet (I still keep True on loop sometimes in the car or studio, though).
Desire and beauty are consistent subtexts in your paintings. In the context of health and fitness and masculinity in the Queer community, what does “Redefine Health and Fitness” mean to you?
I think redefining health and fitness could mean that we need to rethink the value structures behind certain body types being categorized as “ideal,” especially in the queer community. I think we also need to find ways to start actually having an open dialogue about body dysmorphia and other body image issues especially with male-identifying individuals and how we can use language and spreading awareness about these issues in order to also tackle mental health and not just physical health.
Drag performers feature heavily in your collections. Do you have your own drag persona, if so what’s her name?
I love drag so much! And since I reference it so heavily in my work through the materiality as well as even some of the subjects in the paintings, I, of course, developed my own drag persona. I haven’t performed or gone out in full drag yet, but she’s figuring herself out for sure. Her name is Baby Beige (Beige for short). I have a few friends locally who have all wanted to try getting into drag and developing personas, and since we’ve gotten into drag together more casually a few times, we thought of ourselves as being a bit of a drag family that we refer to as the Haus of Brakes and Mufflers….since we’re a little rough around the edges, but make it fashion.
Since your time at Penn State University, do you find spaces exhibiting black artists has amplified and as a queer black artist how do you navigate through these spaces which are still often governed by mature cis white men?
I think that since I seek out spaces that exhibit artists who identify similarly to myself, I notice a lot more POC artists. I do not allow that to trick me into believing that somehow that means there’s this large upsurge of POC artists taking over the art world in huge numbers. There’s still a lot of growing that the art world needs to do in terms of diversity and inclusion. Just take a look at any major gallery in New York or LA and actually break down the statistics of how many white artists have representation versus POC or even women. There are still many challenges for artists of color who are represented or have successes in their careers. I think there’s also the complicated nature of art sales, and how most collectors who can afford to buy art are white. So there also would be possibly more artists of color getting exhibitions and making more sales if we could have more curators and collectors who identify with the work and understand the significance of those artists’ voices.
Talk to us about the importance of fantasy and how creating original, fictitious narratives through your work you’re able to redefine the queer black male experience?
I am an avid reader of epic fantasy, science fiction, prose and speculative fictions. Those forms of writing are heavily influential in how I think about my work and the potential that such types of texts that involve so much world-building are inevitably informed by our own understanding of the world in which we live. Understanding the social aspects and the psyche of humankind is just as important in creating a fictional world and through those worlds, one can explore and unpack issues within the real world with a more creative thought process. These genres are alternative texts that are possibly more accessible and less elitist than perhaps trying to unpack dense theoretical texts.
You’ve commented, “often beauty and happiness, and dancing and joy come from places of pain.” As an artist, can you comment on the paradox of society’s fetishization of an artist needing to be traumatized in order to produce “high quality, consumable” art?
I believe that many artists use art as a way to process hardships. So much of my favorite art comes from someone who is working through pain, hardships, sociopolitical issues, etc. because it often has an aspect that I can latch onto or relate to. However, I don’t think that necessarily means that one must have gone to Hell and back in order to be a “good artist”. I feel as though most good art (at least to me) has real research concerns as well. Some of my favorite artists are complete geeks on a specific topic and uses art, music, theater, etc. to explore or unpack those concerns, which is just as valid as working through pain and trauma.
Pieces of your work reference toxic masculinity, queerness and self-policing. The year you were interviewed by Queer publishing’s closeted brother magazine, GQ. Did you find that you were self-policing or “sanitizing” your responses in this interview for the magazine and its audience?
Hah! That’s a great question. I don’t think I was “sanitizing” my responses in the interview for the magazine or its audience. I think you guys are just maybe a little more thoughtful and less generic with your questions. The questions I was asked in that interview were quite light-hearted and had a casualness that didn’t warrant deep contemplation or lead me to really unpacking complex issues in the way in which EL CHAMP does. So really kudos to you for providing the space for this type of content and allowing artists to answer in longer form interviews!
“Just take a look at any major gallery in New York or LA and actually break down the statistics of how many white artists have representation versus POC or even women.”
You’re 29 going on 30… as a relatively young artist to have achieved such career milestones what advice would you have for someone trying to create their own work/life model who feels pressured by conventional life “milestones” such as relationship, job and financial status?
Advice I’d have for someone trying to create their own work/life model would be to just do exactly what they want! I think setting goals and general timelines for those goals keeps me focused, but allows me to work freely within that timeline, and I always allow myself to be flexible and let some of those goals grow and change as I grow and change. Generally doing whatever feels right for yourself first and foremost leads to your own individual life milestones.
It appears that queer centric and political art with a focus on highlighting the black experience is becoming increasingly popular in the art market. You’ve mentioned that you paint subjects in a “desirable” context. What are your thoughts on this new appreciation for race and identity in the art market?
I think it’s becoming somewhat popular. If you still look at statistics, white straight male art is still by leaps and bounds the highest selling and most popular work in the art market. I think this new appreciation for identity politics is a very necessary field to mine in the art world. History needs to be rectified, corrected and moving forward art should reflect every lived experience instead of historically the limited viewpoints of those in a position of privilege.
Are there any young queer creatives on your radar that make you excited for the future?
Not sure how we’re using the term “young” here, but I’ve got quite a list of people around my age that are doing really exciting work including Jonathan Lyndon Chase (painter), John Edmonds (photographer), Diamond Stingily (artist and poet) and Rickey Laurentiis (poet).
Your sequinned “All I Want Is Love” sweatshirt is almost if not equally as gorgeous as your art. If you were to work as a fashion designer would you incorporate the rhinestones, glitter and jewels into your clothing to balance unapologetic themes as a form of activism like you do with your art or what type of collection do you think you would design?
Funny you ask, as I’ve been actually designing unisex outerwear with a friend of mine here in Pittsburgh! His name is Terry Boyd, and he has his own art practice that uses a ton of embroidery, so that’s been something we’ve incorporated into a few of the pieces that we’ve collaborated on. I’ve made a few hoodies that have been displayed in exhibitions of mine more as an art object, adorned with silk flowers, sequins, rhinestones etc. but I haven’t had someone wear them just yet. But that is definitely on my mind and hopefully something I can bring into fruition in the upcoming years.
Wellness and spiritual goals for 2019?
I’m trying to phase out eating so much meat and dairy in 2019. Not completely, but just limit my intake. I also want to plan a trip with friends and treat myself, as I’ve never done anything like that before. And plan a really good birthday party for my 30th. That’s spiritual for me, at least!
What would you graffiti on the back of a toilet door?
Knowing myself, I wouldn’t do something like that at all, but for the sake of not being a downer on a fun little question, I think I’d probably engrave my natal chart in its entirety on the door.