Whitehot Magazine

Awol Erizku: The Only Way Is Up

Aug 05, 2014

By Paul Laster

Fresh out of graduate school at Yale University School of Art, Awol Erizku is celebrating his second solo exhibition at Hasted Kraeutler in New York’s Chelsea Art District. Erizku made an impressive NYC debut in a group show at the FLAG Art Foundation in 2011, which was quickly followed by his first one-person show at the gallery in 2012. While his initial solo outing consisted of photographs with models of color in classical art poses, his new show features photographs, sculptures, and installations that reflect Erizku’s contemporary influences—including David Hammons, Donald Judd, and Richard Prince—yet, he makes the work his own.

Whitehot contributor Paul Laster recently caught up with the artist to discuss how his work has changed and what creative concepts went into the making of The Only Way Is Up.

Paul Laster: What does the title of your show, The Only Way Is Up, reference and what does it mean to you?  

Awol Erizku: The show borrows its title from a Quincy Jones compilation album, which is something that I remember my parents playing. The title is filled with multiple reads and just about everyone can project and take something away from it. For me, the title has a lot to do with my expectations for the new vernacular that I’m trying to introduce with these new works in the show.

PL: Your first show with the gallery consisted of photographs that simulated classical art with models of color. How has the work changed since that 2012 exhibition?

AE: My first exhibition at Hasted Kraeutler consisted of photographs from a series titled Black & Gold. Since that time I have matured a lot, as has my work. My new exhibition features photographs, installations, and sculpture. It explores more conceptual points of view than my first show did.

For Black & Gold I exhibited a series of photographs that referenced classical art works and featured models of color to emphasize and draw attention to the lack of racial diversity represented in art. That series consisted of 16 photographs, while my way of working with images now has shifted from a sequential body of work to singular pieces.

Each work in my current exhibition stands alone, but each one is in dialogue with the others. The viewer can walk through the exhibition and see a photograph on one wall and then one of my sculptures and have those pieces work together, regardless of the medium. I find this way of working to be more interesting.

PL: You studied with Rob Storr at Yale. What was the takeaway from that experience?

AE: Rob Storr is “The Man!” He taught me three valuable pieces of advice to follow while working in the studio. First, “Take the art out of your art.” Secondly, “Show me what you know.” And then last, and conversely, “Show me what I don’t already know.” These mantras have helped me focus on what I want to achieve and express through my art.

PL: You played off art history in your first show and do again in the new exhibition. What are you trying to add to what’s already been said and done?

AE: There’s less of that in the new show, but the motto remains the same for me—It’s about representing the under represented in the right context.

The artists that came before me who are critiquing the system were and are only concerned about raising these issues and talking about them to other artists. As much as I find that interesting and necessary, it is far more important to me that the work is accessible to a larger audience—and that they come to see it. I want the conversation to be louder and amongst as many people as possible. I’m interested in bridging the huge gap that exists between “High Art” and “The Street.”

PL: Let’s talk about some of your heroes that are celebrated in the show, starting historically with Marcel Duchamp. Why is he important to you and how would you explain the way that you are paying homage?

AE: Duchamp is the Master and Hammons is the Godfather. I find Duchamp important because I find Hammons very important. Duchamp and Hammons worked with found objects or everyday objects to create visual puns. In doing so, they ask the viewer to question the intention of the work. For example, Duchamp’s ready-mades shocked the art world, putting in question to whether these objects were even “art.” Hammons employs a similar technique of using found objects; but he also wants the viewer to question the connotations of these objects in the context of race and class. These themes are visible in many of my works in The Only Way Is Up.

I pay homage to both artists, directly, in two different works. First, an installation of jerseys hanging on a rack, titled Duchamp, Marcel 1887; Simpson, Lorna, 1960; Outterbridge, John 1933; Hammons, David 1943; Judd, Donald 1928; Marshall, Kerry James 1955; Storr, Rob 1950; Wilson, Fred 1954; Prince, Richard 1949, 2014, which includes the last names of artists that have influenced me most silkscreened on the back of the shirts, in a similar motif of a sports jersey with the abbreviated year they were born.

I also silk screened canvases, Hammons, David 1943, 2014 and Duchamp, Marcel 1887, 2014 in the same sports jersey motif with the names and birth years of Duchamp and Hammons. This group of artists represents my “team,” from which I believe I have received the most influence and support. They are my idols and deserve recognition for what they have contributed to my artistic growth.

Hammons was my window to Duchamp. Hammons made Duchamp really cool for me. Found objects and ready-mades are now a major part of my art practice. I walk around New York City looking for anything and everything that can be a part of my sculptures. I never go out with the intention of looking for something specific, but always recognize it when I see it. It is an intuitive process.

PL: Richard Prince seems to come from left field to your practice, yet you dedicate one of your numbered T-shirts to him? How does he fit into the picture?  

AE: Richard Prince is by far one of the most interesting living artists making work today. He’s an artist who works without any glass ceilings. I met him at Yale, and after a few conversations, I realized we both approach making work in a similar fashion.

He has influenced my practice very much, encouraging me to make the type of work that does not reveal itself right away. Conceptually speaking, Prince raises questions I find very interesting.

PL: And what about Ed Ruscha? You credit him and his OOF painting as being inspirational for your #TRILL and #WAVY pieces? What’s the backstory there?  

AE: Ruscha is a very important artist in the sense that interacting with his work was very meaningful for me.  When I was younger, I remember going to MoMA, looking at OOF and thinking, "Why is this Art"? It’s something that challenged me, and eventually inspired me to make #TRILL, 2014 and #WAVY, 2014.

Much like Ruscha’s OOF and its relation to the language found in comic book art, which was very relevant at the time of OOF's making, #TRILL and #WAVY are both words that have a meaning for the culture and generation I belong to.

PL: Is it just OOF or does Ruscha do more for you?

AE: Just OOF.

PL: You also take a bit from Donald Judd mashed up with Hammons for “Oh, what a feeling, fuck it, I want a Billion.” What’s the idea behind that piece?

AE: I find it interesting how certain artists are favored in institutions over others. It wasn’t until I studied with Storr that I found someone who spoke about Hammons in the way his work deserves to be discussed.

Oh, what a feeling, Fuck it, I want a Billion, a sculpture from 2014, alludes to Donald Judd’s series of Stacks, while referencing the lyrics from Jay-Z’s, Picasso Baby, which expresses the extravagance and luxury of life as a cultural superstar. In Judd’s originals, painted metal boxes are installed vertically on a wall like the rungs of a ladder. I thought it would be interesting to replace the stacked boxes with basketball hoops, a reference to Hammons, and also signifiers of my life in New York City. The piece operates as a striking metaphor, embodying the anxieties inherent to life as a young contemporary artist by aligning basketball with the practice of making art—both are games, shaped half by talent and half by luck.

If you ask me, you have more to chew on when you look at those stacked hoops than those metal boxes.

PL: Speaking of Jay-Z, you pay homage to Duchamp while referencing Beyonce in two editions on view. What was the point of departure for these works?

AE: Keeping inline with Duchamp's ready-mades and his version of Mona Lisa, I wanted to make my own. Duchamp had his French mustache; I gave my Mona Lisa “the Freeway Beard,” which is something that is close to the culture I’m addressing.  It is, in fact, the most complex piece in the show because it’s a piece that tries to bridge the huge gap between Hip-hop and "High Art.” In other words, the only way this piece would reveal itself to you is if you know Duchamp’s L.H.O.O.Q.  and you have heard Kanye West and Jay-Z’s song That’s My Bitch. In it, Jay-Z says, "Uh, Picasso was alive he woulda made her; That's right nigga Mona Lisa can't fade her; I mean Marilyn Monroe, she's quite nice; But why all the pretty icons always all white?; Put some colored girls in the MoMA;... Back to my Beyoncés; You deserve three stacks, word to André; Call Larry Gagosian, you belong in museums."

PL: Fairly fresh on the scene, you’ve already worked in photography, sculpture, works on paper and installation. Is video next?

AE: Absolutely. Video installations are something that I have already begun to work with and want to further explore. I am always working on something new and surprising—I may even return to photography next...

Awol Erizku: The Only Way Up is on view at Hasted Kraeutler in New York through August 15, 2014.