Magic is ever-present in Devan Shimoyama’s paintings. It is a subtle subject, an interwoven motif, and a materially manifested presence. Central to Shimoyama’s practice is the body -- specifically the experiences and constructions of the queer, black, male body. Shimoyama merges this with narratives of mythology and fantastical allegories, exploring social constructions of queer culture and identity politics through the lens of magic and fantasy. Shimoyama’s previous body of work utilized self-portraiture as a means to study and depict the queer, black male experience. His own body became a surrogate vessel unto which these narratives and investigations were projected. His figure, nude and abstracted, exists within an unidentifiable other-world. His eyes are obscured by flowers or large-cut out collaged eyes, his body painted in gradations of color or splattered with abstracted florals. Often his form is intertwined with snakes, wrapping around his arms and torso as a symbiotic addition, or slithering around him across the expanse of infinite space like supporting figures in this unknown universe. In these works, Shimoyama’s material choices also become subjects themselves. Rhinestones, glitter, and sequins embody a physical representation of magic, while simultaneously allowing light and dimension to play through the works.
In Shimoyama’s current body of work, these explorations of identity, sexuality, and queer culture are transformed and applied into a real space -- the environment of black barbershops. In these newer works, Shimoyama transforms these spaces into magical imaginings of reality that speak to specific narratives, places, and individuals. No longer is Shimoyama’s own form the subject, but rather the works are portraits of other men realized within these spaces. They explore the construction of a queer identity within the context of a space that assumes specific social constructions of heterosexuality and black maleness. Shimoyama’s material choices, his use of saturated colors and collage elements create a vision of a real lived experience and a specific place that obscure the reality with an emotional fantasy and experience. The magic in these works is celebratory and discerning. Shimoyama’s work balances the magical expression of self-identity and empowerment with the stark reality of society and the constructions that must be navigated and competed with.
Devan Shimoyama was born in Philadelphia, PA, earning his BFA in Drawing and Painting from Penn State University in 2011 and his MFA in Painting and Printmaking from Yale University School of Art in 2014. Shimoyama is the recipient of the Margaret Giffen Schoenfelder Memorial Scholarship, the Gerald Davis Prize, and the Al Held Fellowship, and was an artist in residence at the Fire Island Artist Residency in 2015. Shimoyama’s work has been shown across the United States, including a solo exhibition at Lesley Heller Workspace (New York, NY) in 2015, and his work was shown in solo booths at Independent NY with Stems Gallery (2017) and PULSE Miami with Samuel Freeman Gallery (2016), where he was awarded the 2016 Miami Beach PULSE Prize. Shimoyama’s work has been written about in publications including the Los Angeles Times, New American Paintings, and Vice Magazine. His work is currently included in the exhibition Fictions at the Studio Museum in Harlem, on view through January 7, 2018 and will be included in an upcoming exhibition at De Buck Gallery (New York, NY) opening November 1st. Shimoyama currently lives and works in Pittsburgh, PA where he is a full-time Assistant Professor of Art at Carnegie Mellon University.
Can you start by talking about the development of your work until now, particularly with interest to self-portraiture and your incorporation of magic and mysticism?
I primarily work with self-portraiture, though I’m currently working on a series of paintings for an upcoming show that consists primarily of portraits of other people in barber shop settings. This is the first time I’m actually putting people into a specific context and into an actual somewhat realized setting where they are clothed. The self-portraiture arose through the immediacy of being able to draw or paint with myself as a starting point for looking at the figure and the body. I think of that figure as a shamanistic character, one that’s an archetype and baseline character for my identity. I can then explore all these narratives and ideas through this one consistent character that travels from dimension to dimension, sharing stories of this invented queer black male mythology and seeking his origins. The figure’s eyes are often obscured, his skin altered in color, or you might not fully recognize me/him immediately, but they’re all the same figure. The representation of my body in these works operates as a surrogate for an identity that is shared amongst a community of people who I think have similar experiences and haven’t gotten a chance to see themselves realized in any sort of fantastical setting.
How does performance tie into your work?
In 2015 I was a resident of the Fire Island Artist Residency and I did a somewhat performative project, which now exists as photo documentation of the performance. When I think about performance in my own practice, I think of it less as performance as spectacle and more as performance as ritual. I did that particular performance alone aside from the person who helped document the experience. I sort of fully realized one of my paintings in real time, so I created this costume and I built this portal on the beach with driftwood and rhinestones and different materials gathered from the beach. Fire Island is sort of this gay mecca where there’s drag performances and all these really celebratory things happening in privacy and in this retreat space, and I loved that about the island. I went out at sunrise, around 4am, to start setting everything up, and then I did the performance at sunrise before anyone was even really on the beach. I do think there is a performative aspect to my work, but I’m not interested in the performances being live for viewers. I believe that magic is most enriched or possible when in solitude at night, not around a bunch of people. So my interest in performance isn’t as spectacle but rather as maybe a means to an end. I love in my work this idea of solitude or being alone as a place of healing and understanding for one’s self and one’s own sexuality.
How does narration enter into your work and how do you merge your own personal experiences with this broader mythology that connects to shared experiences?
A lot of the paintings display tiny moments of magic, but also some of the motifs and some of the patterning are inspired by real life events or things that I think about. A lot of the recent paintings have had the tear drop motif raining across their canvases. To me that comes out of growing up never really seeing black men cry in popular culture or in my own upbringing. Seeing black men being vulnerable was not something that I was used to seeing, even today. Now we have things like Moonlight, but that’s just one example of a time where you see a black man allowing himself to emote. I don’t see crying as a point of weakness. It shows vulnerability, but it doesn’t always have to be related to sadness or tragedy. I think that crying can be cathartic and healing and necessary. Seeing a black man be vulnerable is a tiny moment of magic because it can change someone’s perception, where they can then say ‘wow, I didn’t expect or anticipate to see this type of person having other types of emotions or being a complex and layered individual, instead of just a hardened shell of a person that is intimidating and thought of as one-dimensional in terms of his emotive capabilities’. So I see tears in this motif rain across the canvas as something celebratory and as a moment of sharing.
I see your work playing with this duality of intimate vulnerability and strength and power. What is your process for composing an image and figure and tying these narrative elements together?
I have hundreds of stock images of myself in various positions, so often I just will play with them in Photoshop, cut them, drop them into filters and colors, etc. I’ll start with thinking about something small, like plucking a flower and what series of events can occur afterwards almost like a butterfly effect. I use these small events and moments to construct a larger narrative, and then I sometimes try to relate them to something I’ve actually experienced. Thinking of my own upbringing, I was thinking about the snake in the Bible as an Eden reference and how snakes are often villainized in a lot of different cultures as something we don’t quite understand and that can cause damage if interacted with in the wrong way. I found parallels with the black male experience and the way the snake has been vilified, misunderstood and villainized in the canon of Western culture. There are moments where the snakes are gently wrapping around the figure, engaging in a symbiotic relationship where they have an understanding of one another.
For my upcoming exhibition with De Buck Gallery in NYC which opens on November 1st, I’m working on a series of paintings of black men getting their hair cut. I’m thinking about the barbershop as a place that’s often looked to as a safe space for black men to convene, decompress, and be open with one another. However, it’s also a very heteronormative space in which black masculinity is often performed in a very specific, restrictive way. Queerness within black communities is a very complex thing, and I’m thinking about that intersectionality and how the barbershop isn’t a particularly safe space for queer black men. Many queer black men share the experience of going to get their hair cut and feeling the need to perform that specific type of masculinity, re-enter the closet or silence themselves so as to not out themselves in that environment. Getting a haircut requires trust and a level of comfortability since it can be such an intimate experience, and outing oneself in this setting could be detrimental to that dynamic between patron and barber.
How do you approach thinking about space within your paintings? Your other works are backgrounded in more unknown, ambiguous or magical environments, and I’m curious how you think about those spaces vs this very specific environment of a barbershop. How are you queering space?
Most of the spaces that I have been using in the past I think of a non-specified or indistinguishable spaces or alternate dimensions. With the newer works, I’m attempting to queer an actualized or familiar space by changing the patina of the walls and objects in the room, skewing perspectives, etc. Sometimes where there’s an all-black, glitter background, for me that’s the nighttime sky, which represents an infinite expanse that humans have historically looked to in order to construct narratives about their own existence. Queering interior spaces for me is more complex and it takes more time and even more materials to structure the small details in these rooms. I think the “non-spaces” are a little easier because they’re totally imagined and they’re infinite. Within the barbershop paintings, I’m including elements of mythology or magic in them. For instance, instead of a snake in these paintings, I’m playing with the cord to the clippers and it can function similarly. It’s detached from an actual person’s body, so it still has this existence and it’s own agency within the painting as an inanimate object that is inserting itself into these more familiar or identifiable spaces.
It’s interesting you brought up the snake because for me I was thinking a lot about the snake and its references to Adam and Eve, mythology, and I was also thinking about sexuality and the sexual undertones that are implied.
I used to be a little more explicit with the sexualization of the characters, but then decided it didn’t need to be so overt because it’s inherently imbued in the space, materials and what’s going on with these figures. I think that some of the motifs do appear in the new works, but they materialize in a slightly different way. The teardrops are still there, but I think in these new spaces they function a little bit differently where they become a wallpaper background or play a dual function in the space. The flowers are still there, and then the snake has been replaced with something that mimics the movements of the snake but is just manifested as the cord of the clippers.
How do you think about and incorporate nature into your work? How are you thinking of it as a motif, a subject, and a signifier?
I think within the canon of Western art, nature exists generally as a place for a sort of demure, white female to reside. I loved the idea of this sort of beauty in nature and this shyness, sweetness, or delicacy that we associate with that. But then I also think of the natural world as something that is incredibly dangerous, mysterious, bizarre, and strange. Inserting a black, queer, male body into that role subverts how we understand how nature functions for that figure.
The incorporation of flowers in my work goes back towards thinking about beauty and nature. I think of certain stories that I’ve read that are just based around flowers. Consider Beauty and the Beast for example, where her father plucks a flower and is forever punished for desiring beauty. And that story is not the first of its kind where someone who has plucked a flower has gone missing or was taken by a monster. There are so many fairytales and folklore that I’ve read where that’s a common theme. I also think that desiring a superficial beauty in something else and seeking it out is also something that is punished as well, and I want these things to be celebrated instead, so I’m trying to amplify the celebratory nature of them instead of the punishment thereafter.
Thinking about your materials, how did you start incorporating the rhinestones and flowers into your work? These are associated with craft and kitsch, but also operate as signifiers of beauty and wealth -- how do you navigate through the materials?
Opposing nature, I’m also interested in superficial beauty, a sort of applied beauty or artifice and way of masking yourself as something that shouldn’t be shameful, but should actually be celebrated. I think a lot of my paintings function in the same way that drag queens do. I use a lot of the same materials in my paintings that drag queens use as well such as craft materials, rhinestones, earrings, lace, and sequins. There’s a dazzling effect and I like the directness to the materiality. This parallels with the same type of artificial gaudiness that many people in black communities embrace with wearing gold chains, diamonds, etc. in order to project wealth. I love that they have found their home in which they can totally immerse themselves and feel like this beautiful creature and perform and be celebrated, and also do it on a budget. I think there’s a beauty in the experience of finding that escape and celebrating it, so I’m really inspired by that. I really value that drag queens are transforming themselves into this other beautiful creature that’s also a part of who they are, and I think that’s a really important part of gay and queer culture.
How are you approaching color?
Almost all of my paintings in the past three years all sort of have this really hot, fluorescent color that I prime the whole canvas with underneath the painting. When the painting is complete, you’ll maybe see it cracking through and that sort of limits the other colors that I use, or at least it limits my understanding to them. I have to be really sensitive to the other colors that I respond to that or overlayer on top. But that’s just a technical thing and that’s where I start. Now that I’m using readymade things, I’m almost presenting myself with obstacles to work around in a way.
How are you constructing the images and compositions for these new works -- are you taking source photos or asking people to pose or model?
Sometimes I’ll go into a barbershop and I’ll get my hair cut and I’ll ask if it’s okay to take pictures. Sometimes I’ll reach out to barbers who have social media and who show images, and then I’ll ask them for permission to use a particular image and also ask them to ask the person who is in it if it’s okay to use as source imagery. It’s not important for them to be queer in any way, what’s important is to subvert that space and use them as a surrogate for me to explore my own experiences in that chair.
What is your experience dealing with representing identity politics of queer, male, black identity with this current body of work? I’m curious if that has at all shifted how you approach these topics now that you’re using other bodies and a new environment?
Using other bodies is not something that I’ve never done, it’s just the majority of work I have done has been my own body. But painting other people’s bodies and thinking about clothes and walls allows cultural signifiers to appear in the work in a more obvious way. I think I’m a little more specific in the narratives that I’m trying to tell. I love fantasy and I love scifi -- I love that there’s this sort of awe quality to it. There’s a limitlessness to it that I really love. Once I start using other bodies or real spaces, there’s a limitation added and I start thinking of real issues. It’s no longer a fantasy.
You mentioned scifi/fantasy, but what else is influencing you and what are you thinking about, looking at, or consuming that is feeding into how you think about visual culture and your work?
I look to popular culture for a lot of different things. I’m looking at, say, Frank Ocean -- someone like him who is this breakthrough person and who had to hide part of his identity in order to get to where he is, and he still hasn’t even explicitly come out as gay. Or like the film Moonlight. I love the cinematography and the way that they’ve imbued that movie with beauty through the colors and the way that everything looks. I think that there are tiny moments that are undervalued in certain communities, but I almost cried at watching Mahershala Ali’s character teach the young version of the main character how to swim. Seeing a black man, who is not someone’s father, take on a fathership role and teach a black boy how to swim is something that to me is magical, and so incredible and beautiful. Looking at Arsenio Hall, Eddie Murphy or Martin Lawrence’s drag character Shanaynay -- in terms of comedy and queerness. Queerness is often a thing that is used for humor. It’s funny when Martin Lawrence dresses up as Shanaynay and does the tongue popping, hair flipping, and is in full drag, but if you are actually gay and act that way it’s not accepted. In more recent years, this has manifested differently in popular culture with Moonlight and we also have RuPaul’s Drag Race, which for some reason is just now getting recognition.
Can you talk about your studio practice and how your teaching practice feeds into that?
I live and work in Pittsburgh and I teach at Carnegie Mellon University. Maintaining a studio practice along with teaching has been quite the balancing act. My studio is on campus and is also my office, but it’s a really good size so I’m thankful for that, and I work remotely with galleries in Los Angeles and New York so I make a lot of trips back and forth.
It’s actually really refreshing teaching and maintaining a studio practice I think. I find it exciting to have conversations about different readings, current events, or films with students that come from entirely different backgrounds. I had a whole conversation with a class about Get Out, which I think is so important in the canon of horror and thriller films, and then you can cross that with like Octavia Butler and have conversation about sci-fi elements and Butler’s writings in the 80s, and then cross that with another feminist queer text...so it’s just a really enriching experience and then I bring that energy back into my studio. It’s always a dialogue, it’s never me telling somebody how to think or interpret something, it’s always about questioning and having a dialogue, which is so important. It keeps me on my toes and it keeps me up to date with a lot of things.