Deborah Grant PhotoDEBORAH GRANT GIVES A GOOD INTERVIEW. She is candid and forthcoming about her journey as an artist as well as her views of the art world’s racial fault lines. Born in Toronto, she lives and works in New York, where her exhibition, “Christ You Know it Ain’t Easy,” was on view earlier this year at The Drawing Center.

The first time I saw Grant’s work, a multi-panel installation, I was drawn to an image of a little girl painted exactly the way William H. Johnson would have painted her. It was spot on. In fact, appropriation is a defining aspect of her practice. Her paintings and collages tell stories, non-linear narratives that reference historic events and contemporary political issues relevant to her personal experience by recasting images and motifs from Duchamp’s ready-mades, Picasso’s Cubism, Matisse’s cut outs and the works of Jean-Michel Basquiat, Bill Traylor and Johnson, among others. Grant calls the mashup “random select.”

After earning an MFA in painting from the Tyler School of Art in Philadelphia, Grant did a summer residency at Skowhegan (1996) and later she was an artist-in-residence at the Studio Museum in Harlem (2002-2003). In 2011, she won the William H. Johnson Prize. She has had several solo shows and participated in many group exhibitions. Currently her work is featured in “Making Sense,” a four-woman show at the University of South Florida Contemporary Art Museum. Represented by Steve Turner Contemporary in Los Angeles, her studio is in Harlem.

In a thoughtful conversation published by the International Review of African American Art (IRAA), Grant talks with Philadelphia-based art historian John Welch about her work and navigating the political stew of the art world. She describes her random select method as a deconstruction process, a way of looking at things differently. “I wanted to examine the idea of constant information bombardment or the chaos in the back of our minds juxtaposed with what is happening physically in front of us,” she tells Welch.


Deborah Grant, “In the Land of the Blind the Blue Eye Man is King,” from the series By the Skin of Our Teeth, 2007 (oil, archival ink, paper, Flashe paint, and enamel on five birch panels). | Collection of the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University. © Deborah Grant, Photo by Peter Paul Geoffrion, Courtesy Nasher Museum


Grant covers a lot of terrain in the IRAAA interview: artistic intent, intellectualism, choosing the right art school, the pitfalls of piquing too early, her tenacity in applying for the Johnson Prize, and the importance of learning the art business and how to engage dealers. Race matters come up too. In the same manner that her artistic ideas flow forth, her opinions are expressed unfiltered with refreshing honesty. A selection of her more frank and pithy comments appear below:

    1. On the art world’s embrace of a select group of black artists
    “I question the relationship of those galleries and those critics and those curators who are now selecting black artists when they ignored so many black artists of the past. And I’m not saying too far past, I’m talking like 1990s and the 1980s. Completely dismissed and now they’re embracing us. So we’ve got to be very careful of who embraces us as well. Artists need to be able to structure themselves so it is not about the dinner parties, not about the money, not about the backslapping, not about the constant press. It’s about what was your fundamental drive in you making a mark. Why was that mark so important for you? How do you cultivate that mark? It’s a different world and there’s room for everyone as far as I’m concerned.”
    — Deborah Grant, IRAAA

    2. On the art world scrutinizing black collectors and extending its imprimatur to just a handful of black curators
    “Not only for artists but also the number of curators, the number of historians. You know we’re still using the same names, for instance, Thelma Golden. Not to dismiss Thelma in any way. There are more people out there than just Thelma Golden who were part of the conversation and who help set a premise about what is good art making. This exclusionary posture can also bleed over to black collectors dealing with white galleries where they’re coming up against a situation where they’re told in an unsolicited way, ‘We don’t offer discounts,’ You know, certain things they say specifically to these black collectors which exclude and dismiss them. I’ve heard of some collectors saying that they were standing at the gallery and then the gallery had to give Thelma Golden a call to find out if she knew this collector. That’s problematic for me.” — Deborah Grant, IRAAA

    3. On “A Subtlety,” Kara Walker’s first public art work, a monumental sugar sphinx on view over the summer in Brooklyn
    “I was a little disappointed with Kara Walker’s piece that she did for the former Domino Sugar factory. I found that what they were discussing was how people were reacting to it. Whether they were reacting to it as over sexualized? Or whether they were reacting to it in terms of interacting with other black people? Or how it was sort of embraced? I am a fan of Kara’s work but this piece for me, it fell apart, and of course it did literally fall apart, and I just felt that there were so many more elements to be looked at in terms of what she could have chosen specifically. I think she simplified it. And maybe that’s the smartness of it.”
    — Deborah Grant, IRAAA

    4. On the young contemporary art stars who are celebrated by gallerists and are attracting six-figure values at auction
    “I’ve been hearing so much about how young artists, still in graduate school, are showing at the Armory or they’re showing at all the different art fairs. Well, why? I question that because it’s not giving room for growth. If I showed the stuff that I did when I was coming out of graduate school, Laughable, completely laughable! So I think that there has to be a time for development and within your development move with the tide as it goes don’t try and take on the waves if you’ve never surfed before….”
    — Deborah Grant, IRAAA

    5. On the hypocritical advice some established artists give aspiring young artists
    “I am sick of hearing artists tell other young artists not to finish art school, take your money and invest it in what you need to do for your work and all this other BS. I find that annoying. Because, they did finish school. And, they’re telling you not to.” — Deborah Grant, IRAAA

READ Grant’s entire interview with the International Review of African American Art (IRAAA).


READ about Grant’s all-over density style, decision to use paint pens, and thoughts on appropriation and failure in a conversation with artist Stacy Lynn Waddell for the Nasher Art Museum at Duke University. CT


IMAGE: Top right, Artist Deborah Grant | Courtesy Steve Turner Contemporary, Los Angeles


Deborah Grant, Detail of “The Birth of a Genius in the Midnight Sun,” 2012 (mixed-media on wood panel, 24 panels). | Courtesy the artist and Steve Turner Contemporary, Los Angeles


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Deborah Grant, Installation view of “The Birth of a Genius in the Midnight Sun,” 2012 (mixed-media on wood panel, 24 panels). | Courtesy the artist and Steve Turner Contemporary, Los Angeles


Deborah Grant, Detail of “The Birth of a Genius in the Midnight Sun,” 2012 (mixed-media on wood panel, 24 panels). | Courtesy the artist and Steve Turner Contemporary, Los Angeles


Deborah Grant, Detail of “The Birth of a Genius in the Midnight Sun,” 2012 (mixed-media on wood panel, 24 panels). | Courtesy the artist and Steve Turner Contemporary, Los Angeles


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