Baltimore, MD. June, 2021
Conversation between Amy Boone-McCreesh and McKinley Wallace
A: Can you talk about the title of this exhibition Separate, But/ We Hold These Truths and how it relates to the work shown?
M: I created the title of the show by putting together two quotes from different texts. I wanted to create a topic I feel is relevant to the work. We hear the phrase “separate, but equal” a lot, but it’s not true. It should be separate and unequal. We also hear “we hold these truths…” a term coined by the founding fathers. It’s also a way of saying we’re all equal, but we’re not all equal. As a Black artist that is American, I am using text from history to create a new master narrative that I feel is true while calling into question the historical myths we’ve been told. I also want to ask an option question — whose truths do we really hold? Why are we still separate? How long will we continue to allow the justification of that separateness? I’m calling all of these things to attention by allowing the “separate, but” to hang in the air for a moment, then requiring the viewer to create a new meaning by splicing together “separate, but we hold these truths.” Like in that separation, black people have come to understand a different truth about America.
Is there one piece you could choose from this show and maybe dive a little deeper into your process and the story?
I would choose the piece called “Even Castles Made of Sand Fall Into the Sea Eventually.” The piece is named after a Jimi Hendrix quote. I often use quotes from black leaders or influential black Americans in history. Their thoughts, consciousness, and interests influence the work. So this one is an image of a boy looking into a white space. A lot of the time when I create surfaces I have this structure or composition that’s based on two zones and three colors. One is a white space, then a black space, then a blue space that is usually at the top of a piece. They all have their own meanings, respectively, but they all impact one another. The white space represents systemic oppression, white rage, white supremacy–it’s an oppressive space for a black individual could sometimes be in, but in this piece he is not. He is in a black space, which represents black joy, love, power–all ways of reflecting a black person’s consciousness when they feel like their truest self and not questioning who they are, where they feel comfortable in their own skin.
The black individual is usually the main character in most of my pieces. Sometimes the narrative I’m telling in my piece includes the oppressor, but usually in those cases it is the black subject in the black space, looking into the white space, questioning where he was before. So there’s this constant navigating in and out and moments where there is an individual finally getting outside of a space, then looking back at that space and reflecting on what it feels like to have been there. There’s usually this reserved or nervous quality to them, but they have a position where they feel a bit prideful or a bit rigid about what they’re going to do next. Maybe even a sense of loneliness. What I find when I put these individuals in black spaces, even if they are alone, I make them literally a bit dark in shade where they’re almost blending into the space they’re in. So even if they are alone, there is still a community around them, mirroring them, and framing them.
How is this work related or even a departure to work you have done in the past?
I’ve been working this way — with this concept of having a figure in a space operating to tell a larger story, usually a counter narrative — since about 2016.
When I started conceptually thinking about black individuals in positions of power, countering master narratives and resisting erasure from the master narrative, they have been really leaning into a cinematic quality. I give spaces a lot of detail; they’re heavily rendered environments for these characters to exist. I think that was due to me wanting to take a big detour away from abstraction, which is where I was going before. I didn’t really know how to communicate my ideas well as a community artist to people.I felt that there was a disconnect when I wanted to engage with the communities I serve as a teacher, as a community artist. I needed the work to shift toward something a bit easier for people to access in order to have their own conversations and exploration.
I do have a love for abstraction, so this was a great hybrid between thinking of the structure that definitely carries meaning and it’s not paint for paints’ sake. Now my work definitely has more context. I explore where we are and who we are in different spaces, how we feel in this space or that space. We have homes where we think of community and family, but then we come into a new space where we feel like a stranger and not welcome. I feel like everyone can relate to that to some extent.
I have an extreme fascination with surface and if I didn’t do abstraction I wouldn’t have thought about craft as much. When it comes to abstraction, there’s this level of craft that becomes more apparent with color, shape, and line; things that are positioned just so.
I definitely see, and even the pieces that were really detailed in nature, small areas that were pure abstraction of shapes that build forms. It’s a different sort of language and more bare bones, but the content is still significant and maybe even more timeless and expansive and more accessible because the viewer is challenged to fill in the space.
Can you talk about how you choose images and where they’re from–the figures specifically?
I find the images in books and the internet. They are predominantly mid-20th century images, but I’m starting to explore Civil War images too. I wanted to keep that timeless feeling going. It’s a sweet spot of not knowing when or where they come from based on the clothing, as some clothing we bring back into our culture. It’s a great access point and a pivotal moment in Civil Rights which is part of my work and theme so it just made sense that way.
Most, if not all, of the people in my work are not smiling. I’m not saying they are unhappy, but they’re just being real. When we smile, it’s a way to interact with people to put them at ease and it’s a communication tool to show that ‘I’m enjoying my time here.’ But, some of these individuals are conflicted, or they’re questioning where they are, or they just came out of this white space and they’re trying to get their bearings and think about ‘what does it feel like to not have to think about race all the time?’ To a lot of the people in my work and for myself, whiteness is a structure in which you constantly have to frame yourself as not being a threat. So I wanted them to be introspective and to depict how they see themselves in this new space. There isn’t a lot of smiling, they’re just with themselves and have a straight face. So I look for images like that. I’m constantly thinking of combining images from different time periods to go back into that idea of timelessness and creating a throughline.
There’s a piece I have here of an older gentleman who is in a black space looking at a teenage boy in a white space called “If I’m free it’s because I’m running.” The reason I call it that is I wanted it to be a conversation across time. I think it’s really reflected in that phrase, “if I’m free it’s because I’m running” because I feel that’s a continuous thing that was happening then and definitely still now — people felt like the only freedom they had was through escape or through avoidance. And in positions where you are held down, you cannot move, and you want to be free.
Because I’m sourcing images from different time periods, I think there are a lot of different ways to interpret this piece. Is he talking to his younger self, or is he talking to a stranger, or maybe to his son? The outfit he’s wearing in the piece could be something worn today. He could also be from the 80s, 60s, there’s a wide net of time periods the young boy he’s talking to could be from. And this older gentleman in his Sunday best church attire could be in any point too. So I wanted it to be accessible in the way that you could have seen this person in the past, or seen this person yesterday. So that’s constantly what I’m thinking of when I source my images and when I combine them, I want to put two pieces together so that it feels like they were meant to be. Maybe they just happened to be in another piece and fit together like a puzzle. They could be looking in different directions or at each other.
Can you describe the technical process of your work?
Most of my surfaces are on wood panels, usually canvas stretched over a wood panel. I like hard surfaces and it helps with making nice edges. The reason I use canvas more often is that it’s more durable and it takes away from the wood grain texture and makes it more seamless. I also just love stretching canvas, so having it over a wood panel helps.
What I usually do first is work a lot in Photoshop to make compositions because there is a graphic quality to it. In this stage I’m planning to the fullest extent like knowing the size of the panel, making sure it’s to scale, then thinking about the exact measurements and proportions, how far down, inward, etc. It’s a fun challenge for me to do it digitally because then it becomes a goal to reach that same level of hard edges I’m forming. I want to be as precise as it was in Photoshop to be very clear about which spaces are separate. It’s fun for me to do in Photoshop, but also a challenge to bring it from Photoshop onto the panel. It’s pretty difficult to get to the same level of craft. Visually you have three shapes, not including the individual. Because there’s so much depending on the precision black, white and blue spaces, those edges are really important. So doing it in Photoshop, I can do it exactly and if I’m precise enough I can get the right effect.
After I design everything, I cover the wood with primer to seal it. Then I paint the whole thing black. I figure out the measurements and where those white spaces are going to be, which are usually laid over the black. I think about it as a painter who is constantly layering rather than putting two colors on without anything underneath. And by building that white on top of the black it kind of pops out even more. I sand it down to smooth it out later. I print the individuals out to the same scale, I cut them out and put them on the surface and that’s really the part where things might change as I slide them around to figure out the right placement. When I know it, I know it, so I get matte medium and lock them in.
What I like about using photos or a drawing I made is that collage allows mistakes because it’s just paper. I like to scan the image first and not use the original copy in case I make a mistake. A lot of these pieces are my third or fourth attempt to make it work.
I’m really struck by the graphic qualities of your work in this collection and how it relates to the architecture and location of Waller gallery – was there any type of collaboration with the space about installation?
Joy (Waller gallery director) arranged and put most of the pieces in place. She did a really incredible job of carefully curating the space so that the pieces felt in conversation with each other, but still allowing the viewer to have an intimate experience with each of the characters and their narratives. We talked about it briefly, but she really put things in place and I made some small adjustments because she had such a strong vision. We had a lot of conversations before installation. The biggest factor I told her was that I wanted enough space between pieces because it mirrors the way I frame the compositions and there’s a lot of openness for people to move throughout the surfaces. So I wanted openness for the viewer to transition from one piece to the next. There are three pieces by the title that are experimental and grouped them together for consistency. We also thought about size and who is being represented in the piece based on gender and age. I didn’t want to have just a “man section”, you know, which could create issues unintentionally. We wanted it to be more intentional in making sure people see themselves in the work, so there’s a balance based on that.
Looking back at this exhibition now and having some distance, where do you see your work going in the future?
I already have six pieces planned out. They’re in a similar vein, similar composition, but it’s me just really pushing the boundaries of what this space can do. This space is a simple structure that has a lot of possibilities. The word simple can be like watering something down, but I don’t want the viewer to get caught up in how long it took me to make or what did you use to paint this. I wanted it to be where the viewer is fully engaged and in the event. There are less things to see so you can start analyzing and digging deep into the piece and the story it’s telling.
Visually, to the everyday individual, it may be simple to get their attention and start exploring. As they get closer they begin to see more information and detail–there are layers because I want some things to be a slow read. I think that’s where it falls into the idea of it being deceptively simple. There is deceit in that as you get closer, you begin to see more that I put into it. Because of the possibilities in it, I feel I can tell so many stories with it. We’re all taking up space, so we’re constantly in spaces, whether that’s sleeping somewhere, moving out into the world, into a new space, then another and another — we never disappear. So having two structures and giving characters the chance to go in and out or here and there, there’s just so much to play around with. I can explore the openness between characters, seeing where they can engage or have tension. What I’m thinking of for new work will be different compositionally based on how the characters are navigating through those spaces. There’s just so much to explore.