What did you work on in Wassaic?
I've been collaborating with an artist in the UK, Dawn Woolley. She and I have been friends for a while — I've curated her work, she’s curated some of my work — and we were looking at ways to collaborate. She's dealing with Brexit in the UK, and we're of course dealing with Trump here, so we were trying to figure out some visual means of resistance.
We stumbled upon Josef Albers’ theory of actual and factual color, where color is contingent on the color around it. There's a factual, dictionary definition of a color — and then there's the actual color, how it behaves in context of all the colors around it. The same green can look totally different next to this blue than it does next to this yellow.
That led us to other visual illusions. Those have always been fun to me — when I teach at the universities, I always give assignments that deal with tricks and weird, MC Escher-esque patterns. But we started thinking, well, how can we infuse those visual tricks of the eye with political or economic meaning? Can we find a way to bring out the biases inherent in ourselves, in policy, in media narratives, in political narratives, and fuse those with some of the same visual biases inherent in our perception?
So we started infusing some political terms, mostly with text, into these visual tricks. We did this piece — it’s a working title for now — called Dreamers. There are the Dreamers, the DACA recipients here in the US, and then there's the Windrush Generation in the UK. They both have similar situations in which both of these immigrant communities have been promised a path to citizenship that has then been revoked because of changes in the political winds.
The Windrush generation is much older, but it's an interesting story. A lot of them are people of Caribbean descent, who are part of the British Commonwealth, that were enticed and invited and encouraged to come to England to work mostly in construction or service industries during Reconstruction. They were promised citizenship in return but were never given it.
More recently, when Theresa May was the head of the UK’s version of Homeland Security, she had these active measures to try and “make the UK a hostile environment for people who are undocumented.” People would go away on vacation and not be able to come back to the country, or she made it hard for them to get their entitlement programs, that kind of stuff.
So we took those terms — ”Windrush” and “Dreamers” — and penciled and spray painted them on the wall in certain patterns, so that these lines which are perfectly straight look like they're crooked. This crooked line signifies the crooked or corrupt intent that the ruling governments have towards these communities.
If Josef Albers talks about the fluidity of color, we're trying to tackle the fluidity of truth. What we consider corrupt or immoral doesn't really matter if those in power can rewrite laws to make it not corrupt. What one person perceives as corruption is perfectly legal if those with a corrupt intent get in and change the rules.
We want to play with that in a visual manner that avoids direct didacticism. You're seeing something that's a fun, trippy illusion, but that has a little bit more conceptual context to it.
Is that something you think a lot about in your work? Making it fun and enticing on some level so that it doesn't feel didactic?
Yeah, that's the hook. I want there to be some good content, and I want to say to the world that I'm really dissatisfied and I think that there are a lot of problems. I think all artists want to be heard in that regard. But there’s the “what,” and then there's the “how.” Am I gonna be a preachy, bossy person that nobody wants to hear, or can I lure them in with seductive imagery? I think seduction is an important tool in the bag.
Can you talk about the difference between resistance and imagination in your work, then? In your artist statement, you say that your work is a “visual means of resistance to power, authority, and desire as constructed by government systems.” But you also say that you “create new visual lexicons that combat the prevailing modes of signification.” To me, those sound like two interestingly different things: one is a direct, essentially reflective response to existing systems — and the other is a resistance by way of reimagining, by creating something entirely new.
I do see the two as going hand-in-hand, but [my practice] oscillates between the two. My work is inherently critical of a lot of things that I see out in the world, and creating a new lexicon is a big challenge. That’s a big slice of cheese to chop off.
So I wouldn't say that my work is overly imaginative. I think there was a point where my work was very imaginative — and not that I don't think that's important — but in our current political era I feel like my work needs to be a little bit more grounded in criticisms of media narratives that I see floating around.
I see that in the difference between pieces of yours like Baltimore, Ferguson and Power Projection Operation and pieces like Their’s is a Shape We Don't Recognize. The first two feel more strictly critical and responsive, whereas the second is trying to open an imaginative space, or to reclaim the value of not instantly understanding something.
Yes! Exactly. That was definitely something I was striving for with Their’s is a Shape We Don’t Recognize. I heard that term somewhere and I just really loved it. There’s a time where we do need to embrace something that we just can't wrap our heads around.
But at this point it's hard to divorce ourselves of any notion of familiarity, so some things are very reactive. A lot of those cop car paintings were right around when Ferguson was going on. That was a big deal. We live in Kansas City — which is the other side of the state — but the repercussions were felt all over the world, and were really compounded here in Missouri.
What was it like being there during that time?
Redlining was really invented here in Kansas City, then exported to other cities of its size. So it was weird to be around the city that originated those racist real estate policies and then see it flare up in other places. Not that it didn't flare up here, but nowhere near like it did in Ferguson. It was easy to recognize a town like Ferguson and see it here in Kansas City.
I totally didn't know that Kansas City was, for lack of a better word — or maybe this is the best word for it — a testing ground for those policies.
It really was! JC Nichols, the guy who started the [Country Club Plaza], which is a wealthy shopping center, set those policies in motion through his redevelopment plans. And then they were exported to other cities like St. Louis, Cleveland, Denver, Cincinnati, Louisville, Indianapolis — cities of that size in the Midwest.
It's not that those cities didn't desire those things. But Kansas City led the way in policy. Like, “Well, here's what you do you: you have certain charters, and certain quotas, and you only allow so many people of color into this neighborhood, you draw a line through certain streets and bureaus.” And that becomes the red line, literally.
Davin Watne is an artist based in Kansas City. He received his BFA from the Kansas City Art Institute in 1994 and his MFA at Maryland Institute College of Art in 2013. He has been awarded the Charlotte Street Foundation Award, ArtsKC Inspiration Grant, Avenue of Arts Municipal Arts Grant, Art in the Loop Public Arts Grant and a former resident of the Studios Inc. Residency Program. Davin holds a full-time lecturer position at University of Missouri Kansas City, where he teaches Painting and Drawing. Davin is also the head curator and director of the UMKC Gallery of Art.
Now, more than ever
2018–2019 Winter Residency