Cullen Washington On Surpassing Boundaries

To Enter A Land Beyond Words

Blue 1, 2015, canvas, paper, charcoal powder, tape, 10ft x 5ftInstallation view, Jack Bell GalleryOver the past six years, Cullen Washington’s work has evolved from figurative and figurative abstraction on canvas into a fully abstracted, large-scale form of assemblage.

Space Notation 1, 2014, canvas, paper, charcoal dust, tape, wood, 7ft x 4.5ftWashington's work is presented in one and two person shows and receives thoughtful criticism. His first international show was Black Moon Rising at the Jack Bell Gallery, London, January 24, 2014-March 2014.  His other solo show last year was The Land Before Words — i.e., beyond the narrative expressed or implied by figuration — at Boston University. 

Late last year, he returned home for the Trio: Beyond Boundaries exhibition at his hometown Alexandria (LA) Museum of Art. Trio was a salute to Washington and two other African American artists from Louisiana who have received broad recognition beyond the state — Malaika Favorite and Phoenix Savage.  In announcing the exhibition, the Museum said that it encourages "everyone to strive to surpass their own boundaries, whether set by themselves or society." 

Ice Cube, 2014, canvas, charcoal powder, paper, tape, string, head phone cushion, 7ft x 6ftHis most recent solo show was Space Notations at B2OA Gallery in New York, Jan. 22 - Feb 23, 2015.  In late May 2015, he returns to London for his second show at Jack Bell Gallery.

Cullen Washington received his BA from Louisiana State University and his MFA from Tufts University/School of the Museum of Fine Arts Boston. Washington has exhibited his work widely in group and solo shows nation-wide and Letters to God, 2014, canvas, house paint, wax coated string, wire, tape, paper, 6ft x 5ftabroad including The Contemporary Arts Museum Houston, Houston, TX; Studio Museum in Harlem, New York, NY; deCordova Sculpture Park and Museum, Lincoln, MA; and the Saatchi Gallery London, UK.

He has been an artist in residence at the Studio Museum in Harlem (2013), Rush Arts Gallery (2012), Yaddo (2011), and Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture (2010). He was the recipient of a Joan Mitchell Foundation Award in 2009 and a Bartlett and Montague Travel Grant in 2008.Reviews and critical essays of his work appear in Art: 21 Magazine, Abstract Critical, The New York Times, The Boston Globe, Art New England and The Studio Museum exhibition catalogue Fore. His work is in the collections of The Studio Museum in Harlem and Saatchi Gallery.

Cullen Washington discussed his artistic development with IRAAA in a March 2015 interview:

How did the relinquishing of direct racial references in your work come about?

Untitled #1, 2012, canvas, paper, tape, found materials, 7ft x 12ftWhen I first began making art, my conscious intention was to free the image of the young, black urban male from the traditional negative stereotypes into something spiritually and physically heroic. I was also concerned with transforming the stereotypes of the inner city landscape into cosmic forms. My underlying intention was to liberate Blackness from the boundaries placed upon it by a particular set of contemporary social and economic constraints. Maybe on some level my project hasn’t changed, but in my current work, blackness is no longer particular to race or place, but is rather about the expansiveness of space itself and of the human spirit. The leap into abstraction and an equivalent leap into a more global perspective on the world went hand-in-hand.

Did it involve having new experiences and broader exposures to art?

Untitled #5, 2013, canvas, paper, tape, found materials, 7ft x 12ftThe Nars Residency gave me a chance to have a studio in NY where for the first time I was able to see firsthand all the art I had only known in books or digital reproduction and to begin to connect to the contemporary international art scene and to the best work of artists I never knew existed. For a painter or sculptor, it’s vitally necessary to see all this physical art in person to grasp what making art is all about. I also think its important to read the writings of artists and critical essays. It’s impossible to understand the work just by observation. Investigating what the artist was thinking and the time and place in which he/she lived is invaluable as well. Brief trips to Paris and London enlarged this firsthand knowledge of art exponentially and exposed me to a range of global histories that enlarged my sense of self. Right now, abstraction seems to me to be the only way to express how I see the world.

The indirect reference remains — i.e, the inspiration from quilts?

Untitled #8, 2013, mixed media on canvas, 7.5ft x 7ftWell, I’m from Louisiana. The quilt is a symbol of creativity and resourcefulness in Southern culture. Scraps, leftovers, hand me downs – the significance of these materials and the memories they contain for the quilter are captured and affirmed in their re-use. However, traditional African American quilts are inherently celebratory and memorial in tone. In contrast, my work and its merger of things from different sources investigates paradoxes, disjunction, and unsettles the old alignments with an eye toward a reimagined and reconstructed future. So the way I work has perhaps less to do with the tradition of quilt-making than with the history of European collage and contemporary African found-object work which begins as political critique. The detritus of the past is assemblaged and collaged together to envision more fluid possibilities of our unknown future relationships to the universe.

How did you begin solo showing in galleries? Was it a result of The Studio Museum in Harlem residency?

Space Notation #2, 2014, canvas, tape, acrylic gel medium, acrylic paint, string, paper, plastic filter, reflective paper, wire, 8.5ft x 5.5ftIt takes a succession of things over many years to gain the momentum to be recognized. Most importantly, it takes years of incredibly hard and self-critical work to arrive at a strong body of work, and then to do it again, and again. As one in a succession of many career catalysts, The Studio Museum in Harlem played the major role in placing me in an accessible arena for galleries and others to take notice of my work, but it was also a matter of perfect timing. The Studio Museum did not accept me until my work was already worthy of recognition, and then they gave me the valuable critical time to develop an entirely new body of work, the momentum to push it to another level, and a platform to show it. If I hadn’t been ready to take this leap, the residency would have been meaningless in terms of my career. It’s important to add that I was fortunate to have been accepted in several prior residencies, particularly Skowhegan, and that each contributed something of vital importance during those years of preparation. Skowhegan gave me the space to learn what it means to be a working artist – the level of total commitment, experimentation and courage I would need as an artist and I’ve never turned back.

Do you feel that you now have a permanent signature style or do you think that your expression will continue to evolve?

Space Notation #3, 2014, canvas, wood, acrylic paint, liquid graphite, plastic, gesso, charcoal dust, graphite dust, 9ft x 6ftFor me, making work is like life - a process of  continual growth, the excitement of new discoveries and connections and hopefully a deepening of my understanding of what it’s all about. No professional artist can sustain a career without this kind of creative and human regeneration.

— J.H.