André Leon Gray first came to my attention with his Eye Gumbo Vol. 1 exhibition at the Carolina Union in 1997. This, I thought, was definitely a fresh talent--but would he stay on the scene? I assumed then that Gray was a UNC-Chapel Hill student, although his art was unburdened with self-importance and art-student clichés. Sure, there were awkward moments, but the work was remarkably direct and intelligent. Even though he was still a new traveler on it, I sensed that this artist had found his own path.
It turned out that Gray was not a student at UNC, or indeed anywhere except in a school of his own devising. He is that rarity, a self-taught artist who is not naïve. Gray graduated from Raleigh's Enloe High School, where he took some art classes, but says he never thought about an art career. "I just thought about commercial art," explains Gray. "That's why I went to NCCU in fashion design."
When he found that the curriculum there didn't suit him, Gray went to work in retail, clerking in arts and crafts stores. One day he took in a drawing he'd done, which amazed his fellow employees. "One guy said to me, 'Man, why are you working here, if you can do that?'" says Gray. "I thought, 'Good question.'" He'd always been a creative person--why wasn't he doing something with his creativity? Soon after, Gray bought a $5 camera at a thrift shop and began teaching himself to make photographs.
"I didn't like the way African Americans were portrayed, you know, in the media," he says. He wanted to find a truer way to show real black people, a way to make the life he knew more visible. In short order he produced the 67 portraits of African Americans that landed him his first exhibition, at N.C. Wesleyan College. Making the portraits was satisfying, but almost immediately Gray turned to the mixed-media work that allows him more intimate interaction with his materials and that has resulted in the Eye Gumbo series. He often incorporates photographs in that work, but he also draws, paints, collages, builds and assembles to create his images. These aren't portraits of individuals, nor yet of an entire people, but Gray's assemblages do portray the reality he knows and express the values he holds.
Gray has stayed on the scene, becoming more surprising and interesting in the ensuing years. Eye Gumbo was not, so to speak, a flash in the pan. One measure of an artist is his ability to conceive ideas of sufficient volume and complexity that they can hold his--and our--attention through a prolonged series of explorations. Gray has been working with a bundle of big, unwieldy ideas. He deals with the Africanness of African Americans; with respect for ancestors and ancestral values; with the intersection of cultures of African and European origins.
"I feel closer to more traditional African ways of life," Gray said in a recent interview. "But my influences come from different sources. That's why I call it [his art] Eye Gumbo: It's a mixture." He's interested in what he calls "the creolization of African and European aesthetics," and that is demonstrated in his mixed-media pieces, in which Yoruba, voodoo and Santeria references commingle with the poetics of found objects, a bold stylish sense of pattern and placement (which owes much to both abstraction and jazz), and the specific verbal sass of rap. While there are certainly other artists working in a similar manner ("People ask me if I've heard of Renee Stout," he comments dryly), Gray tracks his own groove in the genre.
The sixth and most recent volume of Gray's "creolization" is his studio show, Eye Gumbo: Fruits of My Labor, work made during his Regional Emerging Artist residency at Raleigh's Artspace. Gray was the first artist to win this new residency, which provides a free studio for a six-month period. His term ended June 30, and he has since moved to Permanent Grin, a four-person studio on Hargett Street.
Besides bringing him more public exposure, the Artspace residency gave Gray more contact with other artists. He was glad, he says, not to be so isolated--to be able to talk about ideas, and get advice and feedback. "This is what I do full-time," he says. "I don't have a day job, so it is good to have the interaction." The size of the studio, bigger than his former space at Lump, also allowed him to create larger, more complex pieces. Finally, he says, "I'm reaching the point where I'm making work I'm more satisfied with."
He also feels that his art is changing: "I'm trying to get more subtle, use more symbolism," he says, "and I notice lately I have a lot of movement in my work. I have an idea of doing something with film. Mixed-media and film." His eyes get that distant, speculative look of the artist in action. "I've worked with ancestors, but now I'd like to work with things more contemporary."
Whatever direction his subject matter may take, certain things are clear to André Leon Gray: "For me, art is just intuitive. God gave it to me and it's my mission to share it with other people and be happy. Artists are most happy when they are creating."
Sounds like his new studio at Permanent Grin could make him a good home.