In March, we visited the SPRING/BREAK art show, where we first met artist Marcus Leslie Singleton. His show “Up Trying to Remember a Dream,” curated Lizzie Renfrew Vogt, caught our eye as a quiet oasis of familiarity situated amid the visual frenzy of the fair.
Fashioned after a bedroom, an intimate space was filled with natural light, potted plants, and a cushion-covered window seat. It created a homey mise-en-scene for the artist’s paintings of the mundane “in-between” moments of everyday life—like the title work, which depicts a figure sitting at the edge of a bed, or Expect Delays, in which a girl waits at a bus stop. With flat, visible brush strokes and a saturated palette, Singleton’s work may appear friendly and relatable at a first glance, but a certain evocative nostalgia ensures that you’ll want to take a second, more thorough look.
A self-taught artist, Singleton left his home state of Washington to pursue his artistic career. His practice questions the process of identity building and black consciousness. Recently, Whitewall caught up with the Brooklyn-based artist to discuss “Up Trying to Remember a Dream,” and to see how he’s doing during the COVID-19 pandemic.
WHITEWALL: We recently saw your installation “Up Trying to Remember a Dream” at SPRING/BREAK. Can you tell us a bit about this presentation?
MARCUS LESLIE SINGLETON: The theme of the SPRING/BREAK 2020 was “in excess.” The curator, Lizzie Renfrew Vogt, and I wanted to create a space to step away from that. We wanted to invite viewers to cross a threshold away from autopilot consumption towards a place of pause and reflection.
People really responded to the space, saying it felt like a sanctuary. The show was a mix of pieces that capture the way we perform socially and ones that were about the solitary moments when we make sense of those interactions. We took the title of the show from that particular piece because it characterizes that liminal space between private and public life. It has elements of the romanticized and the real, between sleep and wake, when you’re alone and sifting through memories and dreams.
WW: As a self-taught artist, how did your relationship with art begin, and how did you career unfold?
MLS: I started painting when I was 21. When I was a teenager, I played guitar in a punk rock band. It was cool, I loved it, but I was still searching for something. I didn’t know what I was searching for.
I got into making clothes and textiles and enrolled in fashion school. It only took two months of that to know it wasn’t for me. I couldn’t communicate my thoughts through fashion. I dropped out and went to an art supply store and got a canvas just to try it out. The first painting I ever made was an oil painting. I found a way to communicate without barriers. Painting gave me a voice for my inner thoughts.
I was working in a shoe store in Seattle, making art in my free time. My mom encouraged me to keep it up. She thought I could do it. That helped me think, “Ok this could be something I could make a career out of.” She used to make ceramics with this guy, Eric Salisbury—one of my first inspirations and mentors—and my Dad also used to paint.
When I moved to New York, before I started teaching, I was working restaurant jobs. I got fired from every single one of them. I was trying to be a server; I’d always mess up people’s orders and I was too slow. I wasn’t good. One day my manager told me, “You’re too artistic, you shouldn’t be working at restaurants, you make too many mistakes, find a different job.”
I still remember everything about that moment. I thought I could just move out here and start making art like it was the ‘80s. It took longer than I expected it to—like six years longer than I expected it to—and now things are beginning to pay off.
WW: Your paintings often capture life’s mundane “in-between” moments. Why are you drawn to these?
MLS: Those are real moments that everybody has. Everybody can realize those times whether it’s brushing your teeth, or talking on the phone, or getting into an argument… normal things—things I’ve lived through, and that stuck with me. When I have memories like that, it’s a good reason to make a painting.
WW: In your practice, you examine the process of identity building. What are some things you’ve learned through art regarding your personal identity?
MLS: I’ve learned how I look at the world. I’ve learned how I respond to the world. Whether it’s in a bank, or in an intimate setting with a lover, or in a club, or at a party or in a store. To make great paintings you have to be vulnerable. You just have to put it out there.
WW: The current global circumstances caused by COVID-19 are making things pretty uncertain, especially for those in the art community. How are you doing amid the chaos?
MLS: The situation is terrible. Personally, I’m doing alright. I’m lucky because I can work from home or my studio. The solitude part doesn’t bother me. I’ve always made art alone, so my practice hasn’t changed, it’s always been reclusive. But it does feel different when it’s government-mandated alone time. Moving forward I’m going to just spend more time creating and less time worrying about trivial bull shit.
Last year I had to stay in my room for six months altogether because I ruptured my Achilles tendon, twice. So, I’ve been spending a lot of time inside recently, but it’s granted me the ability to truly know myself better and it’s reshaped my view and how I see the world.
WW: In a situation like this, where the entire planet is impacted, what would you say the role of the artist is?
MLS: The role of the artist is always to be an artist—keep making, keep creating. The need for beauty and love and assurance is always there, right now it’s amplified. You have to maintain a sense of self even though things are wildly fucked up and unpredictable right now. You have to do it, because that’s really what’s going to help other people—if you do it successfully, you’ll make work that resonates. People respond to your truth.