On Race, Comedy, and Art: Devin Troy Strother at Richard Heller Gallery

In Devin Troy Strother's most recent show "Look at all my Shit!" at Richard Heller Gallery, Strother (NAP #85) packs another solo show full of his little black character cutouts or "minions" in his usual style.  Focusing this show on National Geographic and the NBA, Strother takes his characters through the jungles of Africa to the concrete jungle of the NBA stadiums.  Packed with humor, irony, wit, and satire, his shows always offer something to talk and think about.

His characters play on existing caricatured stereotypes of African Americans and speak to race quite frankly and directly.  However, it is not always clear exactly what the commentary behind his direct voice might actually be saying or thinking. – Ellen C. Caldwell, Los Angeles Contributor

Devin Troy Strother | That National Geographic shit: "Guuuuuurl, we need to get out of this jungle tho, these nniggas are trip pin, I got a pantha and you got a cheetah, so let's see who's the lead!", 2013, painted paper, acrylic, construction paper, and gouache, 39.5 x 50. Courtesy of 
Richard Heller Gallery.

Devin Troy Strother | “Look at all my Shit!” Installation view. Courtesy of Richard Heller Gallery.

Devin Troy Strother | “Look at all my Shit!” Installation view. Courtesy of Richard Heller Gallery.

In visiting the gallery with my college freshman seminar, I saw his show with new eyes.  Or rather adjusted eyes.  I have always had some hesitations with Strother's work, of which I am often embarrassed because I feel like I should know whether I love, like, or hate it.  On the one hand, it is fresh, it is funny, it is intellectual, it is current, it is daring, and it is provocative.  So, what isn't there to love?  

But on the other hand, my class asked whether his work reinforces stereotypes.  And that's just it.  It walks the line: it could reinforce stereotypes and exalt established racist caricatures, but it does't necessarily.  Does it speak to a history or does it succumb to one?  In a seminar entitled "Race-ing Art History," my class also quite openly discussed whether his art would be accepted and be praised the way it is if Strother was not African American.  The obvious answer here, is no. 

Devin Troy Strother | That National Geographic shit: When things get real in Africa, "Run nigga run!" said James to Clare, 2013, painted paper, acrylic, glitter, construction paper, and gouache, 39.25 x 55.5. Courtesy of Richard Heller Gallery.

In discussing the ins and outs of this kind of show and humor, I was finally able to find an analogy for my complicated feelings about his work.  I was recalling when Dave Chapelle had left his show back in 2004, there were features in Time Magazine in 2005 and Maxim in 2006 that told the story of a particular sketch and audience that put Chapelle over the edge.  The sketch featured highly stereotyped "pixies" from a handful of races that would hover over someone's shoulder the way a devil or angel conscious might, trying to convince the main character to act out stereotypical behavior.  Chapelle noted that when they were taping this sketch, a white member in the audience laughed a little too loudly and for a little too long.  And he realized that there was a difference between making a spectacle or being one and his worst fear was that his show had gone too far.  People weren't laughing with him, but at him.  

Devin Troy Strother | From the bush to the court: "alright now, ya'll niggas say cheese!"painted paper, acrylic, glitter, construction paper, gouache on panel, 16.75 x 20.25. Courtesy of Richard Heller Gallery.

I think that Strother's work has a similar aesthetic ability in its double-edged application and appreciation.  I left the show wondering whether Strother or the gallery owner ever hears anyone or sees anyone looking at his work and laughing a little too loudly.  

However, an interesting outcome came from my Chapelle Show analogy in class.  With the Chapelle Show, the particular sketch in question never aired on TV but was featured on the lost episodes DVD.  On the DVD, as they first show the sketch to the live audience, they introduced it as the controversial episode that put Chappelle over the edge and because of such, they proceeded to interview studio audience members about their feelings regarding the episode.  What occurs in that footage is a frank and open conversation about how and to what effect race, comedy, and stereotypes are played out in America.  And what happened with my seminar after visiting the Richard Heller Gallery and after watching the lost Chapelle show footage was something similar.  We had an honest, open, and challenging conversation about Strother's work and our feelings surrounding it.

If that isn't at the heart of great art, then I am not sure what is.  

Devin Troy Strother | That National Geographic shit: Come on guuurl, lemme paint ya on top of my cheetah! "bitch scoot over, you crampin my style" said Deon'dra to Amanda", 2013, painted paper, acrylic, glitter, construction paper, and gouache on canvas, 15.5 x 18. Courtesy of Richard Heller Gallery.

I think viewers of Strother's work will continue to not always get the joke, to know what he is meaning, to be offended or oppositely amused by his titles, or might even laugh at the wrong times, but when it comes down to it, an artist that can inspire such conversations and reactions with his work is a force to be reckoned with.

Devin Troy Strother | Reflections on surface of “A bunch of niggas at the opera,” 2013, auto body paint and acrylic on panel, 72 x 96. Courtesy of Ellen C. Caldwell.

Devin Troy Strother | Reflections on surface of “A bunch of niggas at the opera,” 2013, auto body paint and acrylic on panel, 72 x 96. Courtesy of Ellen C. Caldwell.

Aesthetically too, there were really wonderful moments in his show.  His sculptural paper cut outs form three-dimensional paintings that catch one's eye throughout.  His use of high-sheen black auto-body paint was also really enticing, creating special moments you would see sculptural reflections from across the hall mimicked and reflected back at you at various angles in a painting.  He also created a vastness of space that made some of his works feel abstract and pointillist from afar.

Strother's shows are provocative and certainly conversation pieces and I hope his work will continue to do what it does in opening, widening, and deepening conversations about the place of race, art, and humor in America.

Devin Troy Strother | “A bunch of niggas at the opera,” 2013, auto body paint and acrylic on panel, 72 x 96. Courtesy of Richard Heller Gallery.

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Devin Troy Strother's "Look at all my Shit!" runs through October 26th at the Richard Heller Gallery.

Ellen C. Caldwell is an LA-based art historian, writer, and editor.

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