When painting at a live show, Chicago artist Cleveland Dean often goes into a trance. His multi-hour sessions at galleries produce striking, mostly abstract artwork grounded in Dean's influences, but ultimately springing from the live environment in which it was created.
A native of the South Side, Dean is a self-taught artist who has been painting since 2005 and has enjoyed a good deal of success through the sale of over 200 of his pieces. He works out of Sen Studios in Wicker Park and has been a resident of this neighborhood for the past 11 years.
Dean exhibits in galleries throughout the Chicago area and is one of the two artists featured in the March 21, 2009, Equinoccio de Primavera art exhibition presented by The Site of Big Shoulders.
We sat down with Cleveland prior to the exhibition to discuss his methods, artwork and working as an artist in Chicago.
Q: What can you tell us about your work and what it means to you? How do you think people should view your work as a collection and as presented in the Equinoccio de Primavera show?
Dean: All of my work is abstract. All of it has two or three color schemes: black, white and sometimes I infuse some red. [Equinoccio de Primavera] is mainly going to be black and white, to convey the disciplined ideology behind why I use those colors.
The ideology behind black and white can be summed up in two words: polar opposites. There is always the left and the right, the conservative and the liberal, the conscious and the unconscious. I infuse black and white to convey these polar opposites, in order to bring them together and try to come up with some neutral medium point to convey everyday existence in human psychology.
Q: I understand that you work with many different media, such as painting, drawing, installation, poetry and sculpture. What are the common influences and inspirations throughout all of your work?
Dean: Whenever I do anything, it involves me digging deeper within myself – sort of blacking out, going into a trance, and drawing it out. I never write anything down, I never sketch, it just comes to me. It very much just comes straight out of my head. While I am in the middle of it, I sort of piece it together. If it takes an average person a month to create a painting, I will process everything I would need to in a month, and do [the painting] in a sitting.
Q: What artists and artists movements are your biggest inspiration and why? Which artists, if any, within the abstract American expressionism movement have influenced you?
Dean: As far as artists, it would be Jackson Pollock, Franz Kline, Clifford Steele, William DeKooning and abstract expressionists. Inoue Yuichi’s work is based on Japanese calligraphy ... a huge influence on my work. [I employ] physics, manipulation of materials and earth elements, because I use a lot of gravity in my work as opposed to painting. Obviously, abstract expressionism is huge to me. As vain as it will sound, when it comes to contemporary artists, my biggest influence is myself.
Q: How has Chicago influenced your work?
Dean: Chicago has made me who I am. It has a direct influence on how I think, how I act, how I react, and that gets expressed on the canvas. Chicago taught me how to hustle, it taught me how to strive above and beyond the rest and put your heart, your mind and your soul into what you are doing.
A lot of people leave Chicago because they feel like in order to make it big, they have to move somewhere else, which I can understand and appreciate. But it never furthers Chicago, so I am not going anywhere.
Q: How do you mentally prepare before you paint live?
Dean: Outside a bottle of champagne? I take a few moments before each show. I will go somewhere wherever I am and stretch the limbs out a little bit. It's pretty much the environment that feeds me, so when I am in the middle of this environment, listening to the music, feeling the vibe of the people, feeling the presence of the people, it helps me to sync with my inner self.
Q: What can you tell us about your expressionistic theory of creation? Harold Rosenberg writes: “At a certain moment, the canvas began to appear to one American painter after another as an arena in which to act. What was to go on the canvas was not a picture, but an event.” I was wondering if you could describe your methods, actions, and process as you create.
Dean: In relation to painting live, my method is sort of an event. I saw someone record me once, and they gave me a copy. I was like, what the hell is wrong with me? I had never seen myself in that light, and I was taken aback.
I do get very interpersonal with the canvas. Usually before I do a painting, I feel the canvas, I look it over, I try to become one with it. In the work itself, the event to me is like an existential awareness of one's psyche at that particular moment in time. You can be in one mood when you look at a painting, and feel one thing, and then five minutes later be in a totally different mood and see something different. So the event in my work is drawn out of your psyche, out of your understanding, out of your correlation to thought and your environment.
Q: What happens when you black out while painting? Is this a method of free association, or random, automatic techniques? And how do you interpret a work after it has been completed?
Dean: As far as blacking out, it can be conveyed as free association. To tell you the truth, a lot of times I don’t even remember after I come out of my little trance. I come out, and I have created something.
Many times, people will look at my work, and they will talk to me about it. They will see something I didn’t even see. So I enjoy that. To me, performance art is hearing other people say what it is they see. After I have created the painting, it’s sort of a blank canvas for interpretation. So I let other people add to that event aspect.
I do what I can to not over-classify anything. The only reason why I call my work abstract is because that’s how people identify it. I let [a piece] speak for itself. To me, it is a personal thing between your eyes, your mind and your soul when you look at a piece of work. I am more intrigued in the interpretation than I am my own [reaction].
Q: I understand that you have only been painting for 3-1/2 years. How has your work evolved during that time?
Dean: I first started by emulating the styles of artists I admired and appreciated, like Jackson Pollock, like Franz Kline. Over time, it's been me taking their examples and making them my own. I also create as I want to create. One "rule" of art is you create in a certain style so people will recognize a style – that is bullshit to me. So if I create something that is totally left field from what I had previously created, I have the autonomy to do that.
Q: I understand that you can create up to thirty paintings in a day! How do you sort through them and decide which pieces to put together, and which pieces to show? How do you pick your favorites?
Dean: All are my favorites because all are my children. It’s something I gave birth to, so it’s like picking a favorite limb. If I do thirty pieces, that means I have thirty concepts that pop up in my head. It’s not like I do thirty, and I am only going to use ten of them. If I spit out thirty, that means thirty things came to me. It’s very seldom that I go back and rework some of them, because I try to encapsulate that moment in time. So a lot of times, if I do have an off painting, I usually just destroy it. If I'm in a sitting, I do everything I can to make every [painting] count.
Q: What makes you unique as an artist?
Dean: I consider myself to be an artist, not just a painter. Also, I know business backwards and forwards. A lot of artists ... really don’t know business that well. When I am in my studio, it's all about what it is that I express and what I can draw out of myself. As soon as I step out of the studio, it’s business, all day, every day.
Q: What projects do you have planned for the future?
Dean: I have Sen Studios expanding, basically pushing my work, making it more global. Bushido 17 [is another project] that's all fashion and design elements, with furniture. Something that I have been doing for a while is Collective Reasoning, which is basically exhibitions to showcase up-and-coming artists in a somewhat unconventional way. And then there’s a possibility of a non-for-profit that will benefit artists here in the city.
Artwork Copyright © Cleveland Dean