Welcome to the first exclusive She Curates feature of 2021! I was lucky enough to speak to the talented Sydney Vernon!
I discovered Vernon after her solo show at Thierry Goldberg Gallery in New York, titles “When We See Us.” Describing her work as ‘ambitious, sentimental and historical’ I interviewed Vernon from England to New York. The full interview has been transcribed onto the website! Follow the link in the bio!
“I also throw a lot of like easter eggs into a lot of the work. References, like things outside of my personal family history, but also things that are impactful to like my version of understanding history. Some of the references are, are still, like deeply personal but a little bit more accessible than like, my personal family archive.”
We discuss dream dinner parties, solo exhibitions, mediums and more!
What an incredible way to start the year off with a marvellous bang! Thank you Sydney.
[Our conversation started in one room. Sydney showed me some of the incredible works behind her.]
S: I've collected so many prints and paintings over the years. It's crazy.
M: Well, it looks amazing! Now I know I'm biased but I don't think there is is anything, superfluous, that is better to buy, or collect, than artwork.
S: Yeah! Even during COVID I started buying paintings because I had my solo show in March. And I made money, but I couldn't do anything. Because it's COVID everything was closed. I was like, Okay, I can't take a trip. I can't like really go outside or anything. So I just invested in some paintings fromreally good friends. And I felt really good about that.
M: What are you up to after our interview?
S: I'm sitting right here. And I don't know, maybe I'll go to the studio a little bit.
M: How far away is your studio now, since you’ve moved?
S: It is kind of far. I'm in such a period of transition right now. It's wild. I have to get my morning routine and everything together.I just moved to Ridgewood, my studio was already far away. Now, it's a good like, 45-minute drive. I’m trying to get my routine sorted and be an organized adult.
M: So, let's get into it! Sydney, how would you describe your own work in three words?
S: I think I would say ambitious, sentimental and historical.
M: Historical - and that because it's so personal for you and your family?
S: Yes, but I also throw a lot of like easter eggs into a lot of the work. References, like things outside of my personal family history, but also things that are impactful to like my version of understanding history. Some of the references are, are still, like deeply personal but a little bit more accessible than like, my personal family archive.
M: Can you give an example? Like what kind of things do you mean? What kind of things might I've seen?
S: For example, magazine clippings. I know, in one piece this, like, two, two pages from a New York Times article that came out like, the week I was making that piece. And then it like a more recent one piece I've used some archival images from the Library of Congress Collections. Also, I reference a lot of other artists. So in one piece, like, I redrew, a Kerry James Marshall image. And in another piece, I collaged in a Barkley Hendrix drawing. So I do a lot of referencing of other artists, like whether it's explicitly or not so much.
M: Would you say that a lot of the influences from your work do come from other artists? Or do you think it comes from an internal source?
S: A bit of both. Ever since I started, going to school for art, which, honestly, I've always been going to school for art. I started at the basics, you know. Perhaps the basic is Warhol, like everybody knows Warhol. Mainstream. Then I got older and began exploring pieces by different artists that I enjoyed, learning more about them as people and their processes. Going into wormholes, doing research and discovering lesser known artists. Theres a lot of information in books, You really get into an artists mind... I steal from artists all the time because they know what they are doing!
M: I'm going to have to keep a better eye out! I've seen your work, obviously, online and obviously on Instagram - speaking of classic wormholes, Instagrams is a MASSIVE ONE - But you can't see those sort of details. That's fascinating.
S: Yeah, I mean, that's the great thing about seeing work in person, you you get to see the textures and some of the little scribbly things that artists write.
M: Yeah, Instagram often doesn't do artists justice, is it? And so you've spoken a little bit about how you've always gone to school for art. For the people that don't know you, what's what's been your story? How did you know you would be an artists? And how has everything changed since then?
S: I mean, I think I always knew I was going to do something creative because my mom put me in a Magnet Arts School. So I started my education there and remained in the same school until eighth grade. Went on to make art in high school but when I was 17 I just like wasn't taking myself that seriously. I did get into Pratt. But it was so expensive. I had to drop out after one semester. Then I then I just started working. And I, I did retail for a little bit. And then I found my way to like, the most creative position in retail, which was visual merchandising. Yeah, did that for a little bit. My sister, who is an artist, told me to apply to Cooper… so I applied to Cooper, and I got in. And I was, okay, it seems as if I'm moving to New York, to be a better artists and to take this seriously. So I think it was, it was always just about like, taking myself seriously. I think I always knew I was gonna do it. I just didn't invest in the path to actually do it until I was 21.
M: So was it that that moment with your sister? Is that what gave you like the push to believe in yourself and believe it was a viable career path for you and what you want to do?
S: I mean, I knew it was possible. I definitely knew, I just didn't know what I wanted to do. You know, kids are like, I want to be an artist. But what kind of artist? Do you want to sell your own work? Do you want to like help somebody else? Do you want to be an illustrator? So I just didn't know what I wanted to do.
M: So your work is now heavily painting and mixed media elements. Have you used other medium?
S: Yeah, a lot of the work has elements of print, whether it's like silkscreen, or I make a lot of monotypes and Xerox transfers. One of my biggest, flaws as a human is I really don't like doing something if it's not gonna look the way I want it to look. I have severe masterpiece syndrome. So I have done sculpture. But sculpture is really, really hard. In terms of like, technicality. I'm terrible at measuring and math. So like, when we had to do sculpture in school, it was like working with wood and metal. I knew I was just going to do performance instead. So I turned all of my sculpture assignments into performances. I loved it. And I make videos sometimes.
M: It's really interesting. And they obviously inform each other and what you're doing. Tell me about your solo show this year? How did that go? It was in March, am I right?
S: Yeah, I mean, I had an opening night. And that was really, really, really fun. So it opened on March 7, or something, and it was Armory Week in New York. COVID hadn't properly hit, everybody was like: oh, just wash your hands. So I did have the opening night and then the week after, it was done. New York was shut down.
[At this point, it is important to note that Sydney’s roommate (Mosie Romney’s) gorgeous dog walked into shot]
M: What breed is she? She's gorgeous!
S: She's a pitbull Labrador mix
M: She looks like she loves attention!
S: She does! So for the show, I had been working with that gallery for like a year. I was in one other group show. And after that, the work got a good response. I sold both of the pieces that were in that group show. And the owner of the gallery was like, okay, we're gonna do a solo. And I was like: What?!
M: Straight in the deep-end!
S: It was cool. I made several more pieces, and did the solo. So I was really naive, like, I didn't really know anything. I’m a junior in undergrad. And that seems weird that I'm getting a solo. Butyou know, I'm not gonna block my blessings.
M: Amazing. And it was an obvious success, despite everything going on in the world?
S: Yeah, it was up for so long. You know, the normal run of the shows is like three and a half weeks. My show was probably four months. It was definitely interesting. I'm just glad I had got to have the opening night I would have been really sad.
M: You can’t beat the energy!
S: Yeah, it's definitely an energy thing. And it all came from one piece I made during undergrad! I think it's just one of those things where you have to go through it and see the good and the bad. I really learned so much. And it was extremely anxiety inducing. I don't know, there's a thing about how stuff doesn't happen when you're ready for it? Yeah. Sometimes it just happens. And you have to go with it.
M: Like rolling with the punches. This is quite a difficult question, because I think it's hard to boil down such an eclectic body of work to one element, but what would you say is almost the most significant aspect of your work?
S: Definitely the drawing. I don't I really don't consider myself to be a painter, but because there is paint in the work I'm not gonna say I don't paint. But at the end of the day most of what I do is based in drawing, and it's about immediacy and responding to marks. And I think that's some of the quality that people respond to is the mark making. Patterns are nice, you know, that's cool. And colours are great. But sometimes I just like put the work in grayscale. And I'm like, Okay, this makes sense because of the marks not because of like all the extra stuff. That's what is the most interesting to me.
M: So you photograph it. And then use grayscale through the camera on your phone?
S: Yeah, my phone has so much to do with my practice. It's like a catch 22.
M: So, speaking of phones, obviously we met on our phones! But, your Instagram, and media online presence has just like blown up. I swear in the last like, six months. Would you agree?
S: Yeah, a little bit. I've been on Instagram since I was like, 13. So I've always liked social media, and have had some aspirations of being able to have a platform. I can consider myself a micro influencer. It's almost like there's a bubble and past a certain point, it might burst if the account grows too big.
M: So what are the sort of themes and practices he would say that move through your bodies of work? We've discussed a little bit about your family and obviously other the Easter eggs you put in and things like that, but what kind of questions are you trying to answer explore?
S: It's definitely about emotion. I don't want to sound like a maniac. But I really do love manipulating emotions. I recognise how insane it sounds. But I think there's also a lot of control and beauty in that. For example, your favourite movie could be the saddest movie in the world. And that's why you love it because it has this emotional tether. And I love that. I don't know what that is in my personality. Does that makes me an insane person? But I really do love when people have an emotional reaction to something. I don't like making images that don’t mean anything. I'm not going to say that. I like making images in general and I just like drawing. But if I'm going to make something and I know a lot of people are going to see it. I would prefer to have an emotion in mind that they're gonna, like, respond to, like, whether it be like grief, or excitement or anger. I don't know, I think I just watched too many movies or something. And I'm just like always playing director.
M: So when you start to work, and you've got the initial idea, do you have that kind of emotion in mind? And that minute picks everything else, like the colour palette? You know? Everything?
S: I mean, you improvise, and you roll with the punches or whatever. But, um, I think I always know, kind of like, because the work is so personal to me, I know how I feel about it. So in the in the point of transition, I have to decide how I want other people to feel about it. Or at least try to guide it because I can't tell people what to do. Like, I'm not I'm not a telepath or something. But I can make certain visual choices to, you know, influence the way people are going to view the image.
M: Kind of guiding it to that end point, isn't it? Rather than like dictating?
S: Exactly. Definitely emotion then as a theme. And then like, black art history is super important to me. And just black history in general. Whenever I I come across some like amazing research, I figure out how to make a piece about it. Education is a part of it.
M: So, we’ve got these themes, and some of the process through the use of your phone… How would you describe the rest of your process?
S: I've been using either a light table or a projector since I was, 12. I'm so ‘type A’ about how I want my stuff to look, I always project and kind of just get like an underdrawings of the subject. And then once I see what's there I can decide, okay, there's way too much foreground going on, or this detail just isn't necessary for this image. So I'm not going to use it in the end or it'll get covered up or something. So, I definitely use the projector a lot. Then I just spend most of my time drawing like looking at my computer or my phone and just, going back and forth to get likenesses or details and then I get bored. So sometimes I’ll just do something crazy. Like I'll just look around the studio and be like, what, can I glue on this? Yeah, so like, throw it off, and then maybe I can do some problem solving. And then I'll try to find a way to put in a reference if, if it's necessary, which it usually is, I usually arrive at it at some point. And then what I do is cut the edges just gesso the back of the piece and sit with it and it's probably done.
M: Incredible. And what is the source imagery that you use?
S: I've been just working from this massive archive of photos thatmy mom and my dad have given me. But because I'm on the internet, so much like other stuff comes in just like images from Tumblr, images that I actually have taken. All over the place!
M: Incredible. Okay, I love this question, because everyone has a different answer every day. But if you could own one piece of artwork in the world, and no matter cost, or you know, likelihood, or size or anything, what would the artwork be?
S: It’s a great question. It would have to be another black woman painter. Probably Lynette Yiadom-Boakye.
M: Perfect choice. In a similar vein, If you could have a meal with any artists from any time, what would the meal be? And also, who would the artists be?
S: I know the food because it just has to be this. It's such a southern like comfort food. And hopefully whoever I pick isn't vegetarian… like neck bones and kidney beans and rice in gravy with collard greens. It's not anything fancy. People would bring their guards down. And it’s got to be Kerry James Marshall at the table. He’s everyone’s dad. Then also Tamara de Lempicka. The conversation would be wild. Then also, Noah Davis. Then, Njideka Akunyili Crosby, I think they’re really nice. Intimate small.
M: Intimate, comfort and nourishing. And finally, who are your favourite contemporary female artists?
S: Eden Seifu @edenbseifu