Zoё Charlton said she can’t help but make art that represents her experience. In her drawings, she often depicts women who are black, nude and adorned with objects that relate to ideas like gender. However, sometimes people interpret her work differently.
“The work has always been read as, ‘Oh she’s making drawings about blackness.’ I was positing that I was making drawings of people that represent myself and that didn’t necessarily speak to blackness,” Charlton said. “But because the body was black as opposed to white, it carried a politics with it, and I always questioned that.”
Charlton, a professor of art at American University, will give a Visual Arts at Chautauqua Institution lecture 7 p.m. Friday at Hultquist Center. She described how her art has changed in a simple yet strategic way, and how it involves her own background. In the past, when she put out ads for models in Baltimore, because she disclosed her identity, most of the models who came to her studio were black women. However, when she did a residency in Colorado and put out the same type of ads, she got a different response that eventually helped to change the nature of her work.
“When I was in Colorado, about 90 percent of the people that were participating in these drawing series were white men and I was really surprised at that,” Charlton said. “Not surprised because of the demographic, but surprised because of the way that I could describe myself in my ad; I disclosed who I was. So then I just decided to make drawings from it and that began the shift.”
Beyond drawings, Charlton said, she has been working with different media for more than 15 years, and she often goes back and forth between drawing, collage, video and installation.
“I needed to find a different way of working, explore different kinds of methodology to widen the way that I was thinking about these things and these images and people that I was representing,” Charlton said. “Working in a different media really helped me do that. It made me question things like space and the kinds of relationships or the distance between one figure and another. All of those other things that come up when I was trying to translate a drawing into an animation for example, or an idea that I had for a drawing and I would translate it into a sculptural project.”
One installation she did was a collaboration with Rick Delaney called “There Goes the Neighborhood,” in which they featured a 30-by-40 lawn with pink suburban houses placed on top, interspersed with 150 garden gnomes painted in seven shades of brown.
Being from the South, Charlton said she often noticed lawn ornaments such as flamingos, garden gnomes and even derogatory objects, such as jockeys in blackface on people’s yards. The artists wanted the installation to ask why there weren’t other types of lawn ornaments and why there were only white gnomes, in order to lead viewers into deeper questions about diverse living spaces and how some people will perceive a neighborhood as declining just because different types of residents are living there.
Through her work, Charlton said she strives to tell narratives about subjects such as suburbia, families, being an African-American woman and even stories related to cultural phenomenons. However, she said she is not overtly political in her work and challenges the notion that just because of her identity, she is obligated to tackle subjects such as the recent unrest occurring in the United States and terror attacks in France.
“My work isn’t necessarily an answer or a call or directly contributing to this conversation, but it’s related to conversations that are had all over, throughout time, all over the world,” Charlton said. “One could ask a white artist like Eric Fischl, a white male artist, ‘Are you making work that addresses these concerns?’ And imagine what they would say. … We all have a responsibility to talk about this, regardless [of whether] it shows up in the work or not.”
Charlton said her lecture will be thematic and touch on the ties between different bodies of work, such as recurring props she has used. She also hopes to talk about the different questions that pop up in her thinking process when she’s creating art that may be related to race or gender.
“Can I talk about issues of blackness or whiteness, or specifically blackness and not represent a black body, a black figure? That’s really interesting,” Charlton said. “Can I do that if I’m only drawing white figures? I think those are really important things. Can I make drawings about women and only make drawings of men?”