Interview with Joseph Whitfield
“Our Lady of Guadalupe”
The following is part of a new series that interviews queer artists living and working in the Greater Richmond area. I was able to catch up this summer with Joseph Whitfield to talk about his work, career and life.
Joseph Tyler Whitfield was born in Norfolk, Virginia on July 14, 1987. He was raised in Hampton Roads on the salty asphalt of a mid-century cul-de-sac. He currently lives and works in Richmond, VA.
What made you get started as an artist?
I was always drawn to anything visual that stimulated my creative needs growing up. It wasn’t until I was older, probably toward the end of high school, that I realized there were places I could apply and develop these energies. I think that I also needed to define a space that I had control over as a child. Childhood can be a pretty powerless time in our lives, so it was important for me to navigate and experiment within a more autonomous arena that allowed me to be myself.
You state at the end of your artist statement that the “absence of mystery becomes the absence of invention.” Where have you experienced many of these voids of mystery and invention?
So much of my work starts with a question that I’m trying to answer. Although sometimes it can end up being more of an excavation of new questions from a subject that I’m exploring. It really feels like exploring an aesthetic frontier. I know the direction I want to travel in but rarely know how to get there, or what I’ll find along the way. What I meant by the statement though, is that mystery often invites a viewer to define their own relationship with art. It prompts them as an intellectual participant to insert their own ideas and content.
Do you work in a subconscious way? Is painting in any way meditative for you?
I try to maintain a balance between control and more subconscious; idiosyncratic; experimentation. It’s actually one of the most difficult aspects of creating work for me. Knowing when to let go and when to apply the appropriate restraint based on the needs of the material and subject can be an precarious process. I think painting, even as a sculptor, has always had a strong presence in my work, especially when I consider color and composition. In terms of actually painting though, I do find it meditative to break away from the objecthood of sculpture and invest more fully in the surface, color and composition of an image. I’d like to utilize two-dimensional strategies more often as a means of reconnecting and expanding conversations that I tried to start in three-dimensions.
You recently received a VCU Undergraduate Research Grant in 2010. How was that helpful for your artistic pursuits?
That project was headed by a fellow artist and friend Diana Laurel Caramat. It was supposed to be an exploration of the international art fair scene that utilized a miniature, wearable art gallery called WORN Gallery. Unfortunately WORN was rejected by the fairs that Diana contacted (even though we wouldn’t have needed any physical space to showcase work). After a long string of obstacles, the project dissolved pretty unceremoniously with everyone investing energy in new projects. I think the experience was helpful in demonstrating how much of an industry the art world can become. It also showed me that sometimes even great ideas struggle to get off of the ground.
Where do you find inspirations? Do you have any artistic role models?
I find a lot of inspiration in creative projects that are outside of the art scene. Innovations in science and technology, biological processes, films, psychology, and my own interpersonal relationships with people, places and things. My artistic role models include artists, musicians, writers, filmmakers, architects, etc. I think it’s important to stay receptive to new ideas because you never know what will move you. Right now I am revisiting a lot of Sophe Calle and Mike Kelley’s work, watching a lot of queer cinema, being inspired by the imagery within Gloria Anzaldua’s writing, thinking about what it means to grow up in the South and how personal geography affects what I make, and meditating over the future manned Mars mission planned for 2023 in which astronauts will attempt to establish a colony with no plans of returning.
Do you directly deal with sexuality in your work?
I think my sexuality has always had a subconscious presence in what I make but it wasn’t until recently that I’ve approached the subject more directly and with less reservation than I’ve had in the past. Right now I’m working to generate an entirely new body of work that is a lot more sexually and emotionally frank, humorous and vulnerable.
How open are you in describing the mystery and imagery behind your sculptures?
I’m fairly open to answering any questions about my work but at the same time I also understand that each viewer will define their own relationship with a piece of artwork. It’s rare that an artist is present to “guide” you through what they are trying to do. I don’t have any interest in trying to curate people’s responses. It’s interesting to consider the reaction that someone will have to a piece but impossible to predict. I really believe that making art is a form of visual dialog that the artist and viewers are engaged in though. An effective piece of artwork may have a clearer voice in articulating its ideas or intentions but the viewer can add so much more to the conversation that the work initiated. I think that’s why some art takes on a life of it’s own, regardless of the artist’s intent.
Jon Henry comes from the small town of Washington, Virginia. Xe finished xes degree at the University of Richmond and was named GayRVA.com's Out.Spoken. Richmonder of the Year for 2011. When not in class, xe is either in the studio or rabble rousing with other queer activists. Follow xem on Twitter.
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