In the first of this new FAD series of interviews with upcoming talent, Lee Sharrock talks to 27 year old artist Travion Payne about his love of Caravaggio, redressing the cultural imbalance in art by putting black people in the forefront, and the power of Instagram in gaining exposure for unsigned artists. Texan-born Travion moved from Houston to Los Angeles to pursue a career as an artist, and during the pandemic has been creating art at home and gaining exposure with an appearance in a music video and an exhibition at the Beverly Center in LA.
Lee Sharrock: How did you get into art and what materials do you use and what’s your process?
Travion Payne: I’ve been creating art ever since I was a child. I didn’t have a privileged upbringing and I didn’t have the money to afford the best art classes or private instructors, so I had to be able to make my artistic visions come to life while on a budget. Everything that I couldn’t learn from the few art classes that I was taking in school; I would teach myself from art textbooks and YouTube. This was the foundation that led to me creating my own style and establishing my own path within the art world. The materials that I use are predominantly oil paints on canvas however I am well-trained in multiple genres of Art and the use of other materials. As far as my process I like to keep that a secret.
I’ve been reading Matthew Israel’s book “A year in the art world” and he says that a 2019 study of the public online catalogues of 18 major US museums & 10,000 artist records found that 85% of artists were white & 87% were men. This is a sad statistic although I can’t say I was that surprised as the art world is really lacking in gender parity and cultural and gender representation. It’s definitely time for a change and for more gender and race parity and representation of different cultures in the art world. It feels like young artists like you can change the art world demographic. When I heard the young poet laureate Amanda Gorman speak at the Biden inauguration, I was so inspired by her message of hope and her eloquence, it made me feel really positive that the next generation can change the world for the better. Do you feel that after the tragedies and injustices of 2020 including the pandemic, the Trump administration, police brutality in the US and the totally heartbreaking murder of George Floyd, there is hope that with the new administration and the positivity, action and intelligence of Gen Z and generation Alpha there is a brighter more equal and just future ahead?
I don’t really like to talk about politics however I will say that I do believe that there is always hope. With all the tragedies that’s going on in the world now We must try for change. It won’t be easy by any means however change will not happen if we don’t make it happen. The George Floyd incident really made a lot of these companies start to analyze their statistics as far as the equality within their own companies. They have all considered and looked into more diversity because due to the media outrage it became public knowledge of the lack of diversity within each company when it came to people of color. From the entertainment industry, to the food and hospitality industry, to the medical industry, and also to the art industry for example. That’s why it’s my duty as an artist to be the voice of change through my creations.
How did the pandemic and lockdown affect your art – did it give you more time to contemplate and create?
Pandemic really gave me time to sit down and brainstorm what direction I wanted to go in my art career and also time to think about new ideas for upcoming paintings. I didn’t have a creative mental block like some other creatives. I actually flourished creatively because I wasn’t surrounded by other people and distractions: only me and my thoughts.
I noticed your quote on your instagram “Lack of exposure doesn’t mean you aren’t talented”. Do you find that instagram has been a useful tool in giving exposure to young artists without having to be part of the traditional gallery system, and do you think for Millennials and gen Z that the contemporary art world structure will become irrelevant as more and more artists achieve success through social media platforms?
Instagram and other social media apps are extremely useful when it comes to younger artists being able to sell their art to buyers directly. I don’t think that the traditional gallery system is going away anytime soon however selling art on social media does give artists an avenue to break the “starving artist” stigma.
On your instagram you talk about racism in Renaissance art and show several paintings depicting black people as servants and being treated as lesser human beings. You said “As much as I am inspired by Renaissance art seeing paintings like these really bother me. This is why I decide to paint people of colour and bring them to the forefront because our beauty needs to be shown!” When did you discover these paintings and was it the racism of Renaissance and Old Masters paintings that motivated you to redress the balance by putting people of colour front and centre of your own paintings?
I admire Renaissance art because how the models are positioned in it’s almost like they’re telling a story through their body language and their facial expressions without being in motion. As much as I admire this style of art I would never see people that look like me in the front. When you read the art history textbooks it goes into detail about the reasoning behind this and also the reasoning of why black people weren’t allowed to create art during that time period. While I do admire that style of art I decided to change it up and create my own style starting with putting black people in the Forefront.
You currently have an exhibition at Art Show in LA. Can you tell me about the work in the exhibition and the theme?
Yes, I currently have an art show at the Beverly Center in Los Angeles California. During the pandemic the majority of the museums and galleries in Los Angeles closed down due to the CDC guidelines so the initial concept of the art showcase was proposed by Karen Bystedt. The art show exhibits work by African-American artists around the world all in one space. Featuring artists like Jean-Michel Basquiat, Kehinde Wiley, and Bradley Theodore. These artists are huge in the art world and it’s an honor being a part of something like this.
Your work was featured in a music video recently. Who was the artist and how did they come across your work? Did the exposure raise the profile of your art?
The music artist is Greyson Chance. His team found me on Instagram and I really admired my work and asked me to be a part of the video. I really don’t pay attention to the numbers. I was just happy that I could expose my art to a new younger audience that may not have seen an artist creating art in the way that I do.
You have examined depression and mental illness in your painting ‘Mental Illness’ and you said: “For most black people our religious beliefs go back to slavery, when religion was the one solid foundation. Our ancestors lived with depression, anxiety, bipolar and PTSD but back then, there weren’t any names for those conditions.” Does painting provide you with an emotional outlet, a place to channel angst or emotion, and a sense of meditation or therapy?
Yes, painting is therapeutic to me. It’s a time that I can calm my nerves and become one with my painting. I don’t have a favorite painting because I literally put myself into each painting and give it my all. As far as mental health goals I feel as though some people need a healthy outlet to cope with everyday stressors of life. For some people this can mean talking to a therapist, going for a run, movie marathon, or just creating art.
Your ‘Mental Illness’ painting has a real sense of religious or classical paintings by iconic artists such as Caravaggio or Reubens. It reminds me of Caravaggio’s ’Salome Receives the head of John the Baptist’. For someone so young your references are very classical, and I wonder if these artists inspired you or if there are other artists that you’ve seen that you channel into your style?
Caravaggio is one of my favorite artists. The way that he portrays emotions in his art is incredible. He can take something as simple as the way a finger is shaped, or the swinting of the eye, or the way clothing is draped, to give the painting a deeper meaning. It’s like eye candy because every time you look at a painting by Caravaggio you see something new. Whenever I see his work at a museum I find myself staring for over an extended period of time however I wonder why don’t I see people that look like me in his art. I’ve always wanted my art to have that lasting effect on the viewer. Grabbing people’s attention to the point where they stare for long periods of time and question everything including the theme or myself.
You’ve quoted Fausto Cercignani: “Your identity is like your shadow: not always visible and yet always present”. Is this a mantra that you apply to your artistic practice?
I interpret this quote as because I am an artist people are going to see my paintings before they see me so they are going to try to interpret my identity and personality based on my art. Which may or may not be an accurate depiction of me but I know who I am and that’s all that matters.
What are you working on now and what exhibitions do you have coming up?
We are still in a pandemic so there are not many art shows coming up at the moment however I am still working on new paintings so stay tuned for the new paintings.