Creative Spirit: In The Studio with Rico Gatson
The multidisciplinary artist’s bold and bright works shine a spotlight on the African-American experience and pay homage to some of its historical icons
There can be a lot of smoke and mirrors in the art world, with many preferring to keep their techniques to within their studio. Not so Rico Gatson, who recently posted a clip on Instagram that revealed how he achieves the razor-straight lines found in many of his kaleidoscopic works. The secret? Masking tape. “I thought I would reveal a little bit of the process.”
"[I like] to work on multiple pieces at once, especially when I’m working towards a show. I like to create a certain rhythm and dialogue between the works. Plus, my brain is organized in a way that I enjoy focusing on multiple works"—Rico Gatson
The artist, acclaimed for works that are both graphic and politically charged, was born in Augusta, Georgia, grew up in Riverside, California, and is now based in Brooklyn, New York, where he often combines abstract and figurative elements in bold colors with those sharp boundaries. “My ‘Icons’ and ‘Beacons’ feature the figure in the foreground with radiating lines in the background in contrast, generating dynamism and energy,” says Gatson, who completed an MFA at Yale, where he studied sculpture before branching out into video, digital photography, painting, and collage, all of which still figure in his output.
“I developed a multidisciplinary practice because I found that it was easier to communicate my ideas in various media,” he says. “I didn’t want to be locked into just one medium.”
Gatson’s 2018 work Beacons—eight mosaic portraits of iconic African-American and Latino figures, such as James Baldwin, Maya Angelou, and Tito Puente, commissioned by MTA Arts & Design for a Bronx subway station—was an extension of his first New York museum solo show, Icons, at Harlem’s Studio Museum in 2017.
Creating from a studio in Brooklyn, often arriving at 6am, he says he prefers “to work on multiple pieces at once, especially when I’m working towards a show. I like to create a certain rhythm and dialogue between the works. Plus, my brain is organized in a way that I enjoy focusing on multiple works.”
Gatson’s assistant arrives at the studio a little later. “[Then] we’ll cover the plan for the day and will continue to work on the various projects in development. This can consist of painting, working on drawings, design work, and administration. I can spend up to 12 hours a day in the studio during a regular work week.”
While Gatson’s earlier works were often described as confrontational, featuring subjects including the Ku Klux Klan, the Watts Riots, and “other subjects related to black experience and history in America,” today he is “still thinking about said subjects in the current work, but in a more subtle and sophisticated way related to beauty, spirituality, and uplift.” His plans for the rest of the year and into 2023 include an exhibition—a public-facing project—at the Birmingham Museum of Art in Birmingham, Alabama.
By Steven Short, editor of Christie's International Real Estate Magazine