Only in Dreams: Sedrick Chisom’s lurid dreamscapes and the primacy of artistic imagination
By Josh Niland
Walking through the world we are inclined to take a wide-eyed and disoriented look at the alarming realities central to the imagined one in Sedrick Chisom’s terrestrial foretelling of a future populated by ghosts and dominated by the mistakes of our forefathers. Visually startling and psychologically off-kilter, it is made possible by building a personal iconography those of us who are awake are compelled toward when making dreary projections about what the great chasms of our age might inevitably lead to. Its dark appeal lies primarily in our basest fears and bitterest social observations: Who wouldn’t want to escape into a far-off fantasy based on the grim afflictions of the present, that offers us a way out of the world as it is, if only by glimpsing its twisted, all-too-tragic end?
His politics, haunting mysticism, and miasmic prophecy come together in an apocalyptic and sublimely dystopian vision of America, done over in a hazy scheme of blues and tropical pinks, that blearily predicts the fracturing destiny of a country still recovering from the psychic wounds of its past as it wades into the rising swamp of ecological collapse it played such a large part in creating. Chisom’s dreams, the same color as my nightmares, are a guide to the future we are bringing to fruition every day via our collective selfishness and short-sighted retreat into divisions and demographic allegiances. They serve as a surreal warning from the next century about the world we are blindly creating in our own, and it was this burgeoning societal collapse he had in mind when I spoke with him via the phone last month five weeks into the quarantine.
Talk to me about what you call “World-building”
World-building is the act of imagining demographics of people, places, political systems, economies and many other things that interact with one another to produce a state of affairs. This act is mostly thought of in the context of fiction, but I think world-building is essentially political. You can’t create a nation without producing some kind of document that does the same kind of imaginative work, and it’s no mistake that radical political projects are dismissed as “fantasy” or “sci-fi” in our political discourse.
Where and when did the idea for world-building come to you? Were you looking at other things or did it come from somewhere purely internal?
Narratives that invest heavily in world-building usually feature ensemble casts of characters as opposed to a single central character. I realized that I wanted my paintings to not focus on a single individual but hover around the events within the world itself. In my second semester in graduate school I started to focus more and more on creating series based works. I gave the works really satirical and declarative titles that reflected my own cynicism towards Christianity and my attitude towards black performativity in white spaces. Eventually, the interaction of the titles and the paintings started to imply this larger world that viewers had glimpses into. I started writing short stories that featured similar characters, attitudes and themes.
In some ways this is sort of the antithesis of the The Turner Diaries and it shares a lot of similarities with Henry Darger's work–were those inspirations for you and are there any others that come to mind?
The Turner Diaries was one of my central reference manuals for understanding the cultural logic and end goals of white nationalist ideology (an ahistorical white ethnic state couched in paradoxical “traditional western values”). In terms of art history, Henry Darger offered a model for me to couch worldbuilding into painting and drawing practice, whereas its a practice typically located in literature, cinema, and graphic novels.
I've seen your color palettes described as infrared images––is that sort of the key to creating the dreamscape element?
Toxic color is key to understanding the nature of these spaces as being hallucinatory dreamscapes. I think of these images as “visions” or “premonitions” of sorts. Like a cautionary tale about a world less than 20 minutes in the future that we seem to inevitably be headed towards. I use color as omen to indicate that there is something wrong with this world. Heat vision imagery (what you refer to as “infrared”) is usually imagery that problematizes its subject matter.
Toxic color is key to understanding the nature of these spaces as hallucinatory dreamscapes. I use color as omen to indicate that there is something wrong with this world.
You're using different types of paint including spray paint. How does that create what you call “hallucinatory dreamscapes?” Can you explain how they take after the tradition of different painters from the Renaissance?
So a very important painting to me is the Isenheim Alterpiece by Mathais Grunewald. The use of intense hallucinatory color, atmosphere, and the halo effect captured in that painting is one for the history books. I’m interested in the use of this sort of atmosphere in paintings in many periods of art history, such as in the Victorian Golden Age illustrations by Edmund Dulac, or Rothko paintings, and a lot of Kathy Bradford’s work. Also a major starting point really was the opening scene in the Hype Williams film starring Nas and DMX “Belly”. The use of this sort of color and light fascinates because of how it portends by interrupting our idea of “natural” light.
Talk about the psychic landscape we inhabit: Why do you think life in America is so traumatizing now to so many people?
We continue to refuse to take responsibility for our complicity in systems of oppression. We are deeply insecure and egotistical as a nation. Almost as though the outcome of actually for once admitting to the deliberately engineered structural illnesses of society is death. Instead we make empty proclamations about our greatness and then, undeterred by any sense of social responsibility, we reproduce histories of violence. An outcome of unacknowledged trauma is that when triggered you can blame another for every single instance of traumatic experience despite what the individual may actually be specifically culpable of. What sort of cultural conversation can take place in that atmosphere?
Read the full Artforum interview here.