In the midst of preparation for his show at June Kelly Gallery, James Little took time to visit Brooklyn Rail Headquarters and chat with Managing Art Editor Benjamin La Rocco about his life and work. Here’s an excerpt.
Rail (Ben): As an African American growing up in the segregated south, it must have been difficult to avoid issues of race in your painting. Some of your titles are very suggestive in that regard.
Little: Yeah, well, I lived it. It’s a juicy subject. Always has been. But now there’s this small type culture, people are being featured as major artists because they’re making statements about their social conditions or political conditions or gender and that kind of thing. I think they are separate entities. Gender is not art. Race is not art. Politics are politics. To take those things and put them under the caption of art, or to try to displace art with politics, is a mistake. And the fact that some of my paintings have titles that refer to different racial issues or ethnic issues—I have a painting called “The First Black.” There’s not a speck of black in the painting, but the reason I called it “The First Black” was because it seemed endless that anytime there was a black person to accomplish something, in any area of our society—school teacher, track star, baseball player, computer analyst, scuba diver, first black person to ever be a scuba diver, the first black person to ever work at Macy’s—you would hear about it. There’s all these “The First Blacks.” But that title, that was my way of getting beyond it. Not that we all got beyond it, but it was my way of getting beyond it. Painters have always made some sort of social comment. There’s a whole history of black artists’ social awareness. When it comes to their work, sometimes to their detriment. I am who I am. I’m black now. I’m gonna be black tomorrow. I mean it’s not something that’s unique to me. This is my genetic makeup. It’s not something that I’m going to spend the rest of my life sitting here and dealing with. It’s somebody else’s problem. The most that I can do in terms of race, gender, and politics, is to be the most successful painter I can be, break new ground, and that’s a political milestone in and of itself. That’s the way I’ve always looked at it. Take painting and try to do something heroic and successful and ambitious….
Rail: You seem quite positive about the future of art here and I just wonder what you see coming out of this financial mess we’re in now as potentially positive.
Little: I think in a way there’s a silver lining to it because I think the art world needs a correction, and its just been like a runaway freight train lately. Anything goes. It’s like publishing a book that didn’t get edited. It doesn’t happen that way. It never did. It takes time to get there. It really does. The best art is still in the shadows.
Rail: Do you see yourself as part of a painting underground?
Little: I do think there’s an underground. I think there’s a handful of painters that are busting through this thing. I think that there are some good things being done. I think its more important to make painting by consensus among artists rather than by committee. It’s more important to me that a person like you, or a painter like Thornton Willis, or my friend Al—people who are knowledgeable about art, who do this stuff day to day—it’s more important to me that they understand what I’m doing and have an appreciation for what I’m doing than say, a room full of four or five people trading names with each other. Read more.
“James Little: De-Classified: New Paintings,” June Kelly Gallery, New York, NY. Through June 9.