Its weeks before the opening of his one-person exhibition at the Frankfurt am Main upstart gallery HUSSLEHOF and I’m in correspondence with Cudelice Brazelton over email. He tells me things are coming together, it’s been a bit confusing but productive nevertheless. This sounds familiar. Brazelton has told me this before. The part about things being confusing. Reading his email, I try picturing him in this setting of confusion. As if I could somehow redirect this momentary fog toward some reassuring clarity. Months prior, in another conversation, Brazelton earnestly reflected on the tonal shifts in his material selection. Where he once seemed fervent to let the viewer into some part of his world, to render bare his vulnerabilities and worries without hesitation or varnish, he describes his current outlook on his work as ‘solemn’ and maybe even ‘confused’. ‘But it’s not a bad thing’, he adds with a knowing sureness. The feeling of confusion can no doubt be an aversion but for Brazelton, he seems to find the grace in a lack of resolution. Conflicting thoughts remain unsolved, fragmentary, and left open. Deficits and inconsistencies in prior beliefs become opportunities for unforeseen possibilities. If Brazelton is in the dark flailing his arms around, feeling the walls in search of a light switch, it is a necessity for relearning and navigating out of the exhaustion of inherited sociopolitical conditions.
With origins in Dallas, Taxes and a formative art education within the community he found in Columbus, Ohio, Brazelton who now lives and works from Frankfurt’s historic Städelschule with guidance from Haegue Yang, continues to turn limitation into strength and find new commitments within the spaciousness of abstraction. His work remains unanchored by a single image, form, or medium. He embraces an austerity in a way that the work never does too much at once but nothing is ever simple all the same. It is a firm display of restraint. The sort of withholding couched in experiences reaching beyond his own personhood into the political.
In our conversation below we talk about marked surfaces, materiality, his background as an organizer and working within artists-led DIY spaces. We also discuss what it means to shift the conversation of Blackness from one that is bounded by western thought to one that is stretches out internationally.
"there’s an interest in what abstraction can be and this idea of letting materials carry different struggles. For me, I always want to have this edge or this idea of damage taking place. The damage could be like a formal decision or a way of mark-making or like texture or surface manipulation. Other times, it could be very loud and social about what is actually being damaged."
Apart from focusing on your own work, while you were living in Columbus full time, you worked collaboratively with others in the arts community. You’ve organized and curated shows in the past in artists-led DIY spaces. You recently organized/curated a show at No Place. Artists as curators tend to use the exhibition context as a medium for working through ideas. How would you say you approach curating?
I haven’t done any curating recently. The artists in the show at No Place are friends who work in different ways than I do. Exhibiting work in such a space like No Place, in the city of Columbus, was a great opportunity. There isn’t much exposure to really progressive emerging work here. I don’t know how others organize exhibitions but I like to think it's similar to how someone might write fiction or something like that. Space is first imagined. When I look at the different artists in my head I’m already shaping notions of space off whatever general discourse I’m thinking about or what is being explored in my own work which I also see in the work of other artists. I try to create a space that allows others to see how I interpret their work that allows the works to speak to each other. I’m interested in the challenge of doing that can lend shape to something that is brand new for everyone.
Another great experience I had outside my own individual practice was a collaboration project. Bounty, A two-person exhibition curated by Amanda Hunt at Jeffery Stark in New York. It was with a friend of mine who is also from Columbus. He’s much younger than me but we often have conversations with one another. We have similar emotions about the experience of being a black person in a flyover state. There’s this huge divide between younger artists and older artists there. If you are a younger artist and a person of colour, then you are pushed aside a little bit. You’re never going to be a peer. I and he had similar frustrations about all of that. That show at Jeffery Stark, worked out well because we had a similar psychic and appreciation for each other’s work. In that sense using that space was very seamless. The trust and freedom given to us by Amanda, and Angelo Lanza of Jeffrey Stark further proved our point of being taken seriously in other arenas of the art world, while our art community in Columbus kept us in this permament art student status. Even if we had been operating outside of the undergraduate institution for a while.
Going through your personal work, one thing I kept wondering about is your material choices. In a lot of the work, I can sense your hands. They seem very provisional and I wonder what your inclinations for them are?
There was a time where I didn’t really have regular art materials and there was something that felt playful and exciting to me to use whatever was available to me at the time. It also comes from working in an industrial meat packing facility—where I was a founding member of MINT art collective. I wanted to make work outside of the institution. It was a conscious decision but was also natural to the way I was living, which was inside the 17,000 square foot meat factory with all its residual materials.
There are a lot of artists that I bounced back a lot from like Mel Edwards—ideas of collage, found things that have history and social or political weight but assembled together in a very conscious formal way. There’s an interest in what abstraction can be and this idea of letting materials carry different struggles. For me, I always want to have this edge or this idea of damage taking place. The damage could be like a formal decision or a way of mark-making or like texture or surface manipulation. Other times, it could be very loud and social about what is actually being damaged.
Lazarus, 2014, MINT Collective, Columbus, OH, US
There’s also something very poetic with how you handle the materials you use. When do you think you started to think about materials beyond just being autonomous but something that can transcend their own materiality?
When I look at older works, compared to what’s being made now, there’s a difference in tone. There was a change in the emotional response to materials. Some of the older works feel heavier and have a more blunt force to me. There’s part of me that misses that approach of working. I felt like I was yelling a lot. But I was composed about it—at least the way I’d talk about it. Over time, it has naturally toned down. There’s just a difference in responses to what happening around me. Now there’s still that edge but it is more solemn or confused or maybe lost—not in a bad way. But there’s a ghostly feeling. Now I see that brutal edge returning, although shifting in its volume. I believe that is relative to emotions or a response to whatever is going on in the world, and how I position myself to that.
In terms of being subdued with how you present work or use materials, do you think it is a way of dissociating yourself from the work in some sense?
I started to use leather and industrial grade felt which led to a whole new opening to my work. All of which were found materials. There was this satisfaction of barely altering the material or just peeling up the surface. It became more of a textural interest. In the older works, the objects had everything written into it; it had the beat down, the wear and tear, the scars—and it had a very particular body attached to it. The newer stuff became more of an erasure. There’s a disappearance or shedding. A lot of things just became faded out and I thought that was more of a crazy presence than just displaying it.
Installation view from Bounty, 2017, Jeffrey Stark, New York, NY, US
Installation view from In Practice: Another Echo, 2018, Sculpture Center, Long Island City, NY, US
There’s a gracefulness to that fading out which we see in your series with the delicate burn markings on the wall. How are you thinking about the architecture of the space in relation to the work?
The way they are mapped onto the wall is in response to the space. I think about architecture in relation to the body. I look at the walls of the architecture like it is a skull or a head from these barbershop haircut design posters I reference.
You seem to also distort them to the point that they look strange and unrecognizable from the original reference.
There’s this interesting relationship to straying away from representation. Despite it not moving, it doesn’t feel like a stagnant image. There are all these flickering moments and it’s not a very uniform line. I can’t really control what I’m doing because I can’t see what’s happening on the wall itself as I’m burning the walls with the soldering tool through the dyed fabric. It isn’t until I pull the fabric that I see what’s going on.
Do you think there’s a relationship between your inclination to abstract these depictions and the bodies you are referencing which is the black body?
In a lot of these photos, the figure is secondary to the depiction of the haircut. The photo is about the haircut and not the person. There was something very interesting about the turning of the head, it has this sense of an item on display. These images look like the way branding a cow appears. Getting trimmed or cut; the heat of a razor clip has that same feeling that the wood burner does. It's like a marking of flesh and skin. I think about how that goes all the way back to ancient times of marking the body. There’s always documentation of these markings or these designs. It’s almost as if you become secondary to the thing itself. It is the same case when people take pictures of tattoos.
The effect of burning into the wall feels like, I’m making a strange mural or found language—removing the identity of source image but then the way the material is handled documents the same energy that is present within that identity as well. I’m fascinated by having them be like these phantoms in the wall. They are burnt into the spaces. None of the galleries have barbershops in them. These people wouldn’t normally be in these spaces, so I’d burn them in and see how this form becomes a constellation of sorts. That’s how I was thinking about it at Sculpture Center with the heights of the wall for In Practice: Another Echo in 2018.
Speaking of tattoos, Mike Tyson’s has explained his tattoos as borrowed from an Indigenous people from New Zealand. They use them for protective purposes from adversaries. How are you applying these drawing onto the photographs?
I think of them as hieroglyphs. Once something is altered in the way I’m doing with the images, it changes its intent. The historical notion of why it is used in that way opens it up so much. I’ve been looking at various cave paintings and drawings. I was in Palermo last year at some point. I visited these ancient prison cells there and seeing the wall markings that were made from bodily fluids of all kinds. Overall, its this interest of the ways an architectural space has been used to talk about protest or action or religion. All these ideas are so embedded in this way of wall marking and I think that has been vital to my practice. But we’ll see if how it develops. The Maori tattoo shape was laser cut into the images of these men who were assaulted by the police. These photographs stayed in their form as they were nailed to the wall, but the humidity of the exhibition space made the cut out of the tattoo open up and warp, even further distorting the damaged faces of these men. It definitely was something that I wasn’t anticipating. However I think these works were the very beginning of this operating, or surgical formal interest I think I have today.
Installation view from Role with The Punches, 2016, Skylab Gallery, Columbus, OH, US
We are talking about materiality and how integral it is to your work. I’m wondering what happens to the work when you aren’t around these bits and pieces that you’ve been using for so long when you were in Columbus. How do you have access to those materials now that you are in Frankfurt?
I think I’ve adjusted a lot. By the time I was doing these burn works, all of a sudden, the found material was still there just through image finding. And so, the physical material didn’t seem like a necessity anymore. I was never married to found materials. The new work still has my interest in this residue, but it is taken in a different direction.
I always wonder how blackness and black folks are seen/understood in parts of the world where there aren’t that many of us there.
I’ve never been abroad before and I wondered what it is like to be Black in Germany. When I’m there, I feel more American than I do Black. Which is the opposite when I’m in the United States. So, I feel freer to do things that I wouldn’t need to be immediately associated with here. I’m studying under Haegue Yang. She’s a South Korean, installation sculpture artist. I’m interested in what my work will look like if I continue to learn from her. There’s so many interesting layers and different conversations that can happen that feels very transient. I was so used to having a particular discourse and I was noticing that I was put into the ‘cool young black artist club’ and I don’t want to be peripheral to that—those are my peers and friends, and even people I am a fan of, but it was a very predictable conversation. The sort of easy association thing. It becomes a little exclusive at times and contradicts the importance of representing diverse voices.
Moving to Germany, I wanted to continue this hybrid approach of working not only through the several references and historical contexts I know of, but also, can I think about Blackness that is not just a Western American Blackness? Thinking about it as a movement that has a depth and density that is much larger than my own experience. It's interesting when it collapses onto itself and becomes more of an international conversation. Sounds silly to say this but it proves how Western and American my thought process seems with relating to Blackness as a whole. You sort of have different homes at once. Rather than being married to just one. It’s a way of maybe moving through different spaces and having this vagabond way of existing. Maybe that’s why the burns were so interesting to me; the fact that they vanish. The walls are repaired, and they are gone. It’s incredibly unstable and uncomfortable as well. Black people are everywhere, however the downplaying and erasure of our presence is the foundation of that part of the practice.
Let’s talk more about this ‘cool young black artist club’? [laughs]
It a peer group that’s very supportive and you want to be around but when does it become too homogeneous? In any kind of community or group, it becomes short-minded of other approaches out of trying to support or protect a group. It shifts from something that is empowering to halting other dialogues from continuing if it starts to close off other possible bridges to be built. That is something that I see, and I don’t want to feel too loyal to one particular group or position in terms of my criticism or my thoughts. I want to stay as much of a sponge as I can and have that capacity to think and see in relationship to my own narrative I am developing. That was a very difficult when I first got to Germany. I was very stubborn about changes.
To what degree do you have to attend (or accommodate) to a specific audience if your ideas may come off as proselytizing one group but not another? You were talking about making 'loud' work or legible in some way. How much whispering do you have to tether between if you wanted to be loud?
I’m interested in certain frequencies of sounds that is muddled but you can still hear the noise. It's more your body experiencing a vibration. That’s how I think about work that feels very dense and massive but its like whispering at the same time. It has this stagnated tension. Something that is very incomprehensibly full, with only a tether of it ripped away and there’s a small leak or that potential spillage. I am attracted to this. Some kind of gravitational pull—to have that prolonged tension. I’m thinking about density and mass not only to black culture but also other ways of seeing and moving socially. Also, how this informs and shapes through other art historical references.. The whispering aspect versus the loud are both happening at once but with different octaves. I think my practice will continue to bounce along with whatever current political situations that is happening.
Was it an inevitable path for you to be an artist when you were growing up?
I don’t think so. I was one of those children growing up who never thought that was even an option.
Were you ever encouraged when you started pursuing visual arts?
I would say Columbus has been the most supportive in that kind of sense. Probably due to it proving to me that it is all up to you to continue pursuing this kind of difficult choice of a career.
Installation view from Retrograde, 2019, at Deli Gallery, New York, US
Was it inevitable or perhaps inescapable that you’d be working through the kind of political thought that you engage within your practice?
I was conflicted about it. I was like I don’t make work about Blackness I just wanted to be an artist. But all of sudden it just started to naturally happen out of my own feelings as a human. I’m sitting here thinking what do you mean thinking about blackness is not being human? As something that just is? It is being human. Or individual? It’s not a catch all term. But at the same time, I just want to have this open experience or response or this way of making that is not limited to an identity. What’s the difference between this is art and this ‘black art’? Why does it matter? We are programmed to believe that the ‘other’ is less than the ‘standard’. Whatever the standard means, but I guess I mean the purist form of expression. When you try to hide your cultural relevance, it's just something that doesn’t seem right to do. It’s more interesting to try and subvert it. Or even acknowledge that no matter what, your work is the experience of identity by default.
When you realize everything you make or do or see or have in your possession becomes a part of you and your context of being, and there is also more than meets the eye beyond the physical and social as well? There’s something so malleable about moving like that. Just because you are marginalized or a minority, that single thing doesn’t define you alone. It doesn’t form you. It is realizing that you are a multifaceted, fragmented entity. That goes into the whole Ornament and Crime thing. Adolf Loos talks about the purity of surface, if it is marked, or if it has an ornament or branding or pattern; the bare surface is the most effective and best thing. So minimalism and the bare surface is romanticized and it has to do with these ideas of a patriarchal problem. This idea of being pure. Being unmarked. That reminds me of the tattooing, like the criminal, marking any kind of way like that…it is exciting to go into an exhibition space and carve into their walls and damage it. That interest in vandalizing an exhibition space. Political is what I want to be adjacent to with my practice, but I want my own take to lead the way, rather than choosing a clear stance or clearly visible one.
The above conversation was conducted by Luther Konadu with editorial support from Danielle Fenn. The frontis image is an installation view from Role with The Punches, 2016, Skylab Gallery, Columbus, OH, US. All images are courtesy of the artist.