New York, July 2011-- Kenseth Armstead grew up in Washington D.C., so maybe it shouldn’t be surprising that he’d discover a missing link in our forefather’s defining triumph over the British at the Battle of Yorktown. That link was a former slave turned double agent named James Armistead Lafayette. Posing as a runaway slave Lafayette gained the trust of the British generals, learned of their plans, and relayed them back to the Americans. It sounds Hollywood but it’s history, and it’s a story whose telling is long overdue.
Armstead has been working on the tale of James for the last six years and his first major exhibition of the legend-in-making, Spook™: Invocation, is up until August at LMAKprojects. ArtSlant contributor Charles Schultz met with Armstead at his studio in Brooklyn to talk about how the story has taken shape thus far and what it might become in the years ahead.
Portrait of Kenseth Armstead and the artist's studio by Erin Kornfeld.
Charles Schultz: It’s pretty sparse in here; not a hoarder I see.
Kenseth Armstead: No not really. I only use this space for one thing: drawing. And I draw with graphite pencils, mostly on notepad-size paper, so it’s not too messy. That little desk over there is my drawing desk; the big one with all the books on it is for my assistant.
CS: I expected at least one computer since you’re primarily known for your digital and multimedia work, but you are clearly an excellent draftsman as well. Has drawing always had a place in your practice?
KS: As a boy all I ever wanted to do is draw. Every project I ever worked on started with drawing. Drawing is the core of my practice. The projects themselves decide the final form, which creates conceptual coherence, but for me drawing is media art. I don’t subscribe to any separation between new media and old media. There is only media, and drawing is central to how I consume it and reproduce it. As a child this was no great leap for me. I guess I’m still that child, only now I have a driver’s license.
CS: Let’s talk about James. You've chosen to present this chapter of his story in the format of a graphic novel. Other iterations have included movie trailers, video game demos, a screenplay. You've also made sets for a feature length film. What compelled you to use the graphic novel format this time around?
KS: I realized fairly early on that I was dealing with the domain of mythology, and I felt I needed to be able to approach it from all the ways that our culture creates myths. The Spook™ Graphic Novel is the most complete long-form way to engage James’ story and explore all the nuances of the visual world that he lived in. The graphic novel is also a time-based media, but it isn’t limited, like commercial feature film, to two hours of focus. Non-narrative digressions and absurd abstraction are central to how comics work, which makes it an exciting way for me to produce images.
CS: I understand you base many of your drawings on historical sources such as paintings, engravings, and busts for characters like Marquis Lafayette and George Washington, but you also use Tom Wilkinson as General Cornwallis in "The Patriot" and Jamie Foxx's character from "Law Abiding Citizen" as James Armistead Lafayette. There is obviously a thematic relationship between these movies and the story of James Armistead Lafayette, but the fusion of contemporary and historical sources seems more interesting. Can you talk about how you selected your sources?
KS: I needed to draw everyone in the round, warts and all, with full expressive range. All the 18th century portraits are essentially limited in emotional range. Using film actors creates another way to connect to contemporary culture and engage my audience—young people—in a familiar and fun way.
Installation view of Spook™: INVOCATION at LMAK gallery, NY; Courtesy of LMAKprojects, NY
CS: How has your view/relationship with James Armistead evolved over the years?
KS: I’d say James and I have a personal relationship. (laughs) I’ve read everything I could find regarding his character and participation in the war: original articles from the Richmond Enquirer, the complete letters of Washington to Lafayette, even the obscure novel “Edge Hill,” that makes James as a subsidiary hero. And more, of course.
My respect for James is totally enriched by every detail of data assembled. What I want is to do justice to the legacy of this heroic man. James was never promised freedom but fought for it anyway. That kind of sacrifice for the greater good is grossly lacking in our culture.
In my opinion James represents only one full story out of the thousands of African faces that fought in the American Revolution. At Yorktown when the war ended, a full thirty percent of the fighting force on either side was African. His story allows us to see them more clearly.
CS: You've mentioned in an artist statement that this work extends and upgrades the tradition of Neo-Classical history painting as it was used by Jacques-Louis David. In my opinion your work on James Armistead Lafayette's life is almost in total opposition to this tradition. It has none of the hyper finish of David's paintings; your scenes seem much more active, and, of course, the relationship between Napoleon and David is very different from your relationship with James A. Lafayette. How do you see this work as an extension and upgrade?
KS: The upgrade and extension is completing pictures of history based on more complex storytelling. David is no hero to me. His work is a point of departure. I am working in a critical discourse with David’s example. My work seeks to dismantle the mythology of the complete history painting. If you think about it, most of what David painted of Napoleon was false marketing. Napoleon wanted his mother to be present at his coronation, but she refused him. She didn’t approve of her son’s murderous ambition. David includes her in the painting at Napoleons request. It is a significant and durable power to be able to produce social history through representation.
CS: When I think about history being re-presented the Texas Board of Education immediately comes to mind. Because they write the textbooks, they have the ability to shape the way young people learn history. As the New York Times wrote in an article last year, "they put a conservative stamp on history and economics textbooks, stressing the superiority of American capitalism, questioning the Founding Fathers' commitment to a purely secular government, and presenting Republican political philosophy in a much more positive light." Considering this, it seems imperative to question the history we've been given. Is this something you've always felt, or something that you came to as you unearthed more material on James A. Lafayette?
KS: Let me respond to your quote with one from Picasso, “Painting is not done to decorate apartments. It is an instrument of war for attack and defense against the enemy.” I believe history is a creative tool and representation as a discipline is inextricably bound to cultural power.
CS: How do you envision this project evolving in the future? Will it continue to change mediums as you move into additional chapters?
KS: The graphic novel’s components will remain black and white graphite drawings. It just feels right. I am now proposing extensions from that visual core to make animated motion graphics films from them. It is also possible to use the drawings as texture maps for live actors as well using motion capture technology for performances or single channel recording and output. I’ve got other ideas percolating as well. Right now, I’m half way into Spook™: INVOCATION, Chapter 2: Lust, which will be complete by December.
Spook™ Poster: The OTHER Three Musketeers, 60" x 42", Graphite & Digital Print Collage on Paper, 2007.
ArtSlant would like to thank Kenseth Armstead, LMAKprojects and photographer Erin Kornfeld for their assistance in making this interview possible.
For more images from the interview, please visit the Elk Studios Blog.