As I walked up to Andrü Sisson’s studio on the morning of the press preview for his self-produced debut solo show, Ivory Gold Slaves, I saw what the past few months of collaborating with musician and friend, Rocco DeLuca, must have been like.
Sisson sat on the floor of a matte black van parked in front of his studio. Its open shell provided the only source of shade on a cloudless late September day, the sun spitting out the last of summer’s relentless 90-degree heat. DeLuca stood nearby on the sidewalk, passing a spliff back and forth a couple of times, laughing and chatting, before anyone noticed my intrusion.
The two started their creative process much like this: talking ideas and hanging out in their East Los Angeles neighborhood just a stone’s throw from Downtown.
DeLuca rolled spliffs throughout our interview. “Hey can you roll me one?” asked Sisson, as we sat for a short chat, surrounded on all sides by nine large paintings in his shared studio’s gallery space. Sisson began developing the original concept for Ivory Gold Slaves about a year ago, months before asking DeLuca to contribute a tenth and final piece.
“Our imaginations would take off on the block watching people walk by,” said DeLuca, sitting cross-legged on the cement floor. “We talked about visuals with audio and how important they are because they can lift one another… and then Andrü asked me, ‘Would you score my pieces?’ And I thought, that’s the most beautiful thing any man’s ever said to me. You really want this, sailor? Well, you got me.”
Ivory Gold Slaves installation view. Photo: Jerrick Romero
The last “painting” completes the show with ten works, except it isn’t shadowy figures painted on reused brown paper grocery bags, like the others. The Tenth Painting (Mississippi Delta) hovers invisible like a ghost just behind your shoulder, marching in gentle chronology from one physical piece to the next: Free Lunch pt. 2, then Grits, Bag Lady, Maggots, Orisha, Mississippi Delta, and so on.
Seductive and moody, it’s not surprising to learn the soundscape was created as modern blues. DeLuca’s spontaneous sounds match Sisson’s haphazard brushstrokes.
“Africa lives the mother of all rhythm, all beauty,” said DeLuca, who connected those rhythms to the Mississippi Delta, home of the Delta blues, the first American blues movement beginning in the early 20th century. American blues soonafter became one of countless examples of the whitewashing and appropriating of Black culture in America.
Today, the Delta is still reckoning with slavery, segregation, and subsequent white flight; it’s where poverty and economic mobility are worse than anywhere else in the developed world. According to a recent PBS piece, Mississippi ranks 50th out of 50 states by poverty rate. The Delta blues transcend location and circumstance, otherwise inescapable by its residents who remain majority Black since the early 19th century.
Black Americans are tied to the South, their distinct histories tangled up along with colonization; Ivory Gold Slaves deals with the mythology of conquerors, the idea of a singular narrative present in most history texts.
Photo: Lauren McQuade
“This morning was the first time that I heard the actual album,” said Sisson, who entrusted DeLuca with this task about five months prior. DeLuca makes his living as a musician, performing on the road and working with collaborator, Daniel Lanois—the two released Goodbye to Language, an experimental record featuring two steel guitars performing spontaneously to each other, that same week. Lanois can also be heard on The Tenth Painting, which acts as an extended session.
Their work combined, “it’s a motion picture,” Sisson said to DeLuca, “We just directed a film right now.”
“Why do I have to go through a gallery? Why do I have to deal with curators? What’s the natural projection for an industry like art?”
There is, of course, no single medium, genre, or mode of art-making. For the self-made artist, like Sisson, creation is a spectrum of different practices, influences, mediums, and, in his case, collaboration that relies on his identity as the crux. Ivory Gold Slaves is an untainted portrait of the artist as a young man, on the artist’s own terms.
This sort of expansive vision—an openness to different mediums and abandonment of clear taxonomies—is emblematic of a new type of professional artist, the young “creatives” today who are bypassing traditional gatekeepers of the art world and writing a new playbook (even if they are keeping the old one in mind).
An opening reception for Ivory Gold Slaves was planned for the following night. Sisson’s multi-room studio is shared with various other artists and includes an exhibition space at the heart. Sisson had haggled with his landlord and agreed to trade two drawings in exchange for the use of the space for ten days: ten paintings, ten days, none for sale.
“It's an offering, essentially,” said Sisson—an offering with no middle person between artist and audience. Sisson has full control.
Andrü Sisson at Ivory Gold Slaves opening. Photo: Jerrick Romero
Not for lack of trying. While working on this project, the self-taught painter became frustrated with the rigidity of gallerists and curators who took meetings at his impressive studio space only to suggest conventional first steps for an emerging artist (such as group shows). He started asking himself questions, like:
Why do I have to go through a gallery? Why do I have to deal with curators? Why do I have to subscribe to a system that everyone else is subscribing to and, it works perfectly fine, but how long can it work in this sense, and what’s next? What’s the natural projection for an industry like art?
Social media helps bypass traditional avenues to prominence by allowing the creation and curation of one’s own narrative, even persona, giving space for users to build a dedicated audience of digital followers that mobilize IRL—search @andrusisson on Instagram and you will find no separation between the person, the artist, the internet being, and no trace of a part-time job to make ends meet.
Particular platforms like Vine (RIP) and Black Twitter have been important spaces for Blackness to exist in a country where the core system is based on white supremacy. Both social media outlets are credited for bypassing traditional media with white gatekeepers but, like the Delta blues, Vine and Black Twitter are rightly noted for sparking mainstream culture that soon becomes perverted, appropriated, and often monetized by white people.
Social currency can lead to monetary compensation for a select few, as mostly white socialites, bloggers, and celebrities—but also self-made models and trendsetters—sell individual posts for cash. As new media artist Leah Schrager recently detailed in an account of her work as an Instagram model, compensation is based on your following (more followers, more pay), essentially blurring #ad content with one’s personal “brand.” While blurring lines between work and life is indeed attributed to this generation’s rise and prosperity, selling out is not homogenous among artists.
Andrü Sisson preparing for Ivory Gold Slaves. Photo: Jerrick Romero
While planning his show, Sisson had to move out of his apartment and for a month had no place to live. He used all the money from selling other works and his part-time job that would have gone to rent to pay for frames and other logistical expenses.
“I was telling Rocco that in my mind that’s what a true artist does, you know what I mean, like, how much do you really believe in something? Are you willing to sleep on your friend’s couch or in your car to put a project out? That’s my stance, and, yes, I will and, yes, I’m doing so and it feels good. It’s scary,” he laughed, “But it feels good.”
“How much do you really believe in something? Are you willing to sleep on your friend’s couch or in your car to put a project out?”
I asked Sisson if he had a backup plan. He shifted his cap to reveal a half-shaved dome similar to one of Jean-Michel Basquiat’s earlier hairstyles.
“A backup plan for what?” he answered, in earnest.
“Exactly!” said DeLuca, not skipping a beat.
“There’s that saying: the only thing that Plan B does is get in the way of Plan A, and I just have Plan A’s, and sometimes it works to my benefit and other times it doesn’t but I know that everything will work out,” said Sisson. “I’m not going to starve and I have the support of friends and family to the point where I can crash for a couple of weeks and have shelter, so that’s my Plan A I guess.”
“Man, that’s a good plan,” said DeLuca.
“Any other plans are just networks of escapes, isn’t it?” said DeLuca.
Gianni Lee in his studio. Photo: Lauren McQuade
The next night, an hour into the opening party for Ivory Gold Slaves, it’s packed full with a crowd any PR rep would envy—a testament to Sisson’s likable personality and shrewd use of social currency. The crowd is not bad either for an ever-expanding Arts District-adjacent neighborhood still roaring with semi-trucks and their haul, the last semblance of industry near this side of the LA River bordering Boyle Heights.
Gianni Lee’s antennae-like hairstyle stands out among the crowd. We first spoke a few days before inside his shared live/work loft in Downtown’s Historic Core.
“I feel like if I’m not bringing any social change through my art, I’m not serving my community the right way.”
His living area is lined with finished and half-finished canvases layered two-three deep, filed between computer screens and samples from the clothing line Babylon Cartel, of which Lee is co-owner and creative director. Jack-of-all-trades seems a fitting title, but the working DJ, producer, and designer (now model) prefers simply “creator.”
“Don’t get thrown off if I record you,” said Lee, who got distracted when uploading part of our conversation to his Instagram story.
Lee first started painting graffiti at this year’s SXSW. He figured others would simply assume he was another pawn in the “creative” environment of the massive music festival. At the time, he made an announcement to his Twitter following, “A couple of my friends stopped by, saw me painting and just thought it was cool, and I guess that started the wave.”
Balancing between creative worlds, with industries like fashion and music, leaves room for expression to be carried outside of these systems: “I’m in the music industry, I see how the music industry works to a certain extent—certain things I like, certain things I don’t like. I can’t comment on everything about it, so why not put it in a painting?”
Gianni Lee in his studio. Photo: Lauren McQuade
The neon, humanoid figures present in Lee’s paintings seem to be trapped in the Matrix: pipes, or metal arms, fixed to their foreheads; wires stuck in their wrists like splinters.
“That’s what it’s all about for me,” Lee said, “What can I do to get my opinion across on how I view the world without just bitching and complaining on Twitter? … Art is the perfect way because if somebody really wants to know, I can be like: look at my paintings and let’s have a conversation.”
“I feel like if I’m not bringing any social change through my art, I’m not serving my community the right way,” said Lee, who grew up in West Philadelphia, PA.
Conversations regarding Black bodies in America are conversations that still need to be had; the year is not yet over, but 2016 leads in police killings of unarmed people, with 1026 so far. These killings disproportionately affect people of color.
“I really take being a Black person to heart and I feel like because of how I was raised and what I’ve been through and the hardships that I had growing up in the inner city, like, in the hood, I felt like I had to be a voice to generations underneath me; it’s a sad feeling to be in a place where you really don’t want to be and you have so much riding against you to get out, and [when] you finally make it out, I feel like you have to be that beacon of hope for other people.”
Photo: Lauren McQuade
His tone was no longer lofty, but implied the urgency of life and death.
“I really feel strongly about this shit, man. I could have not made it out. I could have sold drugs or could have got shot or could have just gave up and got married and could have been just living a blue collar life in Philly working at the airport with two kids, making enough to survive, probably would have bought a house somewhere in West Philly or Northeast.”
How often does he think about these alternative realities, which started sounding very specific, I wondered out loud.
“People will change their perceptions of you because you have a blue check. Twitter figured it out: they’ve created a hierarchical system.”
“All the time, man, like, all the time,” said Lee. “I just don’t want to live my life that way; I really want to be an artist and take this shit all the way.”
As far as role models are concerned, there are not many—Lee mentions Basquiat, who walked runway; Keith Haring, who sold handmade T-shirts; and Andy Warhol, who appeared in ad campaigns. But none of those precedents had to deal with the internet.
Lee describes the creative flexing he sees online as “a cesspool of fuckery.” He elaborated, “Today’s culture in general, there’s a lot of mental slavery and people just blindly following leaders. I call these leaders false prophets and people just blindly follow them, and I’m just like why? Why don’t you create a narrative for yourself?”
As far as his own narrative is concerned, Lee is slowly building his network, posting a seamless weaving of business ventures among more personal projects on social media. But still, there are challenges.
Gianni Lee in his studio. Photo: Lauren McQuade
“I’ll find people that really want to embrace me or really want to support what I do but I don’t have a big enough following,” said Lee. “There are people out there that do way less than me but have, like, 150k on Instagram, so they’ll overlook the guy who really has the talent.”
“I’m really losing out on key connections because of my following,” he went on. “Sometimes I’ll hit a stalemate and that shit can really fuck with you because I know that my work is bigger than my Instagram following, like, I don’t even have 10k yet, but to other people it just means so much.”
Lee recently got verified on Twitter, and since then, has experienced a new notoriety: “…it’s good looking at it. It puts you in a different, I guess, category but the fact that people will then change their perceptions of you because you have a blue check next to you; it’s genius from Twitter because Twitter figured it out: they’ve created a hierarchical system.”
It dawns on me that he’s right—we really have given social media platforms all of the power that comes with social currency. Twitter even has an exclusive TweetDeck, or tab, that only shows communications between those who have also been verified.
But is it even still possible to claim victory over the algorithms?
“I look at it like I’m definitely going to figure out the system and work my way through it and around it, but I’m definitely not going to hold everything to that standard.” Lee continued, “I feel like pieces will fall into place and if those people want to embrace me, they will when the time is right. I just continue to work at the highest level that I can.”
Back inside the gallery, admiring Sisson’s independent venture and successful debut solo, Lee looks around one last time and says, “Yeah. I want to do something like this next.”
Gianni Lee at Ivory Gold Slaves. Photo: Jerrick Romero
Andrü Sisson is a painter living and working in Los Angeles and New York. Sisson began exploring creative expression as a child growing up in rural Arizona, where he was surrounded by a family of painters. His work has been included in the Silverlake Conservatory of Music Benefit Gala alongside Damien Hirst, Dennis Hopper and Richard Prince. He is collected internationally, from Los Angeles to London.
Gianni Lee is a multidisciplinary artist, designer, and music producer from Philadelphia, PA, who lives and works in Downtown Los Angeles. Lee is the first ever DJ Champion for Vfiles and Def Jam Records, earning his title in 2014.
Lauren McQuade is an LA-based writer, photojournalist and editor with interest in social issues and the representation of culture in the city of Los Angeles.
(Image at top: Andrü Sisson preparing for Ivory Gold Slaves. Photo: Jerrick Romero)