Sense the Multifaceted Layers of New York City in the Work of Devin B. Johnson

To Interact with Devin B. Johnson’s work is to dive head first in the realm of imagination and memory. Viewers come face-to-face with the depth of each of the multimedia paintings that are as layered as the artist’s meticulous intent. Deeply influenced by music, the tumultuous streets of New York, and a universe of self exploration and intention, the effect is a spellbinding composition. The Pratt Institute graduate, and New York-based artist is quickly gaining international praise through his representation at Nicodim Gallery, LA & Bucharest, and we are eager to see what he will uncover in future creations. Coming out from the year we just had, it’s truly refreshing to experience what I can only describe as visual jazz. Read below to learn more about the artist, his background, and his practice. 

Installation view, Courtesy of the Artist and Nicodim Gallery,LA

Tell us a little bit about yourself. Where are you from, and how did art first come into your life? 

I’m originally from LA, and I moved to New York in 2017 to get my MFA at Pratt institute, and I’ve been immersed in this life ever since. As for my creative practice, I’ve been drawing, coloring, painting and creating to preoccupy my time ever since I can remember. Before video games became a thing, I remember occupying my days by messing around, with the freedom to develop my creative mind, when I lived in San Diego and would often visit my Nana and Papa’s house with my brother before or after school while my parents were at work. Even after video games were a thing, my attention would be elsewhere. I asked my Nana and Papa to buy me animal encyclopaedias like ZooBooks as a kid. I loved learning and drawing animals from the pages. 

Has your work always taken on the style it currently embodies? 

Absolutely not. It has changed a great deal, and I am certain it’s been entirely influenced by my experience in New York. When I came to New York to do my MFA, the influence of the city was so invigorating to me, that I’m constantly intending to reflect on my work. When I walk around the city of New York, I see how the walls are covered in a variety of materials that interact with each other in many sorts of ways. I make a note of these reactions between material, and attempt to replicate them in the studio. 

Black Madonna, 2019, Oil paint, oil stick, spray paint on linen, 80 x 70 in., Courtesy of the Artist and Nicodim Gallery, LA

What’s your process like? How do you begin a work? 

I come from a very figurative background so I feel the need for the figure to start. I have a large collection of photos that I gather from online portals, or my personal images, which I save if they strike me in some way. I then take the image and run it through Photoshop along with other images that begin to build out the reference. I think a lot about fragmentation in this process. Our minds are brilliant, but memory is a collage of fragmented images, sounds, thoughts and feelings that make up what we remember. There is never a concise or full version of what actually happened. I’m trying to find a way to extract this emotional trigger in the viewer. 

I’m also deeply influenced by music. I like to go into the process by working with my body in the movement of the rhythm and tone, to sort of lose the image in an additional emotional quality. 

Walk us through a day in the studio. 

I’ve been in this studio for about a year and a half. I’m usually working in the studio with my studio mate. We play music throughout the day and respect each other’s work. I honestly feel that if I did not have a person like that in constant contact with, I would be in a very different place, creatively and contextually. Having someone you respect to comment and discuss my work with me has been of the better parts of my artistic trajectory. 

Marge, 2020, Oil paint, oil stick, spray paint on linen, 69.5 x 78 in., Courtesy of the Artist and Nicodim Gallery, LA

From where do you draw inspiration? 

My inspiration is definitely in my walks through the city. LA provides a very different experience of transportation where you are confined to a seat belt in your trajectory from point A to point B. New York is built in a way where you can walk to get to your destination. I’m constantly looking in all directions, enthralled by the organic compositions that come as a result of urbanization, like the trash piles on the street, or a tangled mess of wires against a brick wall.  I’m also looking constantly at the language of graffiti and other ephemera that cover the New York City walls. On arriving in NY, I was amazed by the universe of materials that live on the surface. I’ve since been experimenting with that layering of material, from spray paint, to ripped newspaper, to cracked acrylic, it’s all part of an overall organic abstraction.

Installation View (L-R): Monique Lisa, 2020, Oil, oil stick, spray paint on linen 62 x 60 in.; Stain Glass Guilt in White Silk, 2020, Oil paint, oil stick, spray paint on canvas, 60 x 62 in., Courtesy of the Artist and Nicodim Gallery, LA

From all the mediums you work through, do you have a personal favorite? 

Yes, oil paint. I first interacted with oil painting when I was 8. I went to an arts class after school that my Papa would drive me to. There I first played with oil paint, watercolor, oil and chalk pastels.

What larger questions do you think your work asks? 

In my practice I’ve always been drawn to ask questions of the self, where at first glance I’m African American, and I’ve grown up based off that exterior fact. But thinking further than that, I started asking questions like how do I see the world based on these facts? And I began to interpret what I can do to mirror this through my work. I try to be more in tune with myself, and physically embody the way that I see and share that with others through my paintings. It’s about finding the language of who I am and what I see. That’s why the subconscious, memory and sight are so attractive to me at the moment.  

The Rocks Took Ahold of My Soul, 2020, Oil, oil stick, and spray on linen, 60 x 62 in., Courtesy of the Artist and Nicodim Gallery, LA

Does your work reference any Art Historical movements? 

Off the bat I can say I’ve always been drawn to Italian Baroque painting, specifically with Caravaggio. I’ve always been drawn to his chiaroscuro, his use of light and dark to dramatize a scene, I’m often thinking about that when I approach my work. I’m also drawn to Edouard Vuillard’s work, the placement of figures in space, where the subject becomes the space, and the figures simply exist in it. I’m also drawn to the work of Jack Whitten. 

That’s in terms of painters. As far as thinkers and makers, I love the work of Matthew Barney and Theaster Gates. I love the expansiveness of those two very philosophical practices. I like to think how those interests are invested in me so that one day I can achieve what they do.  

 Untitled (Sketch Collage), 2020, Oil on Paper, 9 x 12.5 in., Courtesy of the Artist and Nicodim Gallery, LA

What’s next for you? 

I don’t have a show coming up in New York just yet, but my gallery in LA has me planned for a three person show in Bucharest, Romania, in May, Art Basel HongKong in June, and my second solo exhibition with Nicodim gallery in LA, Sept, 2021.

Installation view, Courtesy of the Artist and Nicodim Gallery, LA

At the end of each interview, we like to ask the artist to suggest a friend whose work you love and would like us to interview next. Who would you recommend? 

I would like to nominate Yousef Hassan, and his partner are the creators of Black Mass Publishing, who I believe are doing beautiful things.