Tajh Rust Puts His Attention on the Private Sphere

Tajh Rust paints to explore representation. He creates intimate scenes where the figures emotions are worn on their faces. Often drawing attention to personal moments that are universally experienced, Rust acknowledges the importance of life experienced in the private realm. Fresh off of his MFA from Yale University, Rust is based in New Haven, CT.

What themes are you exploring in your work?

My work explores representation, specifically of people across the African diaspora. But there are many themes I touch on like intimacy, fragility, precarity, home and interior life, relationships between people, relationships to space, and expressing emotions through color.


Who are the figures that you paint?

The figures in my paintings vary. I usually paint people I know, personally. Family and friends. But when I have an idea that goes beyond straightforward portraiture, I tend to create fictional characters to realize it. I’ll model for some of the characters or get someone to model for me, but it wouldn’t be a portrait. I do it to represent an idea.


Are the spaces that you create based on source material or thought up?

In my “In and Of” series, I’m looking directly at the influence our environments have on our identities. I ask my friends to choose a place of personal significance to explore the relationships they have with that place. So those spaces are real, but in my other work, I’ll take references from film stills or completely invent spaces, altogether.


What is it about the interior or personal spaces that you find worth exploring?

I think there are so many beautiful moments that happen in these interior and personal spaces that often go overlooked. I feel part of my job is to recognize them when they happen, and then highlight and prolong them through painting. One thing in particular I’m working on is tapping into a range of emotions with each piece. Some paintings seem peaceful at first, but the longer you stay with them, they may reveal a somber or ominous undertone. I like to play with and challenge expectations.


Why do you think representative painting is important at the moment we are in?

I think representative painting will always be important because it holds a mirror up to who we are. I think right now we are starting to see more perspectives given equal exposure, so it’s exciting to see where people connect and overlap, in terms of identity and experience. For me, it becomes less about how the figures look, and more about how the work makes me feel. I feel we share a lot as people, when we get beyond our physical differences.


What artists most inspire your practice?

My favorite artists vary, but if I had to choose, my top 5 right now are Deana Lawson, Meleko Mokgosi, Kerry James Marshall, Jennifer Packer, and Hank Willis Thomas.

What are you most looking forward to this year?

I’m looking forward to how my work evolves outside of a school setting. I recently finished grad school, so I’m looking forward to working at a different pace and building on some of the concepts I developed there. And I hope to travel a bit, too.


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

You should check out the work of Amaryllis DeJesus Moleski, if you haven’t already. Her work is amazing.