Stan Squirewell is, by his own admission, obsessed with binaries. From computer coding to race relations to the mysterious interplay of masculine and feminine energies, Squirewell seeks out dualities in all their forms. He draws inspiration from both ancient myths and the 8-bit Atari video games of his 1980s childhood, creating multimedia pieces that manage to celebrate difference while at the same time questioning its primacy in our lives. This unique, highly spiritual approach has earned the recent Harlem transplant a place in the Smithsonian African American Museum in his hometown of Washington, DC.
Squirewell’s work also appears in Artspace’sBlack Matters exhibition, which was curated by Cheryl R. Riley and features the work of 12 African-American artists who are exploring race and identity in the 21st century. In this conversation with Artspace’s Dylan Kerr, Squirewell discusses his involvement with Black Matters, the mystical underpinnings of his work, and why Earthlings can’t deny the energy of Harlem.
You’re speaking on the Black Matters panel at the Studio Museum in Harlem as a part of Artspace’s online exhibition. How did you become involved in this project?
I met Cheryl Riley about a year ago with Derrick Adams. We visited a show in Brooklyn—I think it was Yashua Klos’s—and Cheryl and I really hit it off. We’re kindred spirits. I didn’t realize that this exhibition was going to come out of that meeting, of course. We were just talking on the subway about the shows that we enjoyed and artists that we love. We’ve kept in contact since then, and she is definitely someone who is on my favorites list now. I really like her vision and the stories she’s shared with me, and her knowledge of art is incredible. I’m always looking for new people, new ideas, and having that type of communion.
The show takes its title from the #BlackLivesMatter movement, one of the most important new platforms in the national conversation around race. How do you see your work exploring race and racism in the United States?
I have two works in the show. One is an older piece called Algorithmic. It was a transitional piece that came out of my “Carbon” series—a different interpretation of those ideas. I was looking at the oral histories and mathematical equations that the Dogon [an ethnic group in Mali] spoke about, as well as space travel and black identity. That particular piece has some correspondence with the geometric patterns that I see in everything from kente cloth to microchips, but it also came at a time when I was still working out things like identity and why race matters. This piece is definitely responding to those ideas.
I checkered the face with the white-and-black pattern in reference to the separation between races. People see themselves as these artificial colors, and I think it’s stifling to the greater good of all humanity when we identify ourselves this way. However, I see that there’s definitely power in numbers. I see race and all cultures as a way of surviving—as survival mechanisms. I think at this point these things have become more divisive than they may have been in earlier ages. Now it’s something that has so many negative aspects to it. If you are this, you can’t be that.
When you pass from this form onto your next body, I don’t believe that your soul is like, “Oh, I was a white person, or I was a black person.” That would be an absolute wreck, having to deal with that in the soul. If the spirit believed in color like that, it would be just atrocious! I definitely see that it matters here and now, but why does it matter? It seems like it’s being used for economic and political exploitation, and all other kinds of social deviation.
The other piece in the show is This Little Piggy. When Cheryl came to me with the idea of this show, I already had the materials for this piece in my studio. It’s a branch rosary. It’s bullets, some ancient African beads, and a brass pig. The main connection that I wanted to make with the work was that these two seemingly different things—bullet casings and beads—are both steeped in the great history of metalworking coming out of West Africa. It’s an ancient technology, but it’s something that you can do in your backyard right now. We’ve taken that and created great things from it.
If it wasn’t for those ancient technologies all over the world—figuring out how to separate metal from stone and then learning how to melt it and cast it into things—we wouldn’t have cars, we wouldn’t have skyscrapers, and we wouldn’t have guns. The connection that I want to make with this piece is that the technology that can make something as beautiful as those beads is the same technology that goes into making something as heinous as a bullet. I’m looking at the application, the way in which you use something afterwards. It can be used for good or evil.
What about the brass pig?
The police are also colloquially known as the “the pigs”—that’s what we used to say back in the day. That’s definitely one reading. I don’t necessarily see the job of a police officer as a bad thing. It’s an admirable job. If you’re really serving and protecting the community the way it was supposed to be, that’s great. If you have some sort of issues from the past, or some identity issues, some biases against people, then the potential abuse of that power can be horrible. I’m making a connection between those dualities there.
I see a lot of good cops out here—I talk to them all the time. I’m a man just like they are. I respect them and I hope they respect me in the same way, because the idea of a cop is just a figment of our imagination. It’s a job that no one really has to do or respect, just like anything else. If we believe in those things it’s because we wish to have them. We really do wish to have a presence that protects our collective well-being.
The pig can be a greedy animal, but it tastes really good. It can eat shit and then taste like bacon—you can’t know what that pig ate. There again is a duality. In the larger sense the work can be about how we consume. We consume society. We consume ideologies. We consume cultures. We consume all types of stuff.
You’re also the 2015 Artist in Residence at the Rush Arts Gallery in Chelsea. What kinds of things have you been thinking about during the residency?
I’ve been working on my “Testoestro” series—the word is a combination of testosterone and estrogen. My work is about binaries and the relationships of things that seem to be different. Even with these dualities, there are always these collapses of male and female and 1 and 0. I think of these works as combining these dualities—the masculine and the feminine, the geometric and the organic. Some of them are more like microchips and some are more like organs, but they’re made out of the same parts.
All of this work came after my baby was born. My fiancé and I just had our first child, and I didn’t realize how this experience was going to come out in my work. I was there during the whole birthing experience and I saw my child come out and when I look at this work I’m like, “Oh my god—it’s the same tubes and organs.” All of the stuff that I saw, I see really clearly in the work.
I think that artists are the ones who are the fore-thinkers. We see what is going to be. We project what’s going to be. I see that there’s going to be a definite bridge between organic material and this synthesized, processed, computerized world. We’re getting closer and closer to it. It’s not even a matter of time—it’s a matter of when we say we want to do it. Whoever is going to be looking at this work 100 years from now is going to say, “Oh my god. How did he know this?” I’m just feeling it. I have an emotional, physical, thoughtful experience with the work, but I know that it is going to be connected and deciphered into something else. I’m doing that with the work right now—forward projection.
Your work incorporates a number of ideas and themes from ancient civilizations. What do these old myths and ways of thinking teach us today?
I’ll give you one in particular. The Dogon say that we came from stars, and that we came through water. They say that we were these fish-like creatures at first. The thing is, in science it has been proven that we are closer to fish than even the gorilla and the monkey. Our DNA is actually closer to the fish than any other thing. Dolphins are like humans. They think like us and they communicate with us. They even try to have sex with women. They say that those are our ancestors.
What I’ve done is matched up a lot of myths. I also look at Proteus—that’s where the protean character is coming from in the work. Mami Wata is another water god down in the Caribbean— the mother water. I see the connection between the mother water and the breaking of the water when the baby is born. That makes perfect sense.
We say these are myths, but maybe these are just codes and stories passed down to explain the way things work. I make many connections between the myths of the past, and the mystical mathematics they used. We know that the pyramids were built, but we have a hard time believing that our ancient forefathers could do it. It’s not a question of whether humans did it—they absolutely did. The thing is how. We know they moved them but we still haven’t been able to figure out or duplicate that. That’s where we struggle with those things, actually trying to redo what was done in the past. It goes for these ancient stories, too. You can look at something like the Bible as being made up of parables, but to me it’s just codes. If you can decipher the code you can understand exactly what they are saying.
How does your interest in algorithms come into play?
If you go and look at the geometric glyphs of almost any ancient culture in the world, you’ll see algorithms. I’ll give you a group of people in particular—the Ndebele tribe in Africa paint these wonderful geometric shapes. I grew up playing Atari video games. When I saw the Ndebele painting, I was like, “Whoa, hold up. Why do you have ‘Space Invader’ on your hut out there?” I saw it very clearly. When you talk about video games and microchips and all of that, it’s all code.
When I look at something like kente cloth, I see pixels. They’ve creating pixels in cloth. These days we’re not weaving, but we’re using that same thing—the computer is weaving pixels. It’s a loom, but it’s a fascinating loom. It uses in the same methodology, the same colors and shapes. And now that it can give you light and sound, it’s becoming even more godlike.
You moved to Harlem relatively recently, at a time when the its art scene seems to be on the brink of a real explosion. You’ve been quoted as saying the neighborhood is "going through another Renaissance." What’s happening in Harlem right now?
When I moved to Harlem, I found a mecca of creativity. When I say it’s another renaissance, I’m not saying that it’s the second one. Maybe the Renaissance has always been here—maybe it has never left.
I’m a new transplant. My roots are very shallow. Even so, just living where I live and knowing that Dizzy Gillespie and Miles Davis and Adam Clayton Powell and all those people walked the same street—you feel that energy when you walk around, and it doesn’t matter who walks in the neighborhood. You can feel the rhythm of the jazz that was played back then, and I’m only going back to the Harlem Renaissance. I’m guaranteeing you that before it was Harlem, when the native people were here, the same kind of thing was probably going on. I look at it as a continuation of creativity. It’s a place with an extreme wealth of energy. It could be some geological thing, because I know that there are certain places in the world that have a certain energy. There’s a lot of energy coming from the Earth itself, and we pick up on all that. We’re Earthlings, so of course we are the mama’s babies. Wherever she puts the energy, we are going to feel that.
At the same time, all of my friends are in Harlem. There’s something definitely in the air, similar to the Abstract Expressionist movement. These artists don’t know each other, yet they are making work in tandem. The work is very natural, with an absence of the figure. For me, this is something relatively new, because I’ve dealt with the figure for many years. I haven’t in any way abandoned it, but the drive that I feel to create these pieces is much more important. It’s on high, man. That’s something we can’t explain, but we know happens. Everybody is picking up off everyone else’s energy. That collective story that we’re supposed to be telling? It’s happening right now.