Art

The Artsy Vanguard 2022: Dominic Chambers

Neyat Yohannes
Nov 15, 2022 5:12PM

A giant monstera, a jade plant, a rubber tree, and something tall thriving further in the background come into focus. The space looks tranquil, like a Dominic Chambers painting in which figures hole up with a book, meditate, or get lost daydreaming. It’s then unsurprising to find the artist himself in this serene, plant-filled setting. Chambers’s oeuvre has long been concerned with Black life, but his recent paintings explore rituals of rest and sites of leisure.

With a growing list of accomplishments under his belt, leisure is something New Haven–based Chambers probably hasn’t experienced in a while, despite his cozy environment. He has exhibited in group shows since 2013. His work has been the subject of solo exhibitions in galleries around the world, from New York’s Lehmann Maupin, which represents him, to Luce Gallery in Turin, Italy. He was even featured in Forbes magazine’s 2021 “30 Under 30” list as one of the most promising artists of his generation.

Portrait of Dominic Chambers by Arielle Gray. Courtesy of Dominic Chambers.

Dominic Chambers, Something Came To Me, 2019. Courtesy of the artist and Lehmann Maupin, New York, Hong Kong, Seoul, and London.

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For Chambers, it all began with drawing. “I was one of those kids in class who would challenge people to drawing competitions,” he said in a recent interview with Artsy. “I started with a competitive relationship to art because it was the space I felt most confident in.” The young artist wasn’t as concerned with being at the top of his class in mathematics or biology, because he’d already found the area where he shined. From drawing Dragon Ball Z characters, he developed an interest in storytelling, which only grew once he went to college and was introduced to art history. “I didn’t know artists could also be intellectuals or critical thinkers or cultural contributors,” he recalled. “My whole world opened up.”

This turning point came when he started studying at St. Louis Community College at Florissant Valley, the very college that artist Aaron Fowler attended before going to Yale School of Art. “When I learned about Aaron Fowler, an artist who was from my hood,” Chambers said, “he became my mirror, or my blueprint, so to speak.” All Chambers needed was a sign that a sweet Black art life (à la poet Nikky Finney’s “sweet Black writing life”) was possible. Fowler’s trajectory operated as Chamber’s north star. “Shouts out Aaron Fowler!” he added. “Thank you, man.”

Chambers would go on to follow a similar path as Fowler, receiving a BFA from Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design in 2016, and an MFA from Yale School of Art in 2019. Suddenly, it seemed Chambers had a unifying thread between his love of reading, writing, drawing, and later, painting.

Dominic Chambers, Summers Not as long as it used to be, 2019. Courtesy of the artist and Lehmann Maupin, New York, Hong Kong, Seoul, and London.

Dominic Chambers
Finding a Peace of Mind, 2021
Roberts Projects

In Finding a Peace of Mind (2021) from Chambers’s “Primary Magic” series (2020–21), a studious Black woman reads at a table. From her afro to her blouse, nearly everything in the painting is washed in various states of red. However, the woman’s book glows in a purposeful green, as if lighting the way. And in Nowhere You’ll Know (2020) from the “Wash Paintings” series (2019–20), a figure resembling Chambers is shrouded in nature, surrounded by ambiguous leaves and foliage in fecund shades of yellow and green. He sits cross-legged, reading, while someone rests nearby.

By depicting Black people curled up against peaceful backdrops, Chambers subverts narratives focused on work and expectations of productivity. “Our normative understanding of the Black body is a hyperactive one,” he said. “We were slaves, we’re labor forces, that’s the narrative you’re fed as a Black person.” In his paintings, Black people sway in hammocks, lie on their backs lost in thought, picnic with friends, and partake in various forms of relaxation or reflection—sometimes both. But more often than not, his subjects are reading.

Dominic Chambers, Tajh and the Ghost Marchers, 2019. Courtesy of the artist and Lehmann Maupin, New York, Hong Kong, Seoul, and London.

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Chambers himself is a reader. And a writer. His use of gestural abstraction and fabulist elements stems from his love of magical realism. “It’s the literary counterpart to the painterly and art historical surrealism that we’re familiar with,” he said of the genre, citing the work of W.E.B. DuBois, Zora Neale Hurston, Fred Moten, and James Baldwin. “I became interested in how magical realism plays a role in Black life.”

Chambers noticed that the writers he revered used surreal language to describe their experiences. DuBois’s concept of the veil in The Souls of Black Folk (1903)—which asserts that all Black people are “born with a veil” that obscures clarity and must be reconciled with—is a guiding principle in Chambers’s practice. In texts like Moten’s The Case of Blackness (2008), the poet and scholar considers the conditions of being Black, describing Blackness as a “surreal encounter.” It’s a notion Chambers is stirred by, adding, “The body in a moment of rest, is a surreal encounter.”

Dominic Chambers
Cream Of The Planet Earth (Rainbow Veil), 2022
Lehmann Maupin

But the influence of those aforementioned writers extends beyond Chambers’s “Wash Paintings” and “Primary Magic” series. Surrealism creeps into his recent shadow pieces, too. In these works, his subjects are met with silhouettes that come to the forefront. While they only made subtle appearances in the past, such as in the background of Well, Well, Well, (Chiffon in Green) (2020), the shadows are now the focal point.

Here, references to magical realism coalesce with Carl Jung’s theory of shadow work, which looks at one’s internalization of the past to investigate and renegotiate existing relationships to certain people, spaces, or events with the motive of finding a different, healthier path forward. Chambers is fascinated by this concept and thinks of the shadow as an enduring presence.

Dominic Chambers
Sunshine Lady, 2020
Luce Gallery
Dominic Chambers
Shadow Work (Kayla), 2022
Roberts Projects

“It’s always there. The shadow manifests when a light source hits it, and your trauma also manifests when there’s a certain trigger,” he explained. “When it comes to the history of the Black subject as a surreal encounter with a complicated history, what does it mean for that subject to participate with its shadow?”

He meditates on this question in pieces like To encounter a shadow (2022), where a naked Black man, presented in grayscale, stands on a patch of yellow grass by a river bank. With an outstretched arm, he touches fingertips with his glowing, iridescent silhouette. It feels representative of a vulnerable confrontation with the self that comes from the restorative power of therapy and the dedicated process of looking inward.

Dominic Chambers, installation view of “Soft Shadows” at Lehmann Maupin, 2022. Courtesy of the artist and Lehmann Maupin, New York.

The subjects across Chambers’s oeuvre appear to have rich interior lives, so much so that their surroundings almost feel irrelevant. Whether they’re situated in domestic or pastoral settings, they’re ultimately on a different plane altogether—one built from their daydreams or from within the pages of books.

“The value in someone’s inner world,” Chambers said. “That’s where the surrealism comes in. What does it mean to allow your imagination to permeate into the rational world?” Chambers manifests this in his paintings through lush landscapes of blue, yellow, and red hues, sometimes even meditative seas of black. Instead of drawing from source materials or using references, he looks to his own imagination, which is fueled by his early love of art.

Portrait of Dominic Chambers in his studio. Courtesy of Dominic Chambers.

Now, Chambers is gearing up for something he’s never done before. “I’ll have my first official solo show with my New York gallery Lehmann Maupin in 2024,” he said, taking a deep breath, “but the year before that, I have a solo museum show in my hometown at the Contemporary Art Museum of St. Louis.”

Chambers’s family and a lot of his friends in St. Louis have never seen his paintings in person. He asked, “How do I want to show up for these people at this moment? I’ll be turning 30 and it’s this full circle of my academic pursuits, my artistic pursuits, and I’ve been thinking about how I want to wrap up or enunciate this chapter of my career.” As he reflects on where he’s been, home will always remind him of where he came from.


The Artsy Vanguard 2022

The Artsy Vanguard is our annual feature recognizing the most promising artists working today. The fifth edition of The Artsy Vanguard features 19 rising talents from across the globe who are poised to become the next great leaders of contemporary art. Explore more of The Artsy Vanguard 2022 and collect works by the artists.

Neyat Yohannes

Header: Dominic Chambers, from left to right: “Summers not as long as it used to be,” 2019; “Cream Of The Planet Earth (Rainbow Veil),” 2022; and “Tajh and the Ghost Marchers,” 2019. Courtesy of the artist and Lehmann Maupin, New York, Hong Kong, Seoul, and London.