I first met Mario Moore and his work simultaneously at a Yale MFA student show in 2012. I was delighted to learn of a hometown artist making such strides in New Haven, while still remaining transparent on personal narratives regarding race, class, and gender, through his work. Upon visiting the following Yale MFA critiques that year, I learned that Moore’s efforts in sharing the harsh reality of the mistreatment of Black bodies in America was no small feat. The active figurative interrogation of Black (male) body experiences in contemporary America, make Moore’s work more important now than it has ever been.
Taylor Renee Aldridge: As Detroit natives and advocates for the city, you and I are both very aware of the extreme transition happening in Detroit right now. Gentrification is making its mark in bold ink on the abandoned city. As an arts worker/cultural institution worker, I feel the need to make sure Detroit’s (artistic) core does not get lost in current developments. I am curious to find out if you have similar sentiments. You have been substantially present in art shows throughout the city throughout your entire life. It seems as if you feel that you have a responsibility to contribute to your hometown’s “revitalization” through your work, is that true? How have recent developments affected your work, if at all?
Mario Moore: I think the interesting thing is that these new transplants have been talking and worrying about this revitalized Detroit these past couple of years. It is a very new thing for them. On the other hand, as an artist from Detroit this has always been my concern, like many other artist from the city as well. We have not been interested in this so called Renaissance or hope of a Renaissance in our city, we have been actively committing to it for a very long time before the city started getting all the news coverage. I remember going to Italy in undergrad and coming back home and [I] wanted to see the possibility of art everywhere in my city. I thought, we have so much talent in this city and yet our shows are sub par and spread thin. So I started curating shows with Senghor Reid to really bring out the great artist I knew at the time. Recent developments on the concern of Detroit’s revitalization has not affected me at all because I have always been concerned with the praise my city deserves.
TRA: Your mother, Sabrina Nelson, is an artist, teacher and an integral force in Detroit’s arts community. Thus, you grew up in a rich “village” of art makers and educators. Who is your community now? Do you rely on a specific group of peers to exchange ideas on your work and practice?
MM: I was extremely blessed to have a mother who was an artist and had me actively involved in the Detroit art community from a very young age. I remember walking through the halls of CCS (College for Creative Studies, Detroit) at the age of 5 on up and smelling the turpentine in the fine arts department. A very nostalgic smell that excites me whenever I am in someones studio. My community has grown since I have moved to New York. I make sure to stay involved as much as I can with the Detroit art community. I speak often with Richard Lewis about my work and share ideas with people at CCS like professor Gil Ashby. I also make sure to stay in constant contact with the galleries in Michigan and Detroit. For the most part my community now has expanded to most of the people I graduated from Yale with. This expands beyond New York because not everyone ran to the east coast after graduation.
TRA: Kerry James Marshall, who I remember is an artist you admire, once stated: ‘Figuration is more important than abstraction, because we live in a world in which the quantity of images you see really does matter.’ Your work is primarily figurative, and many of your works are also quite cathartic. Do you agree with Marshall in regards to his thoughts on figuration? In your figurative paintings, do you believe they have a greater impact than abstract works?
MM: To some extent I do believe that but not entirely. The reason I say this is because abstraction in some sense allows for an escape and sometime you need to escape. To me anyone can find whatever content they are searching for in an abstract piece or no content at all and that may be beneficial for them. But my heart is set on figuration because although you may come to some different conclusions while viewing my work, it is leading you in some direction. A direction that is seated right at the cusp of real world content and history. I also think the best figurative work is work that considers abstract elements. Velazquez to me is an amazing abstract painter. Kerry James Marshall also benefits from the history of abstraction, man his work is good (laughs). But in order to be a good figurative artist you have to understand abstraction whether you like it or not. As far as figurative art being more impactful than abstraction, that has been the case for me.
TRA: In a Yale News Interview, while pursuing your MFA, you revealed that, “I feel like there’s a disconnect between the city-dwellers and Yale. There’s that tension there.” The work you created while in New Haven reflected that, and your works in the RESPOND Smack Mellon show have been reminiscent of the 2013 works I saw at your thesis show. How have unjust violent acts against Black bodies affected your work?
MM: Unjust violence against black bodies, my body, has been one of the primary concerns of my work. How do I get someone to understand what it is like to get harassed, pulled over and beaten by police? Is there a way to do that visually? It can be very difficult but it is something I often address. The first large painting I did, I created out of necessity. I was in a study abroad program in Italy and I wanted to create a painting. I was not taking any painting classes and it was during break. I had to ask the dean of the school if I can use some studio space to make a painting while most of the other students were gone traveling Europe for the break. I did not go anywhere because my money was not reaching like that. So I worked on a painting describing what it felt like to be black as you walk past a white couple. Constantly being seen as, “other” or threatening. This to me is the same mentality that causes violence against blacks.
TRA: In regards to the Smack Mellon show, when you learned of the call for submissions, what was your personal process like in developing ideas for work to submit?
MM: For the Smack Mellon show I just considered a piece that I already created. I have been dealing with these issues in my work for quite some time so it was just a matter of choosing the right piece. I really wanted to show what it felt like to have to consider your every move in a world that does not consider you or when it does consider you, you are always the suspect.
TRA: What artists are you watching/following right now?
MM: Hmmmm. I am always looking at Richard Lewis. Also Jennifer Packer who is just finishing up a residency at Provincetown. Titus Kaphar, Mark Gibson, Jordan Casteel, Kenny Rivero, Austin Lee, Kadir Nelson and Tiff Massey to name a few.
Taylor Renee is co-editor of ARTS.BLACK