24 th October , 2019
Jeff Musser is a conceptual artist based in Sacramento, CA. As a white (non-Black or Brown) artist, Musser has taken up a project that ventures deep into the history of racism, and the construction of race within the United States. Like many artists of color, he has created a visual language to explore the deep-seated issues aligned with racism, however, he interrogates his own privilege as a white person. While assessing the work in this feature, pay close attention to the titles.
It’s clear that Black and Brown Americans are still recovering from the racist indoctrinations of the past 500 years, but what is less clear is how White culture, and American culture as a whole, suffers from the tragedy of whiteness. In my opinion, the divide and conquer default setting of Whiteness has created among white people, a lonely detachment from the rest of the world. Being The Default keeps white Americans from being liberated because it denies them a specific identity by absorbing them into neutral blankness. In my work, I aim to confront and scrutinize my whiteness and how it has shaped my worldview.
ArtX: Tell us about you as a person.
Jeff Musser: My full name is Jeffrey David Musser, but I go by Jeff Musser. Or just Jeff. Saying the whole name takes too long. I am based in Northern California, Sacramento to be specific, not too far from where I grew up. I lived in Chicago IL for a few years and a few years in China, specifically the Guangdong Province near Hong Kong. I travel as much as I can for art projects, I like to get uncomfortable with my work and try things in a new environment. I’m traveling to The Vermont Studio Center for a residency in November, which I am excited and nervous about.
How long have you been practicing art professionally, when did you consider yourself a real artist?
I have been drawing and mark making since I was old enough to hold pencils or crayons on my own, so I guess you could say I have been a practicing artist for over thirty years now. But if you want to talk about being a practicing professional engaging in a larger art community and contributing to the contemporary art world, then I would trim off some years and say I’ve only been serious about my art practice for about fifteen years. I considered myself a real artist in college, but It didn’t kick into high gear until after I graduated.
Tell us about your training, both formal and informal.
I attended the School of The Art Institute of Chicago and I graduated with a BFA in Visual Communications, which is a fancy way of saying I did graphic design. My original intention was to just paint, and I took some foundation classes, but unlike most of my classmates, I didn’t have a trust fund, so I needed a way to pay off my student loans once I left SAIC. I put painting aside and focused on print and package design so that I could get a day job once I graduated. The plan was to work my advertising job during the day, live my life, pay off the student loans ASAP, then paint at night. But I quickly learned that my day job, designing Happy Meals for McDonald’s, sucked ALL the creative life out of me and I didn’t even want to look at my paints when I arrived home. It was a well-paying gig, but it was incredibly draining, and I was miserable. So when the economy started to tank, I was secretly hoping I would be let go, and when I was, I was relieved. I took it as a sign from God that I should just go for it, and in time, I would figure out what I wanted to say as an artist. It was tough financially for a while, I was on food stamps for years, I was SUPER SKINNY, I got sick but never saw a doctor, and I never turned the heat on in my Chicago apartment, but I survived. It made me tough and I learned that whatever my day job was, it couldn’t be creative for someone else. I had to save that energy for my own work, and if the job involved another person’s creative vision, my role had to be menial, like painting solid blocks of color or linework on a mural. Since adopting the “saving that creative energy for me” approach, I have made huge progress in a relatively short amount of time.
What mediums do you prefer to work in?
I have been toying with the idea of expanding into other mediums, but oil painting is my first love. There is just something about painting in oils that I never got from drawing or graphic design. Part of it is my love of the materials themselves. I just love the smell of oil paint. When you open a tube of good quality oil paint like a cobalt blue or cadmium red, it just smells good. Serious oil painters know what I’m talking about. I can even close my eyes, hold an open tube up to my nose, and tell you if the paint is earth or metal-based.
I also prefer oils because of the time aspect. The way I paint takes time; the layers of glazes and colors need to dry before I can move onto the next stage. This process allows me to slow down and really appreciate what I’m doing. I’m not on my phone, I’m not checking emails, I’m not too concerned about what’s going on outside, I’m in my zone and I’m focused. I’m not sure I could be that focused if my medium was reliant upon technology and software updates; mediums like animated gifs, video art, animation, or even film. The basics of oil painting haven’t changed in hundreds of years and I like that.
Who are some of your art inspirations? What are some of your non-art inspirations?
Anyone who sees my work will be aware of the heavy influence of painters like Caravaggio, Diego Velasquez, and Kehinde Wiley. Of course, painters like Jenny Saville, Kerry James Marshall, Odd Nerdrum, John Currin, Titus Kaphar, and Gerhard Richter have been influential. I saw a giant retrospective by Cai Guo Qian in Shanghai China years ago that BLEW MY MIND! The show planted the seed of “Maybe I should try some sort of installation one day.” As far as non-art inspirations go, I pull a lot of material from American History and the natural world.
When do you know when a work is finished?
I usually have a road map of where I want to go with a clear intention of what I want to convey, but as sometimes happens, I get sidetracked or something I do in the moment ruins the painting and I need to start over. There is a fine balance between knowing when to stop painting and just pushing ahead, and I don’t always know where that line is. All ideas for paintings start off as collages. Collages with photos and drawings are my version of sketching. At this point in my practice, it’s a 50-50 ratio of what is original collage and what is on the spot, in the moment painting decisions. I will intentionally leave blank or unresolved spots in the collage so that I will figure it out when I’m painting, even though this often bites me in the ass because I won’t be able to solve the problem right away. Sometimes it will take months and this adversarial relationship will develop with a particular work. One of my painting/art idols Kerry James Marshal said in an interview…
“It’s supposed to get harder, and that’s not really a problem. You’re supposed to be more sophisticated and much more self-conscious. As you know more, you have to consider more. It gets harder to make the next thing because you have to have a good reason to do it.”
I didn’t understand that concept when I was younger, I thought it would be the opposite, but now I get it, especially with the new body of work I am developing.
Tell us about your process when working.
After I have finished my morning routine of meditation, coffee, and emails, I turn off the Wi-Fi on my phone, put on some music or a lecture or a podcast in the background, and I paint for a solid, uninterrupted two hours. Unless it’s an emergency, I don’t answer my phone or even answer the door. It’s my time to work. Once the two hours are up, I take a thirty-minute break and I completely step away from the studio. I will take a walk, watch something on Netflix, stretch, answer emails, etc. Once the thirty-minute alarm goes off, I go back for another two hours and repeat the process. A twelve to fourteen-hour studio day is much more manageable and productive if I break up into smaller chunks.
What are the meanings and the concepts behind this particular body of work?
My current body of work deals with a macro and micro view of whiteness. The macro view is focused on key moments in American History centered around whiteness, namely: its origins, the original purpose, how whiteness has changed over time, who was allowed and not allowed to be white, etc. Then there are the micro works, the personal components of whiteness in my family and how being white has shaped my worldview. I am trying to present the subject matter in a way that is somewhat subtle, something that can slip in under the door and reveals itself in layers. Certain paintings will in a way run parallel to white supremacy; there are aspects that are obvious and intentional and thus rendered in a precise way. Other aspects are a bit more abstract and vague and hidden, less easy to decipher. Racism is slick at hiding in plain sight…but once you know where and how to look, you see its effects everywhere.
I have noticed that when the subject of “race” or “racism” or “whiteness” comes up in the contemporary art world, rarely do artists who look like me step into the conversation in a meaningful, deep way. Much like in the non-art world, black and brown people are expected to make work about race. Or, they are expected to carry the burden of doing something about racism in their work or talking about the effects of things like colonialism etc. But why don’t white artists tackle these kinds of issues from the perspectives of power? For real change to happen, white people have to get other white people involved, and for lack of a better term, we have to put some skin in the game. We have to get REALLY UNCOMFORTABLE within ourselves. We have to take the kind of risks black and brown people have been taking for centuries. We have to examine what being white means and push past the fear of having conversations about race and whiteness because it’s not a problem we can solve, it’s something we have to outgrow. I’m not quite sure how, but white people will have to find some sort of existence outside of being white.
What do you want viewers to take away from your work?
One of my goals with this work is to introduce constructive discomfort both within myself, and among my white-identified peers, social circles, and my family, with the hope that a deeper conversation on whiteness can be had. Too often the discussion of race among white people is halted because someone “feels uncomfortable.” The prospect of saying the wrong thing and possibly being labeled a racist is a very real fear among white people because racism is frequently comprehended in a binary way: “Either I’m a good, non-racist person or I’m a bad, racist person.” In past discussions, I have often felt the anxiety of that ugly label, and instead of pushing through the fear, I shut down, and I stayed silent when I should have made noise. And yet, the desire to explore my whiteness through my work, the desire to know WHY I stayed silent, has been gnawing at me for quite some time. In order to make honest work about the topic of whiteness, I knew I would have to go inward to ask some serious, uncomfortable questions. I initially doubted my ability to deal with some of the answers I might find. Admitting that I had absorbed and internalized racist beliefs, terrified me. But there is also a sense of freedom in confronting uncomfortable truths. If I am willing to confront and scrutinize and be vulnerable about how I am feeling around this subject, then hopefully other white people will be willing to do the same.
What are your biggest goals as a visual artist? And what has been your proudest moment professionally?
I have the usual goals of being included in big shows like the Whitney Biennial, or the New Museum Triennial, with a nice retrospective at the Tate, and to be included in international museum collections, things like that. I also plan to start a non-profit that gives money to schools that are in danger of cutting their art programs. I was really lucky in that I had access to art classes with amazing teachers that actually cared, so I am obligated to give back. My proudest moment came years ago in Chicago when one of my neighbors, who didn’t know my work at all, saw one of my paintings in the living room and started crying. Receiving a good show review, a solid critique, a nod from an artist you respect, showing in a blue-chip gallery, being awarded a grant, representing the USA in an exhibition overseas etc. are all nice, and I have a tremendous sense of pride that those things have happened to me, but they don’t really compare to seeing someone weep uncontrollably in front of your work. All because I moved some paint around on a canvas? It sounds cliché, maybe a little cheesy, but nothing beats that. I obviously didn’t set out to cause her or anyone else pain, but the message got through to her, it bypassed all her defenses and got her right in the heart. If you’re not interested in making a connection with people or inspiring some sense of “awe” that will lead to positive change, why are you an artist?