‘Dirt, Body, or Voice, Everything Is Fair Game’: The Art World’s Favorite Musician, Moses Sumney, Is Taking on Visual Art Next
The genre-bending artist’s film 'Blackalachia' is the centerpiece of his first solo gallery show at Nicola Vassell.
A gig in Berlin a few years ago showed Moses Sumney, the Ghanaian-American singer-songwriter and artist, the difference between how music is consumed versus fine art. “I was in front of an audience eager to see me sing, but I had to compete with the noise of glasses clicking and chatter,” he tells Artnet News. When he visited a gallery exhibition the next day, Sumney noticed the utter silence among the crowd. “There was total respect and all eyes-and-ears attention on the art,” he says. “I once again realized I was frustrated with the lack of reverence in the music industry.”
Perhaps that is why Sumney has purposefully operated outside that industry, ever since his self-produced breakthrough album Mid-City Island in 2014. An angelic voice and celestial delivery have made the North Carolina-based performer a darling of the independent music scene, and his sharp stage presence and piercing lyrics have caught the attention of headliners like Sufjan Stevens, Beck, and James Blake, with whom he has toured.
Despite his growing popularity as a performer, however, Sumney’s ultimate inspiration comes from a devotion to solitude. “What I kept returning to in my writing was loneliness and standing outside the club,” Sumney says. “Singularity is the frame through which I approach life, my own idiosyncratic nature.”
Fittingly, he has recently found himself veering towards the more solo practice of art-making. Following an immersive sensory installation at Pioneer Works in Brooklyn last fall and a multidisciplinary project at the Peréz Art Museum Miami during Art Basel Miami Beach in December, Sumney opens his first solo gallery show this week with Chelsea dealer Nicola Vassell.
The exhibition, “Blackalachia” (February 3–March 5, 2022), includes a 70-minute-long director’s cut of the namesake concert film Sumney shot in the Blue Ridge Mountains, an hour outside his home in Asheville, North Carolina. A medley of music and performance, the film features songs from his albums græ and Aromanticism. It fluctuates between moments of unrestrained action, as Sumney dances across lush green landscapes with a full band backing his vocals, and psychedelic introspection, such as scenes shot in a deep indigo, nocturnal filter.
When the film had its premiere at PAMM in December, Sumney also gave a performance; this time, the focus is on his eye as a photographer, with film stills as well as introspective self-portraits on view at the gallery. The freedom to choose not to perform, “at least a song or two along with the art,” is a newfound pleasure for Sumney. “I’ve made myself very available as a singer, but here, I’ve already made the art and it’s hanging on the wall,” he says.
Sumney was first exposed to the creative potentials of solitude at the age of 10, when his family moved from Southern California, where he was born in 1992, back to Ghana, where he grew up on a goat farm near Accra. He did not have internet access until he was 16, when he started to connect with other teenagers in AOL chat rooms, spending an hour every week at an internet cafe, absorbing celebrity news on MSN’s entertainment page. “I was on the periphery of American culture while trying to take in whatever I could for solace and connection,” he remembers.
Although he returned to California to study creative writing and poetry at the University of California, Los Angeles—where he also started to write and perform his own music—he moved to Appalachia in 2018, spurred again by his need to escape the crowd. “Living in L.A. was too much, with people only talking to each other with an agenda,” he says. “I needed an environment where my artistry could flourish without the distraction of fame.” Living among the birds, trees and the changing light in the mountains kept Sumney grounded to reality and provided the non-negotiable loneliness he was seeking, as well as some occasional material inspiration for Blackalachia. “Dirt, body or voice, everything is fair game in art-making,” Sumney says. “My hope is that the audience has a singular and internally unique experience to the film.”
Such an individual experience was also at the core of Sumney’s technoechophenomena project at Pioneer Works, which merges physicality with technology. Visitors entered a box one person at a time and, based on their movements, were able to “play” the room using fluctuating neon lights and different octaves of Sumney’s song “Me in 20 Years”, from his second album græ. “There was a humanistic element embedded in the experience because our physicality could guide the computer,” he says.
Sumney sees this twofold invitation to wield technology, while being affected by it in turn, as a natural extension of his creative practice. “I am interested in the intersection of my vocals and the machine, such as auto-tune or de-gendering,” he says, describing his audio experiments as “abject weird sounds.”
The way Sumney comfortably straddles genres is a sign of the direction contemporary art might be heading, according to PAMM’s executive director Franklin Sirmans. “Visual artists have become so dependent upon the system of galleries and MFA programs that we forget where creativity comes from sometimes,” he says. “Moses bucks that trend, and I think he is a harbinger of more to come in that way.”
Arthur Lewis, UTA Artist Space’s creative director and an early champion of Sumney’s transition to fine art, notes that the artist’s multidisciplinary approach in crucial to his practice: “His focus on visual art and photography gives him the chance to express himself in ways that wouldn’t necessarily translate onstage, where he needs to engage with a stage persona who is always ‘on.’”
And after spending years working around the expected conventions of the music industry, Sumney is now prepared to do the same with the art world. He is also ready for any doubts about his visual art abilities based on preconceptions about his fame in music. “Some people will only pay attention because of my name,” he says, “or others will totally discard the work for the same reason.”
He sees Nicola Vassell’s gallery as “a space that suits the intimacy of the work” he is now putting out. The fact that it is a commercial gallery also does not bother him. “Long ago, I realized that I would not sell,” he says, “so whenever I do, it’s a cherry on top.”
“Moses Sumney: Blackalachia” is on view at Nicola Vassell, 138 Tenth Avenue, New York, February 3–March 5, 2022.
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