A Conversation with Bockhaus: Color Theory, Racial Justice, and What it Means to Be American

I rolled into Father Knows Best and noticed the man sitting next to me was wearing paint-splattered pants. Curiosity got the best of me, and I chatted him up. He introduced himself as Ryan Bock, but it was when he showed me his Instagram that I recognized I was talking to Bockhaus.

A few weeks later, I dropped in his studio. Bockhaus was gearing up for a solo show at the Ground Effect Gallery in Paris: "I’m Afraid of Americans,” the title adapted from a David Bowie song. He painted as I interviewed, and our discussion dove deep. I watched him fill the canvas in layers of black, white, and gray as we spoke about color theory, racial justice, and what it means to be American.

City to City

Bockhaus is a disciple of art, having studied in cities across the map. Born in California, Bockhaus attended an art-focused high school in Dallas, graduated college in Chicago, studied abroad in Prague, and built a career in New York. 

Bockhaus had to apply to get into his high school. There, the students were divided into different ‘clusters’ and separated by focus, except for one class everyone took – “Elements of Art.” Students were encouraged to see the fundamental components of creativity. It had a strong impact on Bockhaus.

“Where do these things come together, where do they meet… it’s something I apply so much to my own practice.”

College let Bockhaus experiment his style by offering a more open education. At the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC) Bockhaus focused on film. He wanted to concentrate on the more technical aspects of the art. Some of Bockhaus's biggest influences come from experimental film, such as the works of David Lynch and the Czech surrealist animator Jan Švankmajer.

Prague left a deep impression on Bockhaus’s artistic senses. While he studied at the Academy of Fine Arts in Prague (AVU) he took an interest in cubism. As a kid, Bockhaus hated Picasso, but as he began to understand Cubist theory and its application to both theater and paintings, he gained an appreciation. Muted color, three-dimensional perspectives, and odd constructions; this unique framework of the world shapes much of his work.

“I’ve always been drawn to a limited palette. [In Prague] I had an awakening to the direction I wanted to take.”

Black and White and Gray

“You don’t need all this extra shit to delineate a scene.” Bockhaus explained, as he shaded in some black.

Bockhaus has an iconoclastic style. By using a neutral tricolor palette to establish vivid imagery, his work stands out. His Kafkaesque paintings render surreal scenes, monochromatic nightmares charged with emotional energy. 

Bockhaus explained his process. How can you draw a face in its simplest form? A single line can still be used to convey personality, even if it’s abstracted. By building things up from their most basic form, he felt connected with past masters. By tracing their first steps, Bockhaus was able to see their mental journeys.

“You can have a dialogue with dead artists.”

“I draw everything out.”

This helps Bockhaus visually with what he wants to create, followed by the methodical stretching, sketching, priming, and prep of a canvas. When it comes to painting, Bockhaus focuses on each part, piece by piece.

“There are some days, where all I’m painting with is black.”

I asked why only black, white, and gray.

“It represents conflict. Harsh tonal differences. Very stark contrast. That’s where my images lie… A lot of it has to do with what I see around me.”

Bushwick is covered in colorful murals, but to Bockhaus the excessive use of rainbows and pastel is distasteful. Most of Brooklyn’s murals disregard color theory. 

“It’s over the top, nothing fits together. There’s no subtlety. I don’t vibe with it at all… I was like, 'I’m gonna do the exact opposite.’”

One of his gripes with the street art scene is that it favors broad definitions of art, preferring open and nonjudgmental perspectives over discerning and critical analysis. By contrast, Bockhaus has a respect for graffiti, a narrower form that requires real technical skill. Graf takes real stakes.

If everyone is a street artist, what’s a street artist? Bockhaus doesn’t consider himself one, though he’s painted on the streets. One of his street pieces is on a shed; the three-dimensional surface plays well with his style. For him, it’s important for artist to self-assess what’s necessary.

“Does it translate; does it work on the street? You need to answer that honestly.” 

Bockhaus has shaped his style around refining technique. His opinions are sculpted from hard marble. All the same, Bockhaus thinks others should think for themselves.

“Maybe I’m wrong… [but either way] if you listen to what other artists say, you’re gonna be fucked.”

Bockhaus shrugged. "I’m gonna keep doing what I wanna do. For better or worse.”    

Racial Justice

Certain symbols recur in Bockhaus’s work. A statue, an obelisk, an ankh. Bockhaus uses symbols to challenge meaning and context.

“Why are we giving these things power?”

Why is the Washington Monument in D.C. an obelisk? The sculpture was constructed off Egyptian ideas. What does the symbol mean in one time-and-place versus another? What is an appropriate cultural appropriation of imagery? Who owns what and why? By provoking discussion around the topic, Bockhaus seeks to understand nuances.

Bockhaus dipped his brush in white paint, as he added small details to a striking scene. The painting depicted a crowd ripping down a statue. One hand strikes out toward the crowd, evoking ideas that was once raised in proclamation now struck down in judgement. There appears to be a political element, but without context all that is seen is a violent act. 

“What is this? It’s abstracted. So you have to really look at it, to see what’s happening.”

The painting drew to mind the removal of confederate icons following the white nationalist protests in Charlottesville, in which a counter-protestor was killed. Bockhaus and I talked about how our current political climate affects art, particularly in terms of racial justice. 

Open Casket, a painting by Dana Schultz, based off the mutilation and murder of Emmett Till, sparked rage and calls for its destruction. The controversy surrounding the issue was drawn from the fact that Ms. Schultz a white woman used Emmett Till, an image some felt belonged strictly to black artists. The debate stirred the question, where are the cultural lines? Who owns what and why? [As to his personal stance on the matter, Bockhaus gave praise to Kara Walker’s statement.]

"The history of painting is full of graphic violence and narratives that don't necessarily belong to the artists own life, or perhaps, when we are feeling generous we can ascribe the artist some human feeling, some empathy toward her subject. Perhaps, as with Gentileschi we hastily associate her work with trauma she experienced in her own life. I tend to think this unfair, as she is more than just her trauma. As are we all. I am more than a woman, more than the descendant of Africa, more than my fathers daughter. More than black more than the sum of my experiences thus far. I experience painting too as a site of potentiality, of query, a space to join physical and emotional energy, political and allegorical forms. Painting - and a lot of art often lasts longer than the controversies that greet it. I say this as a shout to every artist and artwork that gives rise to vocal outrage. Perhaps it too gives rise to deeper inquiries and better art. It can only do this when it is seen."

Bockhaus’s father is German-Jewish whose family moved to South Africa to escape Nazi persecution. His father opposed apartheid, and later fled South Africa to avoid being caught in the racial conflict. While Bockhaus doesn’t equate anti-Semitism to racism, there are parallels. Context shapes our understanding of who is the societal ‘other.’

“I’m addressing these things, but I don’t have answers.”

I’m Afraid of Americans

As identity politics have stormed the front of national controversy, Bockhaus reflected on his own understandings of self. Being a white-male American, Bockhaus has felt at times conflicted about his place, both as an artist and as an American. While he has always tried to be conscious, his true awakening to racial tensions came when he himself faced backlash.

Bockhaus sketched in gray outlines as he recalled a story to illustrate his point. His family takes a yearly trip to Africa. They were out at dinner among tourists, when they met a couple from Dallas. The group made small talk, when it came up that Bockhaus was a painter. His mom joked, ‘Are you going to show them the paintings?”

She was referring to a series Bockhaus did exploring the roots of symbolism of hate in American culture. Bockhaus had kept them secret due to their polarizing nature, but the Dallas couple badgered him into showing them. The couple, white Christianites from Texas, were horrified. They worried that Bockhaus needed to ‘get right with God.’

“I’m not burning a cross. I’m showing a historical fact.”

It wasn’t the first time the series had drawn such hateful reactions. Bockhaus had submitted the series to an evaluation by a panel of Cooper Union Grad Students. To maximize impact of his imagery, Bockhaus shaved his head.

The grad students walked into a room of 6-foot-tall burning cross paintings. The reactions were harsh. Bockhaus thought he’d be given the benefit of the doubt, considering the progressive artistic environment. They were not having it.

“Basically, they were like: we don’t like these things, so we don’t like you…. And I was like, Ok, I have to eat that. That’s what you think. Cool... It shook me.”

In the end, he chose to shelf the burning-cross series for their racially charged nature. “I didn’t end up releasing it because I needed to reexamine… my own privilege. As a white person, you don’t have to think of your racial identity.”

He pointed to the fact that people of color are often judged first by their skin color, while he, a first-generation American, could ‘pass’ through society being white. The idea that identity is contextual has pushed his art.

“It’s an experiment. It’s looking at myself. You’re raised in America. And you’re raised to believe America fights for justice, peace…. You recognize, that's a lie. … It’s important for me, to look at myself. As a white person in America and see, ‘oh this is the history, this is why things are the way they are.”

Bockhaus finished the gray shading as he turned to me; “I’m coming to terms, with what I am as an American.”

Johnny’s Left America

David Bowie, a man whose eccentricities allowed him to transcend and challenge traditional narratives, is another of Bockhaus’s idols. He chose ‘I’m Afraid of Americans” as the title for his Ground Effect solo show in Paris for the song’s take on American culture.

The music video shows Bowie being chased by a man in a trench-coat, played by Trent Reznor. Like much of Bockhaus’ work, the song leave room for interpretation. Political convictions are alluded to, without a defined stance. The song is sardonic, but also cutting.

The series he has created for the show builds on his previous work, addressing question of racial tensions, historical violence, and identity, but portrayed with more subtlety and nuance. While the backlash to his symbols-of-hate paintings shocked him, it pushed Bockhaus to develop his art and explore meaning more fully.

As we closed our interview Bockhaus offered some reflections on his art career.

“When I finish a series, I look at it critically. No disappointment – analyze it, see what I can do better next time. Cool, shuffle ‘em. Create something different, something better. More powerful.”

When creating art intended to provoke, there is always the risk of backlash. But Bockhaus doesn’t let it discourage him.

"No one is gonna make these paintings the way that I make them except for me. And I have to be true to that… Some people hate it. Some people fuck with it. You’re not going to be able to please everyone.”

Bockhaus stepped back and looked at the piece he was painting.

“It’s self-expression… it’s the things I can’t say any other way.”

 

Photo courtesy of Bockhaus