HOUSING is the recipient of the third annual Gramercy International Prize and will be presenting works by artists Allana Clarke and Nathaniel Oliver at the 2021 edition of The Armory Show. We spoke with art dealer, curator, and co-founder of HOUSING, KJ Freeman, and both artists to learn more about their practices and plans for the upcoming fair.
— Interview by Ellie Clark
Ellie Clark: KJ, can you share a bit about the history and mission of HOUSING?
KJ Freeman: I started HOUSING after some of my peers and I protested Dana Schutz’s Open Casket at the Whitney Biennial 2017. I noticed many of my black friends in the arts were facing a lot of anti-blackness and flattening of their experiences by the industry, which consists predominantly of white people, and I wanted to create a space to confront that.
The gallery has gone through many iterations. It was first a community-based space that had a more collaborative, curatorial format. Secondly, it was a wake; during the pandemic, the gallery felt like a temple for mourning. Now, the gallery is more rigorous in the pursuit of elevating the contemporary art canon through posing questions often not posed due to lack of representation—or fear. Most shifts in our collective consciousness start with poor queer people, such as the influence of writers like bell hooks, Audre Lorde, and activists like the Combaheee River Collective. I’m making space for those contemporary voices.
EC: In your own words, what is the role of a gallerist in supporting the artists they work with, particularly considering the challenges of this past year?
KJF: My primary role has shifted to that of providing honesty. Like the gallery itself, I’ve had many iterations as a gallerist. When I started the gallery, my focus was on performance—I had a dog and would try to flex luxury lifestyle on Instagram. Like “keeping up with the Joneses.” Then I burned out, so I had none of my artists and no money, then the pandemic hit, which was the time that capitalism froze. So, now, I focus on nurturing and establishing transparency with the artists I work with. I have a pretty bare bones operation and I just try to be a confidante, a critic, and a peer. That’s essential to having a positive experience with an artist.
"My primary role has shifted to that of providing honesty." — KJ Freeman
EC: Your booth at The Armory Show will be a dual-artist presentation of Allana Clarke and Nathaniel Oliver. Please tell us about each artists’ practice.
KJF: Nathaniel is constantly seeking to redefine and explore the possibilities of paint as a medium. I think he is an extremely sophisticated painter because his concerns are so intricate for a figurative painter. There are often vignettes of sci-fi, Afro futurist exploration—depictions of time, time travel, etc.
With Allana, I related to her use of hair bonding glue as a material. Similar to Nathaniel, her artistic concerns are so intricate in relationship to object making—I haven’t spoken to Allana about this, but the idea of abstraction and hair bonding glue resonates for many black women who rely on hair extensions to build our femininity because we have been denied it historically.
EC: Can you share your vision for the booth and why you chose these two artists to be in dialogue with each other?
KJF: To be honest, I just really believe in Allana and Nathaniel as artists. They both have serious studio practices and are extremely kind people. I think temperament speaks volumes about artists. I’m excited to see Allana’s sculpture and Nathaniel’s new series of work at The Armory Show. I can’t really know how the booth will look until I’m there. Hangs happen mystically and organically, sometimes the day or hour before a show. The install will be a collaboration with the artists where I share pictures back and forth and gather their input.
"The literal and social histories of the materials I use are central to the conceptual nature of my practice."
— Allana Clarke
EC: Allana, you have a truly interdisciplinary practice, working across video, performance, photography, text, etc. What are the opportunities and constraints within these different mediums, and how do they inform and push your practice?
Allana Clarke: If I work with any one medium too long, I begin to rub against its limits, so I’m constantly jumping from one way of making to another. It can be quite destabilizing to continually exist in the unknown. I’m constantly experimenting and learning, discovering new ways to challenge my work, which is incredibly exciting. Every day in the studio there’s something surprising that will occur, and that is an incredibly generative space for me to exist in. In terms of constraints, I’m easily distracted by possibility. Something I didn’t plan will happen in the studio and completely startle me—in the best ways possible—and I chase that feeling and idea to the end. But, honestly, I have come to accept those constraints as an integral part of my process; there’s always something to learn in one modality that I can then bring to another and create something that surprises me and those that encounter my work.
EC: Much of your work involves using the body, whether through performance or the very physical process by which you construct your sculptures. Do you see this practice as related to the conceptual underpinnings of your work?
AC: Yes, absolutely. The body is always present in my work, even if what you see is an object on the wall, the process in which that object came to be is inextricably linked to the bodies that labored to make it—and not only my body as the artist, but all the hands that processed the materials before I bought them. The literal and social histories of the materials I use are central to the conceptual nature of my practice. The materials I’ve become entranced with lately also explicitly point back to the body, as these are materials produced to be used on the body, like hair bonding glue.
EC: Can you speak to how your experience as an immigrant from Trinidad plays a role in your work?
AC: I don’t belong here. Here has meant many things, but that notion has been embedded within my being, and been continually reinforced by the structures around me. I’ve taken that unsettling feeling and processed it in my work; instead of being a statement, it’s a question: why do I want to belong to a present that doesn’t see me? Instead of being a statement, it’s a point of severance, a new articulation that I do not have words for yet, that may not ever come to fruition, but my work, and by extension my being, will exist in that space of uncertainty, unbound.
"My work depicts moments where I felt deeply and was also reminded that there isn’t a mode to living." — Nathaniel Oliver
EC: Nathaniel, can you speak a bit about how you see your work challenging normality and veracity?
Nathaniel Oliver: I see my work challenging the narratives that aim to subjugate the extent of how one should act or exist. In some cases, I’ve found myself situated in a way of being and noticed that my peers, too, were constrained by an unseen limitation. In hindsight, the limitation was normality, rooted in veracity. My work depicts moments where I felt deeply and was also reminded that there isn’t a mode to living. What is normal for some isn’t normal for all. I feel like normal is a truth that is often not appreciated, accepted, and explored.
EC: How have the events of the past year influenced your artistic practice?
NO: I leaned on my practice in 2020. It carried me through the year and provided me a refuge. The year 2020 said, “It’s now or never, Nathaniel!” Even this moment is evidence of a past effort accomplished, and I thank my past for its lessons and blessings.
EC: Can you speak to the role of illustration in your practice?
NO: Illustration influences my composition. In my practice, I find framing to be paramount. That is the initial entry to a subject. I like to think I use illustrative cues to build the spaces I’m pondering. I think the two mediums go hand-in-hand when creating figurative and narrative-based work. I begin most of my paintings from a combination of quick illustrations I’ve created over a period of time.
This interview has been edited for concision and clarity.