An Artist Who Probes Ideas

and True Identity

by Tom Mullaney


Cleveland Dean


Tom Mullaney: I’m in the studio with artist Cleveland Dean, whose show, “Recto/Verso-Duality of a Fragile Ego,” is currently on view at the Chicago Cultural Center through July 29th. Dean grew up in a rough neighborhood—West Pullman—where he was “involved in a lot of stuff” and says he’s lucky to still be alive at age 36.

In his studio on the far side of West Grand Avenue, he’s telling me about how, in 2005, he started one of the first “Thing Parties” in Bucktown. Each week, one artist would have a show in the club, and he would display 3 to 10 pieces and have the artist complete a work by the end of the evening.


Cleveland Dean: The name of the event was called “Collective Reasoning.” There’d be the art, some music and sometimes a fashion component to it. I wanted people to get acclimated to art in a different kind of way, to see the process.


TM: You’ve been interested in art from an early age. When you were doing the events, at what date would you say you started identifying more as an artist than an event organizer?


CD: I remember September 28, 2005 as the date of my first show, and I really didn’t consider myself as an artist yet for about another six months or so. But yeah, it was a slow process because there’s an over-romanticized idea of what an artist is.

I didn’t feel I fit that bill of being an artist necessarily. But then, as I grew and continued to practice, I realized that I’ve always been this way—always had these ideas and concepts, and I’ve always expressed them in some kind of way. I used to do music, rap or perform spoken word.


TM: When you were starting in 2005-06, what medium were you using for your art? Because now, in 2018, you’re into wood and poured paint. What was early work like?


CD: Very [Jackson] Pollock-esque. A lot of drip and action painting and then it went from Pollock to a little more Pollock-[Yves] Klein amalgam. I just kept constantly working and then it started evolving into something like this (pointing to a work). Rorschachs had a lot of influence on me.


TM: So, you want your art to have some psychological and sociological component.


Cleveland Dean, Number 11, (2018).


CD: Yes, I think, like now, we’re in an era where we don’t think a lot. So, I want to abstractly, conceptually, through installations, photography, videography, whatever, try to re-spark that thought process, ‘cause thinking is very basic. So, even with the “Apotheosis” period, there’s a lot of history in there.

One, I never use color for color’s sake. I use color to have a psychological effect on people. And two, the technique of burning of the wood is called shou sugi ban. And it’s used to preserve the wood.

But now, I’ve taken this burned wood and turned it into a symbol of preservation. And sometimes I may use salt in my work because salt is a preservative, a symbol of purity, it’s used as currency. It’s all of these different things. So, when you take all of these elements and fuse them with all these symbols and combine them in one piece, now I’m speaking a language.


TM: Having seen the show at the Cultural Center, you want the viewer to see themselves and think about themselves. Certainly that’s easier when you’re using mirrors wherein viewers can see the reflection.

But where you are using a piece like Mercy, which is really black, or The Luxury of Brevity—how do you want the viewer to see themselves in that? I can understand your language but, if the viewer hasn’t the knowledge, and can’t get the associations with the salt or the wood, how should viewers take your work and see it for self-examination?


CD: I haven’t lived the viewer’s life, so I have no idea how they are going to take it. Or how am I going to explain a particular piece? I can’t tell you what to see because that sparks a confrontation because, if they see something and have a certain ideology and I say I see something else, they are going to abandon their thought because I’m the “creator.” For me, that’s not how you communicate. I want them to connect however they connect with it. For the people who know the aesthetic, I feel that I’m talking to them. But the people who know what shou sugi ban is or know the psychological effect of the colors, I’m talking to them as well.


TM: The major concept of the “Recto/Verso” pieces is identity. Is that [what] you see your art going to be going forward?


CD: I mean that would definitely have a lot of influence. If I were to sum all of my work up, it would be about duality. And, for me, playing in the middle between the left and the right and the extremities and finding your own vision, your own mission in the middle.


TM: And we all have an ego that is very fragile.


CD: Yes. We all do no matter how much we try to say we don’t or convince ourselves that we’re different.


TM: Let me ask you about Mercy. It’s got several elements in it, and I’m wondering, when I see some texture that comes down the canvas, is that poured paint? It’s an effect I see in several of your pieces.


CD: I tell people all the time, “I can’t paint all the technical aspects but I know how to manipulate materials.” So, it’s a mixture of acrylics, resins. What I do have is layers of experience with the work.


TM: How long would you say it took you to get the ideas and execute the works for the show at the Cultural Center?


CD: I did two works in 2010 (of first and last as well as in search of sanity and all things related) that appeared in a pop-up gallery downtown. I did them literally in two days. Then I didn’t do another one like those for two years. I just read. I studied the technique, I studied wood burning and associations with wood and fire. I looked at what fire represents from the religious standpoint of all religions. And, after that, I did this piece (shows a large canvas against the studio wall).


TM: That was 2012-13.


CD: Yeah, about that. I did that and maybe one other one and took another two years to study more what I wanted them to be and what form they should take. In 2015, I met some people who asked me to do a show, and I had maybe a month lead time to get the work done. So, I did the show. But it was a very long process.


Cleveland Dean, Installation view containing (left to right) Of One, Pillars 17-20, Pillar 21, and Number 74.


TM: About [Of] One, this very large silver canvas in the show, it doesn’t seem as if there’s that duality but that it is a unified piece.


CD: Well, with that one, there’s two 8 ft. by 8 ft. panels with a clear division in the middle. And actually, the tones of the silver are slightly different. I wanted to create the apparent and visual separation but that it is seen as all one.


TM: On Brevity of Luxury, I really like the use of the mesh. Is the mesh underneath all your paintings and you just do an overlay?


CD: No, it just looks that way. I wanted to introduce metal but in a different kind of way. And, two, it’s a necessary bonding agent. What I wanted to do was take common elements that aren’t commonly used and use them as a medium. I’m big on texture.

On “Recto/Verso,” I wasn’t using it in terms of art but more in a literary sense. When you open a book, the right hand page is recto and the back page is verso. So, I looked at it as turning the page of Life. The entire concept was sparked from a watch. There’s a watch—Jaeger-LeCoultre—with a front face that when you slide it over, it shows the other face.


TM: What have you learned about the Self Project, and about how many people have taken the Instagram poll?


CD: That too was a long time in the making. I’ve been wanting to do that for seven years. I figured people would gravitate towards it. You know, 1.4 million selfies are taken every day. So, what I wanted was to use social media as a medium, like paint.

Every time someone takes a picture, they are creating a reflection of themselves. And I wanted it to be not only a reflective surface, but I also wanted the phrases to be highly reflective to the viewer and think and become a very personal experience—you’re a part of it, and it’s a part of you. People gravitate to it so much and sometimes do a testimonial to it. I wasn’t expecting that.

Over a thousand people have taken the poll. I wanted to create an online community of people from different sectors, different races, different ages. We all ask ourselves the same things, we all feel the same things. The goal now is to take this project to ArtPrize in Grand Rapids, Michigan which draws 60- to 80,000 people.


Cleveland Dean, #THESELFPROJECT, (2018), Installation view.



TM: Since you feel we’re in a non-thinking age, you posed the question at the exhibit: what is social media doing to our thinking and how is it affecting us? How do you come at that question?


CD: The way society is now, I think social media is a dangerous thing because it promotes fallacy more than fact. People don’t investigate. I’ll watch four or five different sources of news on one story to see who’s including this fact, who the biases may be. I grew up with people who did this. People don’t do that now. People now read 140 or 280 characters and think they’re an expert, but they’re not.

And social media breeds instant gratification. I came from an era, if I went to my parents and said that I want something now, they’d slap me in the back of my head. People have been trained to “Want Now, Want Now” whether they deserve it or not.


TM: Our issue is themed around artists of color. I understand you don’t totally identify as a “black artist”. What is your relation to that term?


CD: I’m an artist. It’s like labeling me a black artist is something that ignorant people do because they don’t have any other idea about how to justify different races in this realm. If you look at the work and hear me speak, you’ll see I’m talking about humanity, about universals.

For the people who want to label me a black artist, black art is typically about historical black elements, about oppression about social injustice. Especially to my own people and to all the others, I want to say this: “We’re black people. We can talk about other things. We’re pretty smart. We can talk about a whole lot of different things.”


Tom Mullaney is Managing Editor of the New Art Examiner.



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