Artist explores issues of blackness and identity

On a gallery wall inside of a converted warehouse space off of East Fifth Avenue, there are pictures of black boys. Some are familiar faces — Tamir Rice, Jordan Davis. Some are unfamiliar, at least to me. Cameron Granger is standing in front of the wall, as if he is still curating it, talking to me about it as if I've been there with his vision the entire time.

“So yeah, it's like, uhhh, well, me and my homie Tyler Davis have this show coming up at 934 Gallery on May 4, and I started doing this thing where I'd type ‘black boy age one' into Google, and then let the popular search populate the rest. It was a way of me figuring out what Google wants me to see. So I did it from age one to age 18. So you can see most of the common [results]. It's like: ‘black boy shot, black boy arrested,' very few nonviolent things.”

Cam Granger describes his art projects like this, largely: Something he's confident you'll find the pathway to, because he's seen the path the entire time. When I remark about the brilliance of the concept, Granger tells me he's been thinking about numbers and algorithms, as if we all have.

When I arrived to the studio moments earlier, Granger was sitting on a crate at the entrance, boots propped up. He oscillates between the two moods: relaxed when in thought, but eager and delightfully scattered when talking about his vision. I find myself staring at the wall of black boys, increasing in age, until I begin to see small parts of my face in their faces. And I suppose that's the point.

II.

Cam Granger, 24, is from Cleveland, Ohio — “suburbs, but very black,” he is sure to specify. He was raised by all women. His mother, grandmother and aunts raised him in what he describes as a matriarchy. His mother, he says, was often writing, and his grandmother would sketch photos. This pushed Granger to start making small graphic novels about his friends and his life. “I wanted to be an artist even before I knew what that was,” he tells me. “My mom was showing me black artists and black filmmakers and black writers, so it wasn't a big deal for me to start drawing my people and the people I knew as superheroes.”

My introduction to Granger and his work occurred early last spring, when I came home and tagged along with a friend to Skylab Gallery, where Granger's senior thesis project was on display. He had just graduated from CCAD, and the event coincided with the recent death of his grandmother. The project was sprawling, emotionally jarring and visceral. Pictures of his grandmother adorned the walls, along with photos of Granger, surrounded by the aesthetics of a graduation celebration. I was interested in this transference of grief to celebration, in the name of someone who wasn't alive to celebrate.

“This year was the first year that I ever really chased after these themes,” Granger says when I ask him about the visuals of matriarchy in his work. “I was trying to pay homage to my grandmother then, but now I'm really chasing after it. I'm doing a whole body of work with my mom right now, and that feels like me really running after a lot of the emotions and ideas I've been considering.”

In conversation, Granger is demonstrative, swinging his arms wide in excitement, or talking while a smile stretches out across his face. But for a moment, while we sit at the mouth of his gallery's entrance, he becomes stoic and his voice lowers. “You know what it is though,” he starts as we track a white truck moving down the road. “I'm just tired of making work around the absence of my father. I've been doing that for so long and it's… This void that he left has been so present over all of my work, and I'm ready to back off of that. I'm trying to use his absence to create something that responds positively, but I think maybe he's still there a bit.”

I suggest to Granger that his work unraveling his care for matriarchal figures is brave and admirable, and then I wonder out loud if this is — in some ways — also whispering into his father's absence, and if one of the natural responses to an absence of men is the celebration of matriarchy.

His smile returns and he leans back a bit, as if considering this for the first time.

“Yeah, man. Yeah. Absolutely.”

III.

I could talk here about Granger's time at CCAD, which he told me was both rewarding and claustrophobic. A point where he realized that he would often be The Only One in the Room — something black artists, writers and creators have found themselves faced with from the point many of them decided to begin creating. Granger says his time at CCAD did allow him to find a few professors who cared for his work and pushed him toward a higher purpose, but many of them didn't know how to articulate their feelings around what he was creating. None of that is new or interesting.

What is new or interesting, at least to me, is the way blackness lives inside of the work Granger creates, and how, much like I understood from the photos on the walls, he is both a voyeur of black life but also someone who wants to honor it in a full and fleshed out way. There may be dead black people in his creations, yes. But there is also an understanding that black people do more than just die. Behind the image of every dead person is a full life, trailing behind, explicitly or implicitly.

“I had a conversation with an artist last summer,” Granger says with a hand on his chin. “She came to my studio and looked at my art and she told me to be careful about the things I'm pointing at in my work, because I might become the thing I'm pointing at. And that was the first time I became confronted with the idea that I might be part of the problem. And I'm afraid to become an artist who relies purely on pain to promote themselves.”

And yes, this is the tricky dance of the black artist, perhaps. To imagine oneself responsible for the presentation of a people, despite not wanting to speak — or knowing one can't speak — for every spectrum of those people's fullness. What, then, I ask, of this grand dilemma? Do we just close our eyes and produce, hoping for the best? Granger thinks on this for a moment before responding.

“At the end of the day, what I'm doing is violent,” he tells me. “Making art about people is violent. You are boiling a full living, breathing person down to an object of your own design. And I've had to make my peace with that. I've made my peace with it only because I know if I don't do it, someone else will. And because of that, I know that I have to be very careful. Sure, there's pain, but I also want to show normalcy. Very boring lives. I have this talent for a reason, and I want to follow that. I can't see any situation where I'm not making things. And I don't want to not make things out of fear. That feels like I'm doing a disservice to my people. There's power in being able to curate these images and put them up in 934, which is a very white gallery. I have a responsibility to my people, to not be afraid.”

Granger's people, as it were, are many. They are spread out and touch many edges of the Columbus creative world. Halfway through his time at CCAD, he got involved with MINT, a collective of creators and artists in the city, who helped him create more freely and openly toward his vision. He has shot videos for Sarob, a local rapper who he says pushes him creatively. His roommate and best friend is Tyler Davis, who he works closely with and shares a relationship of both friendship and someone to bounce ideas off of. Also during his time at CCAD, his work drew the eye of Marshall Shorts and David Butler of Maroon Arts Group. Granger says they were the first older, more established black artists in the city who saw and understood what he was trying to do, which boosted his morale.

If Columbus is in the midst of a renaissance of collaboration, Granger is one of the perfect examples of this. His first medium is film, yes, but through his peers, he evolved his range. “I saw what all of my homies were doing with different mediums, and I didn't feel like I could limit myself any longer,” he tells me. Among other things, this is what seems to keep Granger here, despite his reach expanding. At the time of our conversation, he was preparing for a trip to Chicago for a show he was asked to curate at the Museum of Contemporary Photography, revolving around the ideas of Afrofuturism. After that, a trip to New York for his first show in the city. It could be said that things are good for Granger, who insists that despite a desire for his work to spread beyond the city, he remains committed to living and creating in Columbus, where he feels nurtured and able to take risks.

“Somehow in the past two years, all of my friends have ended up being rappers,” he says, speaking of Sarob, but also local MCs Dom Deshawn and Joey Aich. “And they're not visual artists, but they're artists nonetheless, and we push each other in ways that I could have never imagined before. I've been here for nearly six years, and I've never been taken in so fully by a community here. I love it here. I love the support and energy I get here. Even folks I don't really know and talk to are always at my shows. That's rare, judging from other scenes I've been in. I've got cheap studio rent, I've got friends, I've got my community. What else do I need?”

IV.

When I last saw Granger's art, it was at the show “Ships at a Distance,” where he was an inaugural presenter, along with Vada Azeem. That night, Granger wanted to show the audience coloring book pages. And so, on a projector, there was Skeeter from the '90s cartoon “Doug,” colored in with a brown crayon, haphazard but intentional. The same with Chuckie from “Rugrats.”

The project was about projecting ideas of black characters onto cartoons which didn't have any black characters, or which had racially ambiguous characters. It is this facet of Granger's work that I find most fascinating — the way he projects and imagines black existence into voids which others may find mundane. I mention this, and his relationship with the meme in any and all of its forms. Granger's Twitter timeline and Instagram stories are often flooded with things he finds on the internet, some humorous, and some not. It's all a response to a moment before it slips away. I wonder out loud about this — an artist with an admittedly slow and tedious process, responding rapidly to joy, fear and existence before the chance to respond to it slips away, even if responding just means sharing again.

“I spend a lot of time on the internet,” Granger says, gleefully clasping his hands together. “I love how quick of a response everything gets. There's an urgency there, and I don't want to make fast work. But I do want something that feels like it is situated in the moment. This is the time me and my friends are growing up in, and everything in it can be a currency. I'm responding to things, and it feels like I'm posting immediate drafts. The work that I'm making is sitting in nostalgia, but it's not wholly nostalgic. I'm creating for those in this moment, but with an eye toward those who came before me.”

He pauses for a moment before continuing.

“I mean, it's all part of the same story I'm trying to tell, as well. Listen, I can go on Instagram and post that picture of Michael from ‘Good Times'holding the painting of Black Jesus, and I can say, ‘Look. This is my artist's statement.' And I know my people will know exactly what I mean.”

I laugh lightly at this, but Granger doesn't, really. It's as if it is something he's never considered to be funny.