The art of Johnathan Payne, Aminah Robinson and the 'complexity of the Black experience'

The inaugural Aminah Robinson residency artist will give a talk at the Columbus Museum of Art on Thursday, July 29, followed by a late-August show at Beeler Gallery

Joel Oliphint
Columbus Alive
Johnathan Payne is the first Aminah Robinson House resident artist. He is pictured with his artworks in the studio of the home on Monday, June 14, 2021.

When artist Johnathan Payne arrived in Columbus in late May to begin the inaugural residency at the home of celebrated artist Aminah Robinson, who died in 2015, he thought his art might change based on the influence of Robinson's work. Instead, he became inspired by her life.

“Aminah's work is so rooted in storytelling and in representing the Black community and Black life within Columbus, in particular these predominantly Black neighborhoods like Poindexter and the Blackberry Patch,” Payne said in a recent conversation at Robinson’s former home in the Shepard community. “I'm more of a self-defined formalist or abstractionist in terms of my thinking about art, though I do approach my work through the lens of Blackness and queerness. … But being here has helped me process that a bit more and take some time to think about what it means for me to believe in what I'm doing.” 

More:Bryan Christopher Moss sits with the spirit of Aminah Robinson

To Payne, the way Robinson built her life around art-making has served as affirmation of his own art and the “complexity of the Black experience.” “[Robinson] was a homeowner, and I think something about that is really powerful — a Black, single parent, woman homeowner who made a space where she could thrive in her making. That has been very inspiring to me,” said Payne, who will discuss his work and its relation to the art and life of Robinson at the Columbus Museum of Art at 7 p.m. on Thursday, July 29 (in person and virtual). “To have been born and raised in Columbus and to do most of her life here… that's so powerful, and it's not my experience. I grew up moving around a lot, and my relationship to home, I think, is very scattered as a result.”

Payne was born in Houston, Texas, but has lived in Arizona and briefly Ohio, attending kindergarten in Westerville. Memphis, Tennessee, where Payne spent his late teens and early 20s, feels like the closest thing to home. Connecting the lines of Payne’s past on a map would create something similar to the artist’s ongoing series of work, which combines drawing, painting, collage and weaving. 

A work in progress by Johnathan Payne at the Aminah Robinson residence in the Shepard neighborhood.

To make the colorful, geometric abstractions, Payne begins by drawing a precise pattern, then constructs the pattern using shredded strips of paper, which he weaves, embroiders and eventually paints.

A work in progress by Johnathan Payne at the Aminah Robinson residence in the Shepard neighborhood.

At first, it may seem like the work has little in common with Payne’s other series, which incorporates panels from comic books, stencils and paint. But the artist sees quilting and patchwork themes in both. “There is an element to it of constructing the painting, which is what these are really about — constructing the ground, and thinking about the ground as a type of work,” Payne said. 

While Payne remembers watching cartoons a kid, he didn’t discover comic books until college. “I was interested in what I was perceiving to be the homoerotic-ness of some of the depictions of the male characters and their interactions with one another, and then editing out the text or the imagery to subvert the hypermasculinity inherent to superheroes,” he said. “I was trying to kind of queer them, essentially.”

Over the years, Payne has watched as comics art, and the audience for comics, has broadened and diversified, a point driven home during a recent trip to the local Billy Ireland Cartoon Library and Museum. “Being in Columbus, in particular, and seeing that there is an institution devoted to comic book history and preservation and study is something that, I think, allowed me to reacquaint myself with the material,” Payne said.

Toward the end of August, when Payne wraps up the Aminah Robinson residency (courtesy of the Columbus Museum of Art and the Greater Columbus Arts Council), he’ll exhibit some of his recent work at the Beeler Gallery. And while Payne’s pieces may not appear to have much in common with the art of Aminah Robinson at first glance, the precise geometric patterns and the chaotic collages point to that aforementioned complexity of the Black experience in America — a complicated notion that Robinson’s work addressed in all sorts of ways. 

“The irony of my work is that I'm a very imperfect person, and yet some of the work is an exercise in attempting to construct [perfection],” Payne said. “To be alive is to exist in contradiction.”