Paintings by Devan Shimoyama at The Andy Warhol Museum mesmerize through electrifying color, bedazzling glitter and implicit mystery. But there’s more to the work of this young artist, a fast-rising star in the contemporary art scene.
“Devan Shimoyama: Cry, Baby” is the artist’s first solo museum exhibition. It opened Oct. 13 and runs through March 17. Born in Philadelphia in 1989, he is an assistant professor of art at Carnegie Mellon University. He holds a bachelor’s degree in fine arts from Pennsylvania State University and a master’s from the Yale University School of Art.
The paintings are inspired by personal experience; several address the place of a young gay man in a barbershop, a bastion of black masculinity.
“I had to re-closet myself to navigate that space safely,” he said recently at The Warhol. After a few botched tries, he learned to cut his own hair to avoid barbershops.
The paintings were exhibited in New York in a show titled “Sweet,” which Mr. Shimoyama said was a derogatory term for men considered to be too feminine. He decided to make the paintings to give voice to an unexplored subject and was surprised by the number of people “from young boys to older men” who came to the New York exhibition.
The people in the paintings are mostly composites, but the last painting of the group, “Sit Still,” is a self-portrait. “It was important for me to return and place myself in that space again,” Mr. Shimoyama said.
He sits stoically in a chair in an orderly barbershop with sequin-encrusted walls as a razor blade precariously approaches his neck. Sparkly tears spill onto one cheek.
It is this pivot between beauty and threat that makes his work uniquely compelling. Sequins, glitter, feathers and costume jewelry add tactility and counter the darkness lurking in the everyday for black males.
A series of swing seats covered with silk flowers, rhinestones and beads is titled “For Tamir,” referring to Tamir Rice, the child who was shot and killed by Cleveland police officers.
“He was murdered by police on a swing set,” Mr. Shimoyama said. “That really haunted me that that happened.”
Silk flowers turn a hoodie into a magical cloak that memorializes Trayvon Martin, whose 2012 shooting was the first such incident that was widely publicized, Mr. Shimoyama said.
Snakes, emblematic in many cultures, wend around figures and near an American flag in “Flood,” painted in 2016. The flag isn’t an image he usually paints, but “the day after the [presidential] election, it just poured out of me,” Mr. Shimoyama said.
Not all of his symbols are menacing. He includes large, often multiple, eyes representing the eyes of his mother, grandmother and aunt. They become a caretaker presence in the composition’s narrative. “These eyes are always indicative of a woman’s presence,” Mr. Shimoyama said.
One of the artist’s strengths is a willingness and an ability to tap into philosophic, religious and other belief systems when constructing his own narrative. While at Yale, he said, he looked at an array of artwork including mythological paintings.
“I wanted to escape this notion of narcissism. I wanted to create an archetypal figure.”
Four photographs from a larger series reflect the influences of myth and origin stories. The work began as a proposal for a project on Fire Island, N.Y., an East Coast vacation spot described by Mr. Shimoyama as “a queer mecca.”
The untitled digital prints begin with an upright triangular form made of sun-bleached driftwood constructed on the beach. A mysterious figure (Mr. Shimoyama) reminiscent of a creature from folklore rises from within it in stages. Covered with black glitter accentuated by jewels cast off from drag performances, he is primordial and foreboding, cautious, but in the end emergent.
“Weed Picker,” his most recent painting, shows the artist kneeling in the leaf-strewn lawn of his home tending to chores. He was thinking about home ownership and the risks involved, issues like gentrification and young people no longer owning a home, and more mundane realities like tending and maintaining the home, he said.
“It’s where my work is going.”
But there’s an underlying component. Printed on his T-shirt are names of female characters from the sitcom “Living Single,” a favorite of the artist’s for its independent depiction of blackness. A pair of Yeezy Adidas sneakers, designed by Kanye West, are tossed over a telephone line, a device sometimes used to mark gang territory.
Mr. Shimoyama is concerned that the rapper, who recently met with President Donald Trump, is perceived as a voice for all black people. Because of that, “I think he’s a dangerous individual right now.”