General Information Permanent Collection Exhibitions Get Involved Educational Programs and Events Cafe Sebastienne Museum Shop  

Visitor Services
History & Architecture
Facility Rental
Media Room
Social Media
Privacy Statement
Mission Statement

        Annual Fund
Giving Opportunities
Corporate Council
National Committee
Volunteers & Internships

Visiting Artists
For Kids and Families
For Adults
For Teachers
Kemper ARTcasts

Lunch Menu
Dinner Menu
Brunch Menu
Facility Rental
News & Event Updates

Annual Fund
Corporate Council Memberships
National Committee Memberships
Studio Editions by Dale Chihuly
Sales Policy

              View Calendar      

Kojo Griffin
January 12–April 8, 2001


Kojo Griffin's paintings entice us to enter into their stories. At a glance, it looks as if it might be fun, but we soon realize that they are psychologically charged, emotionally complex scenarios, much like classic fairy tales in which innocent characters are forced to confront threat and danger.

The dominant elements in Griffin’s enigmatic tableaux are figures drawn in a cartoonish illustrational style that we recognize from children’s books and animated films. Toylike creatures are rendered in monochrome, their flat planes laid down as shades of a single color, creating a maplike reduction of something much more complicated, namely, the human beings for which they are surrogates. These figures are not simple stand-ins, for they carry their own associations, as their resemblance to stuffed animals evokes vulnerability and the complex relation to the past that characterizes the recollections of adults, including the ways in which we interpret our memories.

Griffin’s paintings induce the viewer to name their component parts—the figures and things depicted—and then to puzzle through their interrelationship. In short order, one is spinning out the time-based narratives of which those figures read as fragments, like single frames from a film, for beyond the incident depicted, there is implied a larger story from which the scenarios seem to be extracted. They are stories that are both profoundly moving and deeply ambiguous in that they suggest narratives rather than recount them.

The undertow in Griffin’s art resides in his willingness, and perhaps even need, to represent the troubling incidents that sometimes occur in childhood and leave lasting emotional scars. In Griffin’s art distressing scenes of physical and sexual abuse, rejection and neglect, cruelty, and alienation are either explicitly depicted or signified through gestures and poses that bespeak regret and sadness. The abusive adults represented don’t look menacing, denying us the reassuring thought that we can recognize evil in appearances. These are not things that most of us want to consider, and the cartoonishness of their imagery may, like humor, enable us to face deeply disturbing truths that we would prefer to avoid.

Some figures appear in several paintings, and the relationships between many of the characters seem close, often familial. We might assume that we are viewing the painted equivalent of a román clef, a novel consisting of a thinly disguised retelling of the author’s and acquaintances’ experiences. Griffin acknowledges that some of the incidents are drawn from his life and the lives of people he knows, and there can be little doubt that the pain and empathy that emanate from these works reflect a vein of deep feeling in the artist’s character and background. But the depicted incidents are not directly traceable to a biographical source. Griffin’s works tell stories, but fictions are never simple because all stories are interpretations that operate through omission (leaving out that which is deemed inessential) and a host of other narrative and literary techniques. Yet a story can hope to capture an aspect of experience, and in Griffin’s visual stories we see human interactions with the ring of truth to them, given a visual form that emphasizes the emotional content and consequences of cruelty. Griffin studied child psychology at Morehouse College in Atlanta, which reflected as well as shaped his interests, and added a dimension of awareness and understanding that exceeds an autobiographical experience.

There is an aspect of universality to the figures in Griffin’s work, stemming from the imprecision of the figures as generic, symbolic characters not limited to representing specific individuals. These figures populate dramas in which we can each variously see glimpses of our own histories or the experiences and feelings of others. The toylike quality of the figures, sometimes resembling nondescript dolls or stuffed bears or elephants (a reference to the Hindu deity Ganesha, who is outwardly unsightly but possesses inner beauty), excludes references to race or class. The intentional withholding of those references is strategic, relating to Griffin’s desire for his work to have as broad an interpretation as possible. Identity, as it appears in Griffin’s work, is neither fragmentary nor universal, but rather is an aspect of human experience about which some generalization is possible and useful. Griffin is culturally African American, along with a mix of Scottish, Native American, West Indian, and Southern ancestry, and he is concerned that being labeled as an African-American artist (as opposed to, say, an artist who is African American) might limit interpretations of his work as reflective of the experiences of a specific group.

Griffin’s family encouraged art making, including taking youth classes at the Museum School in Boston. While in high school in Boston, he started doing graffiti and, when his family moved to Atlanta, he associated with accomplished graffiti artists there while also making paintings. The dramas in Griffin’s art are inherently theatrical, strongly stating events for emotional impact; and the liveliness and interactions of the street may have been a formative influence, as a place where an artist can learn to capture attention in a busy visual environment. This theatricality is carried through in the way the scenes are depicted, and includes qualities that appear to be derived from cinema. Spotlighted figures are rendered with an exaggerated chiaroscuro that recalls the lighting of a Hollywood film noir dwelling upon human corruption. Griffin’s choice of somber, sometimes acrid colors adds to the sense of unease as his figures are placed compositionally off-balance in a space featuring a minimum of furniture and props, emphasizing the interaction of the figures as the essence of the artwork.

There is a fundamental pictorial conflict in Griffin’s works, as the figures are drawn with the conventions of perspective while the background consists of flat planes of color and pattern that suggest human-made environments, either domestic interiors or the public street. While the background is usually block-printed or painted with a pattern that creates a feeling of emotion, the figures feel disrupted from their natural context and are, in fact, collaged onto the surface. A variety of diagrams and symbols adds to the sense of a chaotic and dense reality, like the polyrhythms of jazz and hip-hop and other musical forms that Griffin cites as a major influence on his sense of compositional structure. The overlaid images of twisted strands of DNA, machine parts, Hebraic symbols from the Cabala, and hexagrams from the I Ching as well as other Chinese characters refer to various systems that are used to explain the structure of the universe or to attempt to find order within it. The way in which these symbols flatten the pictorial space alludes to traditional Asian painting styles, and sometimes visually links the disparate elements without melding them into a conventionally unified picture. The I Ching is for Griffin an exemplary model of a text meant to offer direction and guidance to the individual, in whom responsibility ultimately resides.

Kojo Griffin’s mixed-media paintings posit connections between events, consequences of actions, and outcomes that are not entirely unpredictable though they defy simple solutions. Griffin’s works are visually sophisticated, at once both lyrical and troubling, offering a combination of visual complexity and the emotional impact of representations of victims of abuse and neglect. But there is no resolution or call to specific action, and in the absence of proposed solutions for the cycles of abuse and resulting traumas, where do Griffin’s parables point us? Toward empathy.
Robert Raczka
Associate Professor of Art and Gallery Director
Allegheny College, Meadville, PA

Author’s note: Biographical information and insights into the artist’s thinking are based on a phone conversation with the artist, December 2, 2000. Many of the issues raised in that conversation grew out of my reading of Rebecca Dimling-Cochran’s “Studio Visit with Kojo Griffin,” Art Papers Magazine, July/August 1999, pp. 14–15.

This exhibition is curated by Dana Self, curator of the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art, Kansas City, MO. Kojo Griffin was an artist in residence at the Kemper Museum, working with schoolchildren for three days prior to her exhibition opening.