A conversation with artist Celeste Dupuy-Spencer

By Clare Hurley
25 May 2017

Celeste Dupuy-Spencer is one of the 63 artists included in the Whitney Biennial 2017. Born in 1979 in Brooklyn, New York, she earned a BFA from Bard College in 2007 and now lives and works in Los Angeles. Her paintings and drawings stood out at the Biennial for their unvarnished depiction of middle and working class life—friends and family members gathered in kitchens, at barbeques or smoking on the deck, men watching TV in a bar, or a group sitting out on a lawn littered with possessions after the sale of their home.

Celeste Dupuy-Spencer (Photo credit: Jen Davis)

Dupuy-Spencer’s visual handling of her subjects is at times awkward, sometimes distorted, even cartoonish, but seems genuinely observed and truthful. Other paintings such as St Tammany Parish (2016) or After Party (2016) more directly point to class and social tensions, as a group stand by watching a fight in a rutted New Orleans street in one, or a rich collector lounges on his couch beneath his art while a maid serves cocktails in the other.

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Clare Hurley: This year’s Whitney Biennial described the spirit of the times as characterized by “racial tension, inequality, and polarizing politics.” How do you see your work fitting in with this “zeitgeist”?

Celeste Dupuy-Spencer: Definitely. Artists can’t sit it out anymore. These issues have bubbled up—and not addressing them also becomes a position. Artists are trying to figure out how their work fits into these larger questions. I was surprised though at the reaction to my work. People kept asking if I’m making some joke about “white trash” and how they spend their leisure time.

CH: Do you think “identity politics” has something to do with this?

CDS: “Identity politics” is the poison of the Left, it is the easiest, most narcissistic form of political debate to only view things from the point of view of one’s personal race or gender. Class will get thrown into the mix, but only to scapegoat the working class. “Look at these crass, stupid people who elected Trump,” rather than looking at who they really are as people.

My drawing “Trump Rally (and Some of Them I Assume are Good People)” (2016) has gotten a ton of attention, because it shows that it was not just [white supremacist mass-murderer] Dylann Roof who elected Trump. Sure, he’s in there, but there are other people, too. I think liberals finally got the opportunity to openly hate poor people. Hillary Clinton and the Democrats promoted this, calling Trump supporters the “deplorables.”

Celeste Dupuy-Spencer, St Tammany Parish

I regret that my work gets looked at through that lens. I want to debunk that way of looking at poor and working class people. And if my paintings are shown together—the bar picture (Mercy, Things are Gonna Slide, 2016) next to St. Tammany Parish (2016), next to the Art Collector (After Party, 2016)—they take on more of a political context.

They’re not just about “moments of leisure.” And in relation specifically to the one of the art collector…I have to say sometimes I’m in despair over who ends up owning my paintings. I feel like I’m a jester for the king!

CH: What role does an artist’s political perspective play?

CDS: I think everyone, not just artists, should be aware and develop their political understanding, after a long moment in which people didn’t have to. Now everyone needs to take a stand.

I was working on the painting Veterans Day (2016) during the 2016 elections, and thinking of the role of artists during wartime—Wilfred Owen’s poems and Horace Pippin’s drawings from the front line in WWI, Picasso’s Guernica in the Spanish Civil War. I see my work in the same way, as a call to the front line in a revolutionary time. But I want to deepen what I know about those times, what was really going on then to understand what is happening now.

You can see more work by Celeste Dupuy-Spencer here: http://celestedupuy-spencer.tumblr.com/