Last summer, the artist Devan Shimoyama purchased a 1926 yellow-brick Craftsman house in the Pittsburgh suburb of Brentwood. For the 29-year-old artist, whose glittering, life-size portraits of queer black men have exhibited widely in recent years, it just made sense to have a house he could call his own. “I’m living in a place where housing is still affordable,” he told me last week. “I thought, Oh my god, I could have a yard!”
Shimoyama and I were standing in the Kavi Gupta gallery in Chicago, where the artist opened his first solo exhibition in the city just one week after his first-ever museum survey, at the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh, had ended. (Shimoyama also has an exhibition up now at De Buck Gallery in New York.) Titled “We Named Her Gladys,” the Kavi Gupta show presents a new body of work born, in part, from Shimoyama’s experience of black home ownership. “I’ve been thinking about the significance of black families owning spaces so as to not be so easily displaced,” he said, noting that he comes from a line of hardworking homeowners. “Especially in Pittsburgh, where Google and Uber moved in . . . there’s this desire for young people to build their own communities in a somewhat permanent way.”
The Kavi Gupta show features seven paintings about pleasure and self-empowerment, and for Shimoyama—already a force to be reckoned with at this early stage in his career—there’s joy to be had in creating these images. But the paintings on view are not just images of the house’s residents—they’re also meant as portraits of the abode itself. The show’s title refers to the name Shimoyama and his partner gave to the house, Gladys. “I tend to name objects or spaces that are significant to me, and it felt like a classic older woman,” Shimoyama said. “It reminded me a lot of my great-grandmother and women from that generation.”
Moments of maternal love have always appeared in Shimoyama’s paintings, most frequently by way of cut-out photographs of eyes that he collages onto painted faces; these mysterious orbs belong to his female relatives. For this show, he created a tribute to his grandmother, whom he views as a role-model homeowner and hostess. Grandmother’s Blessing (2019) captures her in Shimoyama’s kitchen, quietly praying. “Wherever I’ve moved, she visits with holy water and a bible and does a prayer in every room,” he said. “I respect and value that so much—[she’s] somebody caring so intimately about a space.”
Though his new abode and his images of it have been comforting so far, Shimoyama also said that living in such an old house has been “kind of nerve-racking. There’s a lot of mystery.” He knew, for example, that a fire had once engulfed the house’s attic, but no one would tell him whether it had caused any fatalities. Friends visiting said they felt his home was haunted, so he turned to his panacea: burning sage. Smoke and Sage (2019), the show’s tense centerpiece, immortalizes this cleansing scene. In it, Shimoyama calmly kneels with a smoking plant in hand as flames burst through beams around him. Both his eyes and those of his Cavalier King Charles spaniel sparkle, thanks to rhinestones affixed to the canvas—one of Shimoyama’s signature touches.
Allusions to darker subject matter appear throughout, but even these images are tempered by optimism. In An Endless Task (2019), Shimoyama shows himself tending to his yard—a chore he described to me as being tedious yet rewarding. The work, he said, references the “Jim Crow” character, a racist persona represented in 19th-century illustrations as a black man with exaggerated features and patchwork clothing. Shimoyama’s rendition is meant to reclaim this insidious image—in the painting, he’s portrayed as a property owner armed with a glittering rake. Jewel-like leaves fall around the figure as he surveys the verdant landscape.
Shimoyama has longed imagined places of safety and refuge, specifically ones for queer black individuals, through portraits made using color pencil, oil paint, and fabric, as well as eye-catching materials like glitter, synthetic flowers, and costume jewelry. “All these things remind me of home,” he told me. “My grandma wore costume jewelry, and we had a lot of silk and lace tablecloths.” To recreate that sense of security he felt around his grandmother, Shimoyama has often opened his home up for dinners and casual conversations with his friends. In tribute to this, there’s All Right, One More (2019), an intimate study of two anonymous hands passing a sequined joint that celebrates the value of shared experiences. It’s a stirring moment of magic, despite its quotidian subject.
When I visited the gallery, Shimoyama had glitter on his face because he had been installing a new sculpture in the front room: a monumental triple swing set dedicated to Tamir Rice, the 12-year-old boy who was fatally shot by police in Cleveland in 2014. Each seat carries the weight of artificial flowers—a nod to materials commonly used to adorn spontaneous memorials such as ghost bikes. A volley of aluminum-cut teardrops, each coated in black glitter, is hung on the surrounding walls, creating the illusion of a park frozen in an endless torrential downpour.
It’s one somber moment of reality in an exhibition otherwise imbued with mysticism. Another such instance of this greets you at the start, in the form of a hoodie seemingly blossoming with pink flowers that’s suspended from the ceiling—an unmistakable, vibrant tribute to Trayvon Martin. “I keep returning to those two and thinking about them as children and the perception of them as men,” Shimoyama said. “I don’t want people to forget that that happened. These works are anchors to reality without shoving in your face another triggering presentation of black bodies in pain.”
While there’s never an explicit presence of pain in Shimoyama’s works, his paintings, in particular, have often carried traces of sorrow in the form of tears that either roll down faces or rain down as evocative backdrops. Notably, none are present in his new series; instead, bright motifs of magenta leaves and yellow roses surround the artist in self-portraits in his new yard. I mentioned that his recent work seems ignited by a different energy, and Shimoyama explained that his thinking is now “more introspective.”
“I’m in a different headspace,” he said. “To be showered in roses is much more celebratory than being showered in tears. I’m thinking of an entire yard of flowers growing and blossoming so life can go on, move forward.”