Stan Squirewell on Reframing History in His Solo Show at Claire Oliver Gallery

The American artist discusses his approach to challenging historical narratives and how his exhibition, “We Speak In Rivers”, offers a fresh perspective on identity and culture.

Stan Squirewell, “Mrs. Johnson’s Sunday Best” (2023) Mixed media Collage, Paint, Hand Carved Shou Sugi Ban Frame

In the ever-evolving world of contemporary art, multi-media artist Stan Squirewell’s work transcends traditional boundaries. Merging historical narratives with a bold, modern perspective, Squirewell’s art offers a profound commentary on identity, culture, and the unseen threads that connect past and present. His unique approach, which seamlessly blends 19th and early 20th-century photography with contemporary textures and symbols, challenges viewers to reconsider accepted histories and narratives. As a master of storytelling through visual media, Squirewell reimagines and reinvigorates the identities of figures from bygone eras, infusing them with new life and relevance. In this feature, we delve into the creative world of the artist, exploring the depth and complexity of his art and the impactful messages it conveys.

CHRISTOPHER OKEREKE-COX In your latest exhibition, “We Speak In Rivers,” you’ve created a dialogue with historical figures through your art. Could you share a moment or piece that was particularly impactful for you during this creative process?

STAN SQUIREWELL My creative process is rooted in questioning narratives that we are told and that we accept. In general this line of inquiry is a throughline in all my work. My source material is found photography from the 19th and early 20th century, usually portraiture of anonymous figures. There is an assumption that these images depict people who were voiceless or dis-empowered, but my work really questions that. Perhaps history and time has stripped away what we know about them in particular, but the very act of having their portraits taken indicates they were people of means. My work aims to layer identities onto these individuals whose stories are lost to time. I’m very moved by photography – there is nothing like it, it makes time stand still and allows us to relate to people from different eras at various ages.

I have vivid memories of having family portraits taken at Easter when I was growing up. Those moments weren’t something I was necessarily fond of at the time, getting dressed and standing still for the camera. But now, looking at these old photographs and images of my relatives who have passed at my age or younger, they provide a powerful connection not only to the past but to a shared humanity.

So for the work, Mrs. Johnson’s Family Picture Day, I invented a name and story for this family that was very relatable to my own experience of having a portrait taken. Further it’s the woman who is central in that image, which is my experience of Black families too, very matriarchal. Mrs. Johnson is at the center of that family, and she is looking her best.

 Stan Squirewell works in his studio at The Dolfinger School in Louisville’s Portland neighborhood.

COC Your work is known for its rich layers and the blending of various media, much like a DJ remixing tracks. How do you decide which elements or media to combine when you begin a new Piece?

SS Yes, I have often related my work to “crate digging” like how DJs dig for samples and tracks. I mine historical photography for images that resonate with me, they have to capture something human and relatable. Then I layer textures, textiles and pigments, in a way to highlight what is already there and also to add a narrative that I create. Each work has its own story to tell in a way. I’m also very interested in fashion as a way to self-express and like to explore different elements of that concept. For example, through textile patterns and luxury brand logos, which you see in some of my works – I explore how brands “name” material that carries the unseen labor of others within.

Stan Squirewell “Sunday Roses” (2023) cut photograph collage mounted on canvas, oil, and glitter in hand carved shou sugi ban frame

COC The concept of reasserting identities plays a significant role in your art. How do you hope your audience will perceive these reimagined identities, and what conversations do you wish to spark among viewers?

SS I hope that I am able to do justice to the people in my images and that they live on in the minds and imaginations of a contemporary audience. There is a magic with photography that captures an essence and humanity that I think is very relatable. I also really hope that my work sparks people to question their assumptions about Black and Brown people from this era, not everyone was enslaved and not everyone was oppressed. There are myriad Black experiences and I hope I highlight this. In my own family history, I was raised not realizing that I had Indigenous roots alongside my Black roots. This realization has framed how I question narratives and history and has allowed me to connect with a totally different history and heritage than I once believed I had.

COC The use of the Shou Sugi Ban technique is quite distinctive in your frames. Can you elaborate on the significance of this method in the context of preserving and memorializing the texts and stories within your work?

SS Burning has an essential role in my work. I often burn elements of the collage as a kind of ritual that is an abstracted nod to mythology, lore and Judeo-Christian rituals imbuing the character with a rebirth and acting as an offering to the spiritual world. I sculpt unique frames for each of my works, which begins with the transcription of a text statement on the work, composed of binary code, indigenous American and African glyphs using the shou sugi ban technique of blackening wood. These are then mitered into the frames. The frames are an element of a larger process of storytelling but essential to my work.

Stan Squirewell “My Buddy & Me” (2023) cut photograph collage mounted on canvas, oil, and glitter in hand carved shou sugi ban frame

COC Discovering your Indigenous roots had a profound impact on your artistic perspective. How has this personal journey influenced the narratives you choose to explore and the characters you bring to life in your art?

SS Discovering my Indigenous roots had an incredible impact on how I perceive my identity and how history has passed it down imperfectly. This discovery not only opened me up to a totally different perspective on my own identity but also of what other histories do not fit neatly into the boxes we’re taught about?
I would argue that no history does actually, that we’re all really complex and interconnected beyond what we are led to believe. This is a central aspect to my work. I aim to uplift and showcase the past in a new light and hope that it leads viewers to question their own assumptions.

The characters I create are often relatable to me, they connect with my experience and I’m able to animate them in a way that feels very personal but also universal. That is one of the ways that photography really speaks to me, it’s a way to freeze time and give us a window into the past that is unlike any other.

COC You’ve mentioned that your work serves as a bridge between the spiritual and the real world. In what ways do you feel your pieces facilitate this connection, and how do you see your role as an artist in this interplay?

SS The idea of capturing a fleeting moment through a photograph is almost contradictory – it allows us to preserve something that is otherwise ephemeral. Photography is almost magical in that it can freeze time and provides a connection that I can only describe as spiritual. This is a starting place for me as an artist, to honor and uplift these individuals whose complex human identities have been stripped away either by design or by time. My process is founded on the concept of character creation and rebuilding of a new identity. It’s very humanistic and I feel connected to my subjects through the act of layering, burning and the actual ritual of it all.

Stan Squirewell “Aponi & Halona” (2023) cut photograph collage, oil, and glitter in hand carved shou sugi ban frame

COC Given your deep roots in the hip hop culture of the 70s, 80s, and 90s, how do you think this background has shaped your approach to curating and controlling the narratives that you present in your art?

SS Hip Hop culture gave me the vernacular of sampling and borrowing, that to create something new you could use something old. This was and is still so powerful to me as an artist who uses collage and a lot of different techniques at the same time. My source material is so rich – each photograph that I end up using has multitudes within it already. My work is literally adding imagery, color, texture to it, but also actually digging in and revealing what is already within the image.