Cover Story: Forging a Weathered Soul

Brian Joiner makes art that makes him

Dec 8, 2004 at 2:06 pm
The recurring image of the sprinting slave is Joiner's way of depicting blacks' search for permanence.

Brian Joiner is weird. Even for an artist. At the Cincinnati Art Museum, the 43-year-old painter was entirely unrecognizeable, even to people who know him.

Joiner was clad foot-to-head in black: heavy-soled shoes, fleece pants with drawstrings at the ankles, a mock turtleneck stamped with white graphics from the throat to mid-chest a la Janet Jackson circa Rhythm Nation 1814, all topped by a stunning Matrix-like ankle-length coat festooned with six asymetrical metal zippers on the chest, shoulders and cuffs. A black PolarTech headband hugged his tiny head.

Together with the black wrap sunglasses with reflective blue lenses, the kind favored by extreme athletes, his small face was practically covered.

In this costume, Joiner embodied his own dichotomy. Flamboyantly incognito in plain sight.

It's the little everyday interactions Joiner counts as infractions on his deeply creative, almost obsessive and nearly religious process of research, painting and mounting shows.

He must strike balance, however, because his art — from the flower studies and the portraits of black women to the large-scale, museum-quality mixed-media installation of Forged Souls/Weathered Soles — is overrun with humanitarian investigations of notions of beauty, racism, classism and the historic implications of each.

On this bustling Saturday afternoon in the museum's main concourse, Joiner ignores staring soccer moms herding their children through scavenger hunts.

Nerdy white teen-aged boys bump into one another when he rises to make a move. They envy that coat.

"Brian?" says Robin Harrison, Hip-Notic Concepts promoter.

She hugs Joiner, and he chuckles at her obvious surprise once she gets close enough to make out his face. "Diva!" she pronounces over her shoulder, walking away.

"Brian?" says Cedric Cox, the artist whose quilt Joiner came to see.

From the museum Joiner is off to a Hyde Park gallery, where he anticipates a cool reception by some of the big-name white patrons. Then he'll stop at the Essex Studios gallery walk in Walnut Hills.

"I know I'm an exception to the rule," Joiner says of his colored prominence in the city's all-white, old-monied art circles. "I fit in everywhere. Consequently, I'm the only black person at a lot of these parties, so guess who they call when something's going on? As long as I'm getting paid and as long as I'm being respected, it's fine. The first time someone lets out a black joke, it's over."

Joiner talks like this all the time. Contradicting his cravings.

He's got more access, commissions and sales than most of the city's other working black artists, but he also knows it rests tenuously on race. And though he lives comfortably, he doesn't get nearly the work or attention of his white counterparts.

"The access I have to money has everything to do with me not thinking about money," he says. "It's a paradox. The only reason I'm doing what I'm doing is because of God. Secondly, you can't force a top-notch dealer to represent your art. I market the hell out of my shit, but you still don't have any control over what happens."

Brian Joiner is prolific. His simple two-story Hartwell home is cluttered with his art, none of it hanging.
The walls are bare.

His infamous "broken" and "wavy" frames in varying states of assemblage and deconstruction lean against nearly every wall. Tools, small cameras and paint in tubes and cans are lined up along the floor and stuffed in bags.

By the door, a gleaming new compact stereo is surrounded by stacks of CDs. CeCe Peniston's greatest hits tops a pile.

Across the room, an ornate art deco Tigerwood bar/hutch is nearly hidden by VHS tapes. Janet Jackson video collections number the two or three on top.

It's ordered chaos, not filth.

Paths lead through the living room and kitchen. Turn sideways to get to the narrow steps.

Joiner, a native Cincinnatian, makes most of his art in a tiny upstairs two-window bedroom-cum-studio. He builds large-scale pieces in his Northside studio in the Mid-City Storage building.

The carpet at home is stained with stripes, splotches and smears of bright paint. Bookshelves bulge with titles in triplicate on Picasso, Warhol and Michaelangelo. There are books on dolphins, African masks and several Bibles.

Joiner pulls out sheets of old charcoal studies on yellowing paper. Leonardo daVinci-esque attention to muscle tone, light and shading inform the male nudes. Another is a Ruebenesque study of a woman.

They're beautiful and accomplished portraits from his student days at the Cleveland Institute of Art, where he graduated in 1983 with a bachelor's degree in fine art in painting and drawing.

"I like the soft classical look when I draw," he says, "but when I paint I like to use thick paint, a cutting edge style that's very three-dimensional."

It's an easily recognizeable signature, a style lush in color like Van Gogh's that's an homage to the master but immediately Joiner's own. And it's paid off.

Black Woman Series (1998), 110 portraits comprising a spectrum of Cincinnati women of various ages, and Prayers of Thanksgiving to Jehovah (2003), 30 floral studies painted on broken 3-D surfaces, were lucrative. He sold $10,000 in flower studies.

They sandwiched Joiner's reputation for delivering likeable, affordable and accesible art, enabling him to depict off-putting subject matter like the lynchings, mammies, Uncle Toms and pickaninnies in The Boogie Man and Oz (2002-03) and Dracula as the Devil masturbating and smoking against images of slaves as kings in Christ/Dracula (2002).

In six years, he's mounted seven major shows, five in 2002-03 alone.

"This is when I got obsessed with a culture trying to find its way back home," Joiner says of Boogie Man. "People were crying in that show because it was so horrible, the imagery. In Christ/Dracula, I came out of my shell of doing landscapes and portraits. It's the first time I tackled politics, sex and religion all at once."

That confidence accompanies a rising profile.

"This year more than any other year I've penentrated the Indian Hill market," Joiner says. "This is by far the best year I've had in art. It was jump-started by a National Underground Railroad Freedom Center commission. If I didn't win that commission, I would've been really pissed off."

Brian Joiner is an outsider among other black artists.
"I've always wanted to be part of the black art events," he says, "but I'm with people selling $4.99 posters of stereotypical black images."

Joiner created Angelic Feast of Pearls, 70 disparate charcoal portraits mounted in 2002 at the Arts Consortium's African American Museum at Union Terminal, to refute the myopic notion of black art.

"The world thinks we can only do naive primordial art or street corner art that's highly sexual or what I call 'barber shop art,' which is people without eyes or mouths," he says.

The resulting narrow market of wealthy white patrons sometimes has to be coaxed into buying art by black artists. Meanwhile, Joiner says wealthy blacks don't readily spend money on art because they haven't been socialized to value art like whites have.

In this scenario, black artists are pitted against each another for large commissions.

Joiner says other talented and competitive black artists such as Thom Shaw — whose bold wood cuts depict black anger, apathy and isolation — weren't happy that Joiner was one of only three Cincinnati artists commissioned for permamanant display in the Freedom Center.

"I think Thom is mad that I got into the Freedom Center and he didn't," he says.

"What Brian's doing is a throwback to when I was younger and there was a lot of competition," says Shaw, when asked to respond.

Seemingly so few black artists in Cincinnati are granted inclusion in mainstream arenas. When a few are, it's bound to slam a wedge between the haves and the have-nots.

Shaw agrees, adding that if Joiner is preoccupied with inclusion in the Freedom Center, then his sights are set low.

"I'm way beyond Cincinnati," Shaw says. "A Freedom Center commission is small potatoes."

The National Underground Railroad Freedom Center paid Joiner $41,000 for his 16 portraits of easy-to-swallow Pop culture icons Bono, Cicely Tyson, Danny Glover, Cincinnati critic Harry Belafonte and Bob Marley, among others, painted on 4-by-5-foot panels.

Again, Joiner reconciles art with commerce.

"I knew what the Freedom Center wanted versus our history," he says, speaking slowly for the first time to choose his words carefully.

"I knew they didn't want the way we would actually tell it uncensored. I wanted the underwater series (of drowning slaves) to be in badly, but I knew the Aronoff Center would be what I wanted for Forged Souls/Weathered Soles."

That show — Sept. 17 through Nov. 13 at the Aronoff's Weston Gallery — was a breathtaking mixed-media installation exploring the Transatlantic slave trade, the Antebellum South and Jim Crow laws. Slaves drowned in paintings.

Joiner created a literal sea across several walls by hanging hundeds of decorated wooden fish, replacing their scales and fins with pickaninnies and texts from slave auctions.

The centerpiece was his take on Seurat's "A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of the Grande Jatte." Umbrella-wielding upper classes are invaded by Joiner's icon of a nappy-haired and naked black woman sprinting through in ruby red slippers, her fists clenched and her arms outstretched to receive and pass an invisible baton.

"I wanted to address very serious racial issues in a new way," he says of that show.

" 'Brian's known for portraits,' " he says, mocking an anonymous gallery curator. "That's why I did portraits (for the Freedom Center) of famous freedom fighters from different cultures."

This is a teachable moment to artists regardless of ability or stature: Displaying and selling art these days requires a cocktail of talent, confidence, near political savvy and the competitiveness to outrun artists who'd otherwise be your immediate community.

Joiner's got most of that down, but he waffles. He claims to thrive in isolation, but he's also mystified by artists who recoil at his success.

"I don't want to be surrounded by artists," he says. "I don't want to be in the Pendleton (Art Center). I want to be left alone. I don't have many friends, and most of my close friends are women."

This emotional schizophrenia is why Joiner spends as much time talking about being alone to make art as he does about the "amazingly competitive" artists like Shaw and Gilbert Young and others, like Reginald O'Leary and Annie Ruth, with whom he's made some connection. It could be the 11 years he worked as a quality control inspector at Ethicon Endosurgery before taking a 1997 buyout to work full-time on art that messes with his head.

"Very little art was done in that period," he says. "I woke up one day and I couldn't stop painting."

Brian Joiner is unhealthy. He's battling an infection in his left eye that threatens to overtake his right eye.
It's not as horrific as he'd described it on the phone.

When he talks, his breathing is sometimes labored and his teeth clatter. His beard looks like it's not been recently groomed, and his coarse hair that formerly fell down his back in dreadlocks is now cut close, receding and rakishly nappy.

Joiner is neat in mismatched sweats and new gym shoes. He used to be strapped with muscles like a bodybuilder on supplements. Now he's softly toned and more lithe. It better suits his easy disposition.

He talks in a clear, booming voice with Southern niceness around its edges. He never calls women "bitches," prefering "cow" for those he doesn't like.

He doesn't slander blacks that annoy him with "nigger." Instead, he talks around his anger until he hits on the right language.

He breaks out easily in back-of-the-throat giggles, shrugging his broad shoulders before he bends at the waist to crack up at a funny story from his past.

He's naturally detoxifying his body through holistic techniques researched on the Internet, and he considered getting a filled tooth pulled to rid his body of the metal.

Rumors concerning Joiner's health this past summer swirled through the art community.

"He's sick," came the whispers.

Of his health, Joiner ad-libs a statement rivaling a press release by a high-paid agent.

"I have some major health issues this year I consider a temporary condition that would otherwise be called an incurable disease," is all he'll say publicly.

Brian Joiner used to be wreckless and nervous.
His father, Billy Joiner, was a heavyweight boxer. Billy levelled his hair-trigger tyranny against his four children and disregarded Brian's art around the house.

"When my father would hang my paintings he'd nail right through the painting, and then when they'd change the paint on the walls he'd just paint around them," Joiner says. "Then he'd move my stuff out to the garage, and car oil and stuff would get all over it. I was so glad to move out."

By the time he got to college, Joiner didn't take classes taught by older black male teachers.

"I didn't want anything to do with any older black males because of my dad," he says, noting that he later wrote an apologetic letter to a talented black male instructor whose class he didn't take, explaining his father's effect.

During his late twenties and mid-thirties, Joiner behaved strangely.

"I went through a wild period, and it resulted in some jail time for looking for companionship (in) park activity," he says.

He was arrested three times for running naked through public parks.

"Ten fucking years of searching, exploring, just trying to find myself in some weird ways."

Therapy helped him identify the period as eruptions of self-sabotage whenever he got close to a breakthrough in his artistic and sexual identity.

"I'm the only person in my family that's as explorative as I am," he says. "But that period was integral to my doing what I'm doing now."

Joiner paints and plans a full year in advance. Next year he's going to mount a show of large pieces exploring his response to sound, another major portrait series and an abstract series dealing with curing incurable diseases.

"This is the most relaxing time period I've ever had," he says, acknowledging that the money he's recently made allows him time to work. "I'm always in a mode of trying to prove myself. It requires labor intensive work and long-term planning. I suffer physically. Healthwise, I'm drained.

"The more you can paint, the more you can sell, from expensive pieces on down to affordable pieces. That's what kept me afloat during those lean times. I'm on a mission to do full-time art for the rest of my life." ©