Allston is committed to creating work that tells stories from his community honestly and compassionately, and this exhibition does just that, offering viewers a not often seen view of New Orleans.
Allston was not born in the city, making his perspective that of an outsider. As such, he is intentional about the way he represents New Orleans, exploring the city through the eyes of someone who was fortunate enough to be welcomed by it. ‘Blue City’ is an ode to New Orleans, an ode to long shadows and shady stoops, an ode to towering thunderclouds and houses held together with tarps and roofing nails and prayers.
In our interview with Langston Allston, he shares what led him to New Orleans and the inspiration he uncovered, his evolving perspective on an artist’s role in society, and the hurdles in his creative process.
Can you share with us a little bit about your upbringing, and where you are currently working on your art?
I’m from Champaign, Illinois- a pretty small town in the middle of the state… It was a good place to grow up because I grew up around a lot of creative and intellectually curious people. My parents helped educate me with a steady diet of comic books and an endless library of black artists and authors. At the end of the day though it’s a pretty small town and there were a limited number of outlets for that creativity.
I started riding the greyhound bus back and forth from Chicago a lot, to see music and go to art shows, and to try to make something happen for myself in that world. I made a lot of friends, and I saw some really amazing work- the world got a little bigger for me. But my work wasn’t really catching on & I was too broke to afford to really live anywhere, so I ended up bouncing around the country crashing on friends’ couches for a while; until I got offered a mural in New Orleans in exchange for room & board. It was the first time I’d had a stable place to stay and make art in a long time, and it was the first place that really felt like home. My pops family is originally from Louisiana, and so there was a lot of stuff that reminded me of them here.
I’ve been in New Orleans since then, with regular trips back to Chicago. Its really humbling to look back and see how artistic communities in both places have supported me since then, I’m so grateful to all the people that helped me string together gigs and murals and stuff so that I could really dedicate myself to my art.
I’m currently in my first real studio, I worked out of the front room of my house when I moved to New Orleans and managed to make that work for years- but this past summer (2021) I participated in the Joan Mitchell Center residency here in New Orleans, and got to work out of their really incredible facilities. After I left JMC I knew I had to find a dedicated workspace, and that’s where I am now.
What was the inspiration behind this latest body of work? What themes have you been exploring in your work?
This body of work I’ve been working on since summertime at the Joan Mitchell Center. This is easily the longest time I’ve had to come up with the art for a show, and as a result it’s been a little harder for me to put my finger on exactly what it’s about. In the past, my work has been focused pretty narrowly on a single narrative or topic, with each show being a sort of vehicle to tell a story.
With these new paintings I’m still trying to tell a story, I think that’s a common thread that runs through everything I do. Each piece in this series is a sort of vignette, a scene from New Orleans over the past year or so, I think they all work together to communicate how the city feels right now. Anytime I see a moment that really strikes me I try to find a way to draw it, and those shorthand drawings of memories make up the foundation of most of the paintings in this series.
Light has been really important to me in these paintings, not so much a realistic portrayal of light as using it as a way to think about the feeling and the color and composition. New Orleans has a really beautiful and unique light (i really couldn’t explain why) and it frames even mundane moments beautifully. Leaving a second line as the sunsets and the sky turns to these vibrant pink and orange tones is maybe the most inspiring visual experience I’ve ever had, and we get to do that every Sunday. I’m really working to capture what those golden hour moments do to the color of the city in these pieces. New Orleans also gets really dark at night, and it creates these moments where ordinary things like the headlights on a truck or a police car racing down the block cut out dramatic scenes. Almost all of these paintings exist somewhere between those last golden rays of sunlight and the darkest part of the night.
What do you think the role of the artist is within society?
In the past year, the city has been through so much, I’ve been through so much, that It’s been more cathartic and I think a little more honest to paint these pieces as feelings and vignettes rather than to try and make some kind of cohesive statement the way I’ve been prone to do in the past.
I think there was a point where I believed that artists had a responsibility to hold a mirror to our society, to demand it change for the better/ to be an instrument of that change. I still believe that artists can have a critical role in making a better world, but I don’t think that’s our only job- and maybe it isn’t even the most important one?
In 2014 I dropped out of college and found myself in St. Louis during a planned series of protests and actions after Michael Brown was murdered. It was the first time I had personally participated in any kind of mass political action, and in the moment it was really inspiring! There were some small victories, I got a good look at what direct action looked like there. I wanted to make propaganda for the people like Emory Douglas, to make art that would have a direct and intentional political impact.
I moved to New Orleans in 2015 and I started to meet a lot of different kinds of artists, people who came from a long cultural tradition of art making. Politics had been the driving force of my own work up to that point, but I’m started to understand how limited that lens was. Meeting artists like Big Chief Demond Melancon, who can point back to Native traditions and African traditions to show you where his art comes from really shook my perspective. Through him hundreds of years of artists are alive, and you can see them! Living here exposed me to the longevity artist have in a really new way. Here artists carry the culture into the next generation, artists ensure that the future will be beautiful and that the past won’t be forgotten.
Seeing how the black lives matter movement was co-opted and watered down in the wake of historic uprisings around the country in 2020 showed me that deflecting mass action with art can have the effect of placating people, moving the goalposts for the changes we’re demanding. I still see a brighter future, because I know that our communities have the tools and the power to demand that future, but some of the losses we’ve suffered have changed my opinion of what the role of an artist is.
I think that artists have a responsibility to be honest and compassionate in their work, I think artists have a responsibility to really listen to their communities, and I think artists have a responsibility to make beautiful art. Art allows us to talk to the next generation, to tell our story, and to remember the past. change comes in the present when we fight for it.
Do you have a documentary or book recommendation that illuminates a cause you believe needs more awareness/ understanding?
I’ve had a lot of trouble reading since the pandemic started. My attention span has really dissolved over the last two years, so my book recommendations are pretty sparse.
Could you share what your day-to-day looks like when working in your studio? Do you have any rituals that help you tap into a creative flow?
My studio routine is more erratic than I’d like it to be honest. I daydream about being the sort of artist who gets up early and packs a nice lunch. In reality, though I usually get into the studio around 10 or 11 and bounce around between different projects, I try to start by drawing something I saw on the way in or remember from last night, but mostly it’s taking care of emails and computer work, really slowly until the sun starts to go down. I try to run little errands at sunset so I can see different parts of the city in that light, but if I don’t have anywhere to go there’s a weird little bridge I walk up next to the studio that has a pretty beautiful city view. I do most of my painting at night now, generally, I work till about midnight or 1:00. It’s Mardi Gras season right now so most nights I’ve been bouncing straight from the studio to a parade or a party or a bar… I guess that’s probably why my work days start so late.
What is your favorite part of the creative process? What is the most difficult part?
My favorite part of the creative process is that initial spark of an idea. When I see something that I know is going to be a painting I get so energized to get to the studio and start making the image. I’m always working out how I want to fit things into the frame and what colors something is going to be in my head and making a fast little drawing as a map is a really great feeling.
The hardest part is making sure I have a surface ready for the piece…a lot of great ideas have died on the vine because I didn’t have the right canvas or panel or wall for them.
The other hardest part is knowing that a piece is done, having to create on tight deadlines has me accustomed to things being done when they have to be done. Now that I have as little more space to reflect on my work it’s been really tough to take my hands off of it and call it a finished thing.
What are a few of your favorite places in Chicago and New Orleans? Where would you take a friend for an adventure?
In Chicago, it’s hard to call it because I haven’t really been out and about too much since the pandemic started. We used to go to EZ-Inn and Rite Liquors a lot because my girlfriend lived in Humboldt Park, I have a lot of really good memories running around in that area. My first show in Chicago was on the corner of Kedzie and North Ave. in Humboldt Park and I met some of my best friends right on that corner because of that show.
New Orleans has a way of forcing you into an adventure even if you’re not looking for one, especially this time of year.
Do you have a favorite Langston Hughes piece?
Langston Hughes is my namesake so I really grew up with his poetry. It’s hard to pick a favorite, I think I’m just drawn to the ones that feel salient and current at the moment. Justice rings particularly true these days, Ballad of the Landlord too.
What did you find to be the biggest challenge of 2020 for you?
2020 was a rough one, I don’t know if I can call it yet because it feels like we’re kind of still going through it.
What is your proudest accomplishment of 2021? Life thus far? (can be art-related or not)
In terms of art-related accomplishments, the last two years have been kind of wild. I got to do this massive vinyl over the Bulls practice facility right next to the United Center, that was crazy. The city of New Orleans just bought a piece from me, that was super crazy too.
What big projects do you have coming up in 2022 and 2023 that you’d like to share more about?
I’m still planning out my year right now, but mostly I’m excited to get back in the studio. I’m working in a space now that’s big enough for me to build some of the more ambitious ideas I’ve had, so I’m going to start incorporating some new materials into my work. It used to be an auto shop so there’s pipes for air tools all over, I just got an airbrush, I’m looking at paint sprayers and stuff to invest in next.