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Vaknin Schwartz launched Griffin's first solo show in 1999. It turned out to be just the kind of exposure he needed at just the right place and time. One year later, his work -- along with one other Vaknin Schwartz artist -- was hanging in New York's Whitney Museum as part of its renowned Biennial exhibition, which every two years features the country's most promising new, contemporary artists.
There is an "a-ha" moment the first time you look closely at Kojo Griffin's work. Once the initial seduction of colors and composition attract your gaze, you're confronted with the disturbing nature of the figures' actions -- a man holds a gun to another's head; a man videotapes two people engaged in sex; a man gives candy to a child. But, because Griffin consciously excludes any sense of place, race or time from his work, there is an ambiguity to the scenes that requires the viewer to decide for himself what has transpired.
"It's an equation ... like X plus Y times Z," Griffin says. "Each person who comes to the equation then has to finish it. They have to plug in whatever they want the constants to be. They define those variables for themselves. I put the structure in place."
One characteristic that stands out in Griffin's drawings and paintings is his use of anthropomorphized animals as surrogates for people.
"I wanted to be able to achieve a state where I could make something, and anybody could look at it and somehow put themselves in the place of the characters without thinking, 'Oh, this is about black people.' Or if I used black people and white people, it would become an issue of black people and white people," Griffin says.
He says the highest compliment he ever got was at his show in a Kansas City gallery, where a woman he was introduced to exclaimed with surprise, "I thought you were a woman!"
"I was like, 'Yes!, That's great!'" he says. "That means that basically, she had no concept of who or what the artist was when she viewed the work, which is perfect. That's exactly what I'm after."
Drawn to the conceptual elements of Griffin's work, Thelma Golden, curator of the Studio Museum in Harlem, included his drawings and collage paintings in a group show last spring. It was at that show that a new term -- "post-black" -- was coined to describe African-American artists, including Griffin, who work outside the tenets of "black art," which typically explores racial issues or redefines black identity with positive imagery.
"When I first saw his work, I was seduced into what I perceived to be a pretty simplistic approach to images, and immediately was almost slapped in the face by the reality of those images once I got past the color and texture and brilliant way he has with collaging those canvases," Golden says.
She describes Griffin as somewhere between what the art world calls an "emerging artist" and one who is mid-career. "He's certainly emerged," she says. "He's an artist people are looking at and thinking about. But I also feel like Kojo has yet to make probably his best work. ... He has a command of his medium that is impressive for a young artist, but at the same time, he is a young artist."
Griffin believes the key to his growth as an artist doesn't lie in becoming a great painter as much as in getting better at "putting things together." His work "evolves like a language," he says. Early on, for example, he painted images of machine parts as his backgrounds. Then, he experimented with symbols from the I Ching and the Kabala. Now, he's on to electric circuitry. He's used each kind of background for a complex set of reasons: They contribute to his paintings' layers of reality and hint at the various ways to understand the universe.
As Griffin's art changes, however, his use of the backgrounds is changing, too. Where once the images dominated Griffin's early work, they now are more subdued.
"My aim now is more to remove some of the stuff and create a more orderly composition," he says.
Since receiving critical praise for drawings he made in South Africa 18 months ago, which reflected a sparser approach, Griffin moved in that direction with his paintings. Informed public opinion is something Griffin always has been tuned into. For instance, after his wife got him interested in fashion and design magazines, he lightened his palette to reflect the popular color schemes he found in those publications.
An artist who admits he relies on the palette of popular culture is practically committing heresy in the art world. There is a fine line between unfettered ambition and a drive to succeed, and some might say using the latest colors from the fashion world crosses that line.
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