Last Updated on May 9, 2016 by Andre Loftis

[vc_row][vc_column][vc_column_text]I’m Curtis Santiago, known to some in the culture sphere as “Talwst,” is currently one of the Bright Young Things setting the art world on fire. Yet his source of inspiration could come as a surprise to some folks: Dioramas

You heard that right. The old science project stalwart has undergone a complete upgrade by the artist. In his hands, the intricate designs are reimagined as a canvas, exemplifying contemporary conversations relating to politics, identity and pop-culture. Sampling from artists like Goya and Botticelli, the pieces are pretty stunning, considering the Canadian artist got his start with the medium on a whim.

[/vc_column_text][vc_single_image image=”53036″ img_size=”full” alignment=”center”][vc_column_text]Less than three years after being tossed his antique ring box, Santiago has created some seismic work: Por Qué?, 2014, a depiction of Eric Garner’s death and his soul’s ascension which The New Yorker described as, “an uncommonly delicate elegy,” and  Uh-Huh Honey, a meditation on the metaphysical art-as-life worlds of Kim Kardashian and Kanye West.

In the meantime, the artist has managed to catch the eager eyes of some of the world’s most savvy collectors, and most recently, a short stint at the Studio Museum of Harlem’s star-turning – and aptly named – exhibition, “A Constellation.”[/vc_column_text][vc_single_image image=”53038″ img_size=”full” alignment=”center”][vc_column_text]Lucky enough to catch-up with Santiago over a cup of coffee, I chopped it up with the artist before he retreated into the studio for the day. A current fellow at the New York Studio School, the conversation was refreshingly candid, touching on politics, art history, Black identity and his style inspirations. All fitting, considering that at 10am on a rainy morning, Santiago came dressed as the most elegant and unassuming protagonist from an imaginary movie that’s one part Chinatown, one part Studio 54 (listening to him talk about his collection of vintage of Yves Saint Laurent, you know his closet is straight fire). We ended up covering everything from politics, Black identity, fashion, masters of Western art and Kendrick Lamar.[/vc_column_text][vc_separator el_width=”10″][vc_column_text css=”.vc_custom_1461798385396{padding-right: 60px !important;padding-left: 60px !important;}”]


[/vc_column_text][vc_separator el_width=”10″][vc_column_text]Bevel Code: First things first: grooming. The beard and your hair. Tell me about and how you maintain it and your aesthetic philosophy.

Talwst: I’m not into the super shaved, lined-up cut. If it gets too long, I’ll trim it, but I don’t shave weekly because I don’t want razor bumps and part of it is adapting some European idea about aesthetics. Once it gets too long or too scruffy, then I’ll go to my barber. But even then, I’ll tell him, “make it look like I didn’t get a shave.”

Bevel Code: You’ve mentioned Basquiat as a tremendous influence in your work, but your work is so different. How is he an influence? 

Talwst: He [Basquiat] is also influenced by Picasso, Twombly, and Da Vinci. I became interested in those drawings as well. He found something unique in his voice, and I was able to connect with some of his collectors, family, etc. and take that essence. His work was a gateway into exploring art history and developing my own voice.

BC: I read that you got your start [making dioramas] in Paris, through a vendor 

Talwst: No, it was a Parisian dude living in Vancouver

BC: Ahhh… 

Talwst: I buy my collage material from [him] and so overtime I passed him on the corner, he’d have old magazines, posters, different things that I chopped up. And one day he just threw me a black ring box with the rest of the purchases and said, “I want to see what you can do with this”.

It led me to working at my house one evening, then combining some elements in my box. And it looked like a beach scene, like a Venus coming out of the water. For some reason, the Venus theme, Botticelli’s Venus, seems to be a reoccurring theme in the work that I do. I created the first box with the scene of my girlfriend coming out of the water at Third Beach where we used to hang out in Vancouver.[/vc_column_text][vc_single_image image=”53039″ img_size=”full” alignment=”center”][vc_column_text]BC: Where do you buy your materials and the figurines? I was looking at your dioramas and I was like, ‘where would you even know to go to find this stuff?’ All of the artists back in the day went to Pearl Paint, but I don’t think that’s where you’re getting this stuff. 

Talwst: (laughs) Booths, it’s the best spot in North America. I just Googled it and they’re in Manhattan. They’ve been there, for like, 20 something years. I showed them some of my work and a bond was forged. You need to connect with them because they were everything. They can order you things you can’t get.

BC: Speaking of your work, when we were talking earlier, you mentioned Ferguson and classical art and using that to make a contemporary statement. I thought it was a very powerful thing of combining a very classical painting and combining it with something very contemporary and with something very raw and making a political statement. 

Talwst: It was a breakthrough piece. That got me on the whole idea that I could timestamp art history, like famous paintings and read it in an authentic way. In that moment, I remember being in my studio watching what was going down. I’d already been stopped and frisked in Brooklyn. I was here years back when they just instituted it. So I could identify. Sometimes when I leave my studio, I don’t look like this. I’ve got a big black hoodie on and oversized sweats.

You know, I grew up in the suburbs of Sherwood Park, Alberta, Canada. When I came to the States, there was some difference between me and the young man here that I see. But the minute I put on that big black hoodie, my black sweatpants, and I’m standing outside having a smoke outside of my studio, I’m immediately viewed as ‘nobody,’ and they know nothing about me. I realized that could happen to anyone, at any time. How many young men, that are loved by their families and are good people, were being killed? That resonated with me. It was the start of looking at Black identity in America because it’s significantly different than Canada.[/vc_column_text][vc_single_image image=”53040″ img_size=”full” alignment=”center”][vc_column_text]BC: Well, it’s funny that you say that, because we’re having this [national] conversation about the value of Black life; America loves Black culture, but Black people, not so much. 

Talwst: I had a conversation with my sculpting teacher, and she had the idea for a 1980s male British sculpture that was very conceptual. She asked, ‘why are you so obsessed with the figure?’ And I was trying to express that, I’m at a time where I’m watching bodies be removed that have no value in America. And I’m aware that at any time, my life could be taken or seen as having no value.

BC: And I’m sure that’s a shift, coming from Canada, where you don’t have to worry about that. 

Talwst: At all. Who has to worry about that are the indigenous communities. It’s a huge thing.

BC: When I went to the Studio Museum a few weeks ago and I saw your piece, I was totally excited for you. What was that like to see your work? Was that your first museum show? 

Talwst: It was my first American museum show. My first museum show, I had a performance piece in the Art Gallery of Ontario and the Art Gallery of Mississauga. I did another thing at the AGO and now this, the Studio Museum. It was definitely validation. Being told for a while by commercial galleries that they [the dioramas] were too small, while people continue to obsess over Jeff Koons’ style. But I knew different, because I understood the history of small art. I was filled with excitement and the road is so long. There’s so much farther to go.[/vc_column_text][vc_separator el_width=”10″][vc_column_text css=”.vc_custom_1461798523244{padding-right: 60px !important;padding-left: 60px !important;}”]


[/vc_column_text][vc_separator el_width=”10″][vc_column_text]BC: What’s the history behind small art? 

Talwst: Pretty much every culture, Chinese, Indian, there’s some history of small paintings. In Britain, there’s a history of small paintings, carvings, amulets. The Dutch have Dutch boxes, prayer beads, the wooden prayer boxes. In Egypt they’d make the tiny little gold figures. The Aztecs gave us the Faberge egg, and actually, most people associate [the dioramas] with the idea of a Faberge egg.

BC: I want to pivot the conversation, because we’ll come back to that. Who are some of your style inspirations?

Talwst: First and foremost, my father. He dresses well for his body: long legs, high waist, and he was comfortable wearing tight fitting clothing. He wasn’t worried about the idea of masculinity, so he didn’t worry about wearing a color that someone might think to be feminine. Andre 3000, Yves Saint Laurent and every now and then, ‘Ye will wear something and I’m like, ‘that’s amazing.’…Read more on Bevel Code.[/vc_column_text][vc_separator][vc_column_text]Words by Chaédria LaBouvier
Photography by Aundre Larrow