American Federation of Arts curator Michelle Hargrave and curatorial assistant Lindsey O’Connor met the artist Sean Paul Gallegos in the South Bronx-based LDR Studio Gallery to discuss his work, much of which incorporates sneakers as a primary material. Having trained as an opera singer, Gallegos hadn’t anticipated a career as an artist, but over the last decade he has come to play an integral role in the Bronx arts community.
Mining his own experience negotiating race, class, and gender, Gallegos transforms materials harvested from discarded sneakers into sacred and ancestral objects, and also guns, animals, and jewelry. His meticulously crafted sculptures, ranging from abstracted masks to water vessels, incorporate traces of his materials’ past lives, such as Nike swooshes and Jumpman logos. His most recent work more directly interrogates the assumptions projected onto Native identity, both historically and presently.
This interview with Gallegos covers topics of consumerism, identity, and authenticity in relation to the artist’s conceptually layered works, which are simultaneously personal sculptures conveying the artist’s autobiographyand universal objects wrestling with consumption and devotion.
Do you have a personal relationship with sneakers that made you want to use them as raw material?
When I first moved to the Bronx, I was working at the Julliard School, and I thought my career path was costume and fashion. I lived in the South Bronx with three other artists, and a neighbor who had a gallery in Williamsburg offered me a show. I thought, “I’m not an artist!” but he came back a couple of weeks later and said, “Here, you’ve got skill. Do something with these,” and it was five knockoff Air Jordans from a Chinatown dumpster. That was the catalyst that started this work. Shortly thereafter, I started cutting up the shoes and removing the soles, which I eventually realized had significance on many levels. Growing up, I was the Payless kid or the Kmart kid. I never had nice sneakers, so my appreciation for them comes from the fact that I never had them. Eventually, I started to learn more about who sneakers are marketed to and why things are in the trash the moment they lose their status. Everything I use is from the trash.
Do you think your work explicitly condemns consumption and consumerism, or is that relationship more ambivalent?
Being someone who’s been on the side of wanting more than having in life, I wondered how wanting something that is a huge chunk of my monthly paycheck is affecting me. The highest percentages of people wearing Jordans are Native Americans and African Americans. Sneaker culture is taking away from these people instead of adding value. Condemning is a hard word for me, but I am criticizing it in a lot of ways and I need to own that. It blows my mind how much people spend on sneakers, but the moment they’re not perfect, they’re thrown out. But people are imperfect; are you going to throw me out? I’m sanctifying the discarded through transformation.
In your lists of materials, you distinguish when you’re using authentic versus fake Nikes. Why is it important to establish that, and does the authenticity of the sneaker affect the meaning of the work?
I feel like it comes back to the way society views the fake versus the genuine. The genuine is so prized while the fake is garbage or disregarded. What makes that difference, and who are you to say what makes that difference? To make fake or genuine sneakers, it takes the same amount of skill; the fabric, the craftsmanship, the time are all basically the same. So why is one so much more valuable than the other? Why does the fake have to prove itself? The authenticity of the sneaker doesn’t change the form of the final sculpture, but it does sometimes change the value to the buyer. If the work is made from a genuine Nike or a special edition Nike, some people consider it more valuable. Sometimes that makes me feel insecure, but it’s people being sucked in to that notion that everything has to be so pristine and pure in order for it to mean something or be valuable.
Sneakers are an inherently masculine material to work with. What is the role of masculinity in your work?
I think, personally, I have my own issues with masculine/feminine. I’ve always been seen as a girly face in a boy body, and I had to learn how to be ok with this. I think my series of guns are a good response to this, and I think the pink gun is the best example; the gun doesn’t make you stronger or more invincible, anyone can pull the trigger. I’m interested in that issue of dominance.
From the Zapatistas to the Aztecs to the Acomas, the titling of your work is very conscious of indigenous identities. Can you talk more about that?
Both my parents are half European, half Native American, and I grew up feeling very “middle of the road” in Northern New Mexico. I grew up getting called an Apple–red on the outside, white on the inside. My father is Jicarilla Apache and Spanish and my mother is Cree-Métis and French from Canada, so I feel like I’ve had this battle with colonialism. When I was eight, we left northern New Mexico, and my mother married a white guy. We got adopted, changed our name, and weren’t allowed to be in the sun without sunscreen. My mother cut all of my hair off, my life changed drastically, and I felt like I had a very different reality.
On the other hand, my father was a horse jockey, so we lived in my grandmother’s house with seven people in one room. My grandmother had a loom, and I would help her spin and card the wool, running underneath the loom and carrying her shuttles. We spent the winters there, and then my father would travel with the horse-race circuit, so we would travel all over the country living in trailers and being home schooled. Once my parents got divorced, we moved to Michigan, my last name was changed and we lived in a big farmhouse and were upper middle class. I reference indigenous identity in my work because my mother didn’t want us to be that, and I didn’t understand why for a long time. She wanted us to be white. Now, as an adult, I see how society treats Native people. The news and the media don’t even cover that world—I grew up in a mud house with an outhouse and no running water. No one cares that the water on Native reservations is more contaminated than the water in Flint, Michigan and has been for years.
Describe your current body of work and how it is different from or similar to your previous work.
In my last series, I started to think more about how Native American history was documented and started to learn about Edward Curtis, who traveled around the country staging photographs of Native American people at the turn of the century. He would take pictures of people in loincloths when they would have normally been wearing average clothes, so he was recreating other people’s ancestry instead of documenting what was happening. We don’t really know how accurate his photos were, and this intrigued me. I started making triptychs because, in New Mexico, no one thinks I can pass for white, but in New York, everyone thinks I’m white. It’s very confusing for me. For the triptychs, I shoot my portrait in tintype and then in medium-format film, and they look very different. In the tintype, I look very ethnic, and in the film photo, I look very Anglo, so I show both images along with the costume. It was my response to, “What does Native look like?” It’s interesting, from my point of view, figuring out who I want to be versus who I want to present myself as.