The Awesome Audacity of Chase Hall

The Awesome Audacity of Chase Hall


What strikes you in Told you he ain’t comin is that there’s a lot of white in it—the boy’s hair and nose and shirt are white, and white specks can be seen through the brown of his face and hands—but no white paint. Instead, Hall uses what he calls “conceptual white paint,” which is the unprimed cotton canvas. The black and brown here and in all of his paintings are not paint, either; they’re a stain derived from the African coffee beans Hall drinks. “I’m thinking about this idea of whiteness as acne,” he says. “Those spots in my work—that’s whiteness peeking out of the Black figure.” His chosen materials—cotton and coffee—come through as a kind of light that falls equally on the present and the dark past.

Told you he ain’t comin, 2021. Acrylic and coffee on cotton canvas, 71 5/8 x 59 7/8 x 1 3/8 in.

Photo: Pierre Le Hors/Courtesy of the artist and Galerie Eva Presenhuber.

On a morning in late April, I visit Hall in the East Village building where he works and lives with Lauren Rodriguez, the designer who started Lorod, a modern womenswear line. (They would marry three weeks later.) They live on the ground floor with a Great Dane, Paisley, who has turned up in a number of Hall’s paintings. His spacious studio on the floor above, with its 12-foot-high ceiling, can’t contain all his art making; dozens and dozens of finished paintings hang here, salon style, and on the floor below, and many more are stacked against the walls. There are also objects of all kinds, new and old, most of them picked up during his daily walks around the city, or at estate sales and flea markets—300 old tea towels “with a lot of early American racialized history”; shoeshine boxes; around 75 issues of The Black Panther, the official newspaper of the party from 1967 until 1980 (he started collecting the paper when he was 16, and he’s donating them to The Metropolitan Museum of Art); a jockey’s shirt with the letter C on it. There are piles of books on artists he worships, such as Jacob Lawrence, Winslow Homer, Andrew Wyeth, Jason Rhoades, Mike Kelley, David Hammons, and Kerry James Marshall. “I’m a full-on hoarder,” he says, laughing. He works more or less all the time, seven days a week, drinking the Pellegrino and Perrier he also uses to mix his Liquitex and Golden acrylic paints.

Hall was born in 1993 in St. Paul, Minnesota. “My mom was always a single parent,” he says. “She was never married.” His father was around for the first year or so and after that, less and less. Hall has two brothers, one older and one younger, but the main figure in his life has always been his mother. “Me and my mom are still best friends,” he tells me. A fearless, rebellious, and resourceful person, she left school at 15, gave birth to her first child a year later, and has gone her own way ever since. They moved around a lot, following the trajectory of her odd jobs and business ventures—Chicago when Hall was two; Las Vegas a couple of years later, where he learned how to snowboard from his older brother, who was DJ’ing there at the time. “He also taught me a lot about music and hip-hop and jazz,” says Hall, who speaks often about the connections between jazz and painting.

Then came six months in Dubai, playing video games and watching movies in their hotel room—City of God, Goodfellas, Training Day, Forrest Gump—before his mom took them back to Vegas. “The memories I have of her are this Thelma and Louise type of thing, where she and I are on an adventure,” Hall says. “She’d be smoking cigarettes and singing Elton John and Carole King, this woman with short blond hair and her little Black kid. Nothing ever really made sense, but she did whatever it took to make sure I had a roof over my head and food on the table.”

Next stop, Los Angeles. At his new high school, Hall was one of the only Black kids around. He was a quick learner and a sponge for knowledge of all kinds. He learned to surf and skateboard, played lacrosse, made friends easily. “I never got into trouble,” he says. “I loved school because it was the only normal thing in my life.” At school in Las Vegas, he had taken classes in ceramics and photography, and in L.A. he took a lot of photographs, but instead of art classes, he gravitated toward debating American history and world issues, at which he excelled. When he was 14, he talked his way into a job at Starbucks, and worked there for three years—this is where he began using brewed coffee to make doodles, cartoonlike faces. He had always loved animation: “The cartoon language and illustration and color would drive my imagination wild,” he says. “I had VHSes of The Lion King and Snow White and The Sword in the Stone, anything about a hero’s journey.” He was learning through these stories, and also asking himself questions. “Why is that little Black character being laughed at while he’s being run over by the wagon, and Arthur with the blue eyes and blond hair has the Excalibur sword? I’d be like, Wait. I don’t look like Arthur. I look like the guy who’s being laughed at.”

Like his mom, Hall was a natural entrepreneur. With the money he earned at Starbucks, he’d go to shoe conventions, buy a pair for $50, and sell them to his classmates for $300. He also had his own business, selling T-shirts out of his car. He stayed in L.A. after graduating from high school and never bothered with college. Good-looking, charismatic, and already six foot four, he became an administrative assistant to a high-end “real estate lady” while also designing shoes for Vans. But a eureka moment came when he saw that his boss was buying art by Picasso, Andy Warhol, and others. “I was like, Wait!” he says. “Who’s Andy Warhol? And what’s Picasso? All these things started to build up in a way that made me realize I wanted to be creative, and I knew that New York was the epicenter of the creative world.”

At the end of 2013, he moved there “to become an artist,” he tells me, “but I thought it would be in photography.” He worked as a line cook at The Smile, a restaurant on Bond Street, and walked 15 miles a day, taking photographs of people on the street. He was also going to museums and galleries, looking at Juergen Teller, Bruce Davidson, Gordon Parks, Carrie Mae Weems, Garry Winogrand, Jamel Shabazz, and other photographers. At the Museum of Modern Art one day, his eyes were drawn to a painting by Henry Taylor. It was an intimate, loosely brushed portrait of Will Gillespie, Dizzy Gillespie’s nephew, sitting in a wooden chair. “That was the biggest moment of my life, artistically,” Hall says. “It was the first time I came across art that wasn’t perfect like the Mona Lisa, and it just became accessible. I started crying. I saw myself, my family, and it hit me like listening to Tupac or A Tribe Called Quest, or watching Forrest Gump. There was something about it that showed the emotionality, spirit, and shamanistic potential of painting. I had that deep feeling of, Oh, I don’t need $20 million to make a movie, I don’t need to know how to sing and dance and rap. I can go home and just get it going. That day cemented my love for art and all it can be.”

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