Raised in South Central Los Angeles, the son of a respected and prolific artist, and U.S. Army combat veteran returning to civilian life in pursuit of a life long goal as an artist.
L.A. gave him the grit and gift of urban style, his father gave the gift of a classical art form, the Army the gifts of selfless service and humanity. Most importantly, his art gives him a sense of personal myth.
Zero "Styles" Bey is a culture iconoclast, content curator and social media influencer. As a "Rainbow Alchemist", his personal artistic mission is to teach visual Hip Hop cultural theory.
Dirt (Liza- Editor & myself, Renee- Creative Director) recently had the pleasure of touring Zero Bey’s home studio virtually, and delved deeper into his process and work.
Zero is a fine art painter from South Central Los Angeles. He is a scholar of literature, a cultural iconoclast, and beyond that, he says, “I do consider myself a magician, and a shaman…” He is many things, but certainly he is an artist.
Much like viewing Zero’s work, meeting with the man in front of the canvas is a journey into his realm, and his many narratives of influence and understanding. Zero identifies his work within traditions of African-American culture, as well as Africana and Pan-Africanism. As a visionary with strong roots in the historical, his imaginative aesthetic work also gleans Afro-Futurism.
Zero welcomes us into his home on a video call. Being a gracious host, he even walks us in from the outside, showing us his outdoor altar- a painting, a plant, and other offerings. He turns the camera to show the door to his home studio; it is adorned with a heavy-looking, platinum heart emblem, strung with a winged-key.
Inside, in the living-space there are many books on shelves and roaming free. A self-proclaimed bibliophile, Zero tells us how he constructs libraries for each of his works of art. Zero graduated from the University of New Mexico in 2018, majoring in Africana Studies and English Literature; his paintings are heavily inspired by his academic work and continued self-directed studies. Some of the works he shows us on our visit are inspired by Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison, Blues Legacies and Black Feminism by Angela Davis, and Nigger Heaven by Carl Van Vechten. “I always pay tribute to the ancestors,” he says.
We move to the kitchen, which doubles as a workspace for Zero- room on the kitchen counter for tarot cards, stones and ritual, canvases hung on various walls, and a kneeling chair in the corner facing an easel. He calls his painting process, “ancestral work with the aesthetic of fine wine”, we laugh and nod. He shares the themes, narratives, and details of the work with us. Each painting is dense with subject matter, and saturated colors, and seems as if it could be discussed for hours. “With paint, there’s underwork,” Zero describes, explaining the acrylic’s ability to subsist in layers. He says what he looks for in other artists’ works is the same thing he looks for in his own, “clarity in the paintings, visually pleasing in terms of texture.”
Zero shares four paintings with us during our time together. The first, “Storm is Coming,” he created in 2015. On an arm's length canvas, he depicts friends of his, his daughters and sisters, all black women. Some exist in the reflection of sunglasses, some stand, fists raised on a burning city. They stand on the canvas in congruence with Hindu iconography of the divine feminine. These sisters are also shown beheading a man- what Zero describes as the embodiment of the toxic masculine. This piece has been through many stages, beginning when Zero was spending time in Bangalore, India; now, it lays finished in his kitchen.
Next, Zero shows us “Change the Joke, Slip the Yoke.” It is small and mighty, drawing a gut-punching reaction. Almost immediately, Liza says, “This is hard to look at Zero.” We all take a breath... he asks us to keep looking. The painting has several characters, but I ask about the least controversial looking subject, a cosmic man with rectangle rimmed glasses and a pointed hat. Zero says, “That’s death,” and explains that this is a character Basquiat used to use as well, a magician. “Change the Joke, Slip the Yoke,” was inspired by Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. The central subject seems to be on civil trial, on death row. This subject is displayed in the painting as an icon of colonialism, imperialism, and racism. Characters in blackface and vaudeville style, dutifully string him up naked. Liza, being a practicing writer herself, is interested in Zero’s use of narrative. “When you finish a work like this...do you feel transformed? Portaled through?” she asks. “Mos def,” Zero affirms, “these are theories, through a lens I can construct.” Zero recalls, “I started to view these as short fiction, or horror stories.”
Then, we move to another smaller piece, but with the same level of detailed vision embedded. It’s many shades of blue immediately soothe. A lamppost, a muscular figure with an open suitcase- papers flying out, sunglasses, an eyeball, and a collage of pages and phrases surface the narrative. In the bottom left corner in red paint reads- “we Americans are given to eating, regurgitating and alas, re-eating even our most sacred words.” Amidst all the blue a red thread also sits subtly in an abstraction of bloodied flesh.
Zero’s inspiration for this piece is Ellison’s Invisible Man. There are visual elements that give the sense that something is being worked out, a puzzle, riddle or equation. Much like the densely coded way in which Ellison writes, Zero reflects and reassembles. Jumping from the story’s pages themselves, collaged on the work, there are Zero's annotations, taking us from the book’s story into the culture that brought such a story to life- the story of jazz. As part of the equation, Zero has written “WHAT DID I DO 2 BE SO BLACK AND BLUE”, in reverence of Louis Armstrong.
The final work Zero shows us is “The Allegory of the Black Eunuchs or the Subterraneans”. The name is a mix of Eldridge Cleaver's essay from his memoire Soul On Ice and the novella by Jack Kerouac. It is by far the largest work yet. The central subject is his son-- his face, larger than life. Primary, secondary, and tertiary colors light up the canvas. A pink fem figure, sitting on a five-pointed star, holding Bedtime Bear, reaches her hand out to a slew of pimp daddies. In the bottom left corner of this piece we also find a moniker of Zero’s- NOLDA STYLES with a own kanji-like symbol embedded. Zero notes that shunga, Japanese erotic art, has also been influential in his work.
“How do you know when a painting is done?” Liza asks. Zero replies simply, “This is all spirit directed.”
After stepping back from the gracious studio tour Zero had led us through that evening, we asked him a few final questions about his role as an artist, his inspiration, and process.
Dirt: What is the role of the artist- your role today?
Zero: The role of the artist runs a historical trajectory from Langston Hughes, Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison, James Baldwin. My take on the issue is evolving and undefined. If I can tie the ratched, glory of the trans-historical narrative of resistance, then I will solidify my role as an artist. However that looks. Personally I'm attached to a great tradition and recognize this particular role of self as Zero. I want to punch tyrants in the face and teach the people how to protect ya neck. Painting is the way to box, do judo on the suckers who run and operate systems today.
Dirt: What books are you reading lately?
Zero: I read a lot of shit. Right now I have open James Baldwin’s, The Cross of Redemption, Reiland Rabaka’s Forms of Fanonism, and Slaves, Subjects, and Subversives: Blacks in Colonial Latin America, and Flash of the Spirit: African and Afro-American Art And Philosophy by Robert Farris Thompson.
Dirt: How would you describe your process, simply?
Zero: Organic, musically inspired. Range- extensive, multicultural à la postmodern, yet rooted in the crazy mixture experienced on the North American continent.
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