Cheyenne Julien's Paintings Explore Environmental Racism in NYC

Cheyenne Julien's Paintings Explore Environmental Racism in NYC

In her first solo exhibition for Chapter NY, Cheyenne Julien looks at the ways our built environments have shaped her life. Titled Phantom Gates and Falling Homes, the Bronx-bred painter depicts intimate places and people from her past, examining how the presence of different subjects — or perhaps none at all — impact their surroundings.

She considers important issues like "environmental racism, displacement and generational trauma," according to a release, and the complex ways her firsthand memories as a Black American woman merge with our country's collective history. In this show, Julien's New York City upbringing becomes a main focus, specifically.

Black Out, 2020
Acrylic on canvas
60 x 48 inches (152.40 x 121.92 cm)

The series of paintings and illustrations pull inspiration from Adrienne Brown's 2017 book, The Black Skyscraper: Architecture and the Perception of Race, which studied the rise of major cities, and how the size and scale of skyscrapers highlight our understanding — and feelings — about race.

"Race is always shaped in some way by the built environment," Brown said. "Understanding practices of racial perception in any time or place necessitates considering the built environment shaping its conditions and operations."

White Noise, 2020
Oil on canvas
52 × 60 inches (132.08 × 152.40 cm)

In one painting (Black Out, 2020), Julien portrays a colorful group of young Black kids playing around what appears to be a spraying fire hydrant — one with a green water gun in-hand and several others with hands raised over their heads as if by demand. In a different environment, their poses could be read as playful or innocent, but this space implies a more alarming scenario — especially given the United States' relationship with police brutality.

Another painting (Untitled, 2020) shows a dog wandering the streets with a COVID-style medical mask shielding its snout and trash bags tied to all four paws. In reference to NYC's rise of fireworks this summer, Julien paints empty boxes of firecrackers and rockets in White Noise, 2020 — a title that, after weeks of nightly fireworks in all boroughs that ultimately normalized the sound, is fitting.

Master of House, 2020
Oil on canvas
60 × 52 inches (152.40 × 132.08 cm)

Two frontal portraits anchor Julien's exhibition for Chapter NY — one, featuring a woman with her t-shirt tied that looks confidently into the viewer, and the other presenting Julien's father inside their family's home. Unlike several others, which capture its subjects in moments of public vulnerability, this man is at ease and lounging around stacks of records.

"I feel that there is a social responsibility to reflect deeply on these times, which should extend to all people — not just artists," Julien told PAPER. "I don't think art making is, or even should be, the only space for processing the current state of the world, and I definitely don't believe that it must happen publicly."

Untitled, 2020
Oil on canvas
24 × 28 inches (60.96 × 71.12 cm)

She concluded, "People need to take care of themselves and others during this time, in whatever ways they can."

Cheyenne Julien's solo debut at Chapter NY, Phantom Gates and Falling Homes, is on view through October 11. Because the gallery, which is located at 249 East Houston Street, is limiting capacity, they recommend making an appointment. Check out a preview of the exhibition, below.

Photos courtesy of the artist and Chapter NY, New York