brooklyn painter slvstr makes art out of 90s cartoons
The 28-year-old painter who completely sold out his first solo show tells us why ‘Hey, Arnold’ belongs in the history books.
Photography Eric Chakeen
"Man, I'm so ready for this sunshine," Slvstr said as pale pink petals danced around his feet. After spending all winter working in the uninsulated garage below his small Clinton Hill apartment, the 28-year-old painter and California native is rightfully excited for the days to get a little longer and a lot warmer. "It got to be way too cold in there, so I started painting from the edge of my bed. It was a little cramped, but I made it work." Last week, his pieces found a new home—the walls of White Box Gallery on the Lower East Side—as part of his first ever solo show, the aptly titled In Search of a Wonderful Place. Every painting sold before the doors even opened.
Born Reginald Sylvester II in Jacksonville, North Carolina, he spent his childhood in Oakland before bopping between the Bay Area and Atlanta as a teen. He showed an early aptitude for art, but didn't start taking things seriously until high school. "I was taking AP Art classes just to get an easy A, but that's when I really was having a lot of fun working with different mediums. My homies would bring me white tees and I'd hand paint all over them," he said.
First engaging with the art world through his passion for streetwear, Slvstr looked to the artists that frequently collaborated with cult brands as guiding figures in developing his own process. "When I first started, I was more so inspired by Futura, KAWS, Takashi Murakami and the energy that they gave me. I was taking some of that and doing my thing," he said.
After high school, he discovered a love for typography and enrolled at San Francisco's Academy of Art as a Graphic Design major. Unable to complete his degree, Slvstr started building his name and developing his style through a series of freelance gigs: "When my homies would throw parties, I'd do the flyers. Then I'd get a couple of logo jobs, which led to mixtape cover jobs. Then it started to snowball." Soon enough, he'd be collaborating on headphone capsules one weekend, flying down to Miami to paint at Swizz Beats' son's birthday party the next.
Eventually, he became frustrated "butting heads a little" with controlling clients, and sought more creative autonomy over his vision. Spurred on by a bubbling interest in art historical movements and painters of the past, Slvstr's work transitioned from planned out design projects to expressive and energetic canvases: "I used to try to paint everything so perfectly, but life isn't perfect. My life has its ups and its downs, and I wanted to bring some of that emotion and energy into my work through texture and color," he explained of the stylistic shift. "All these new pieces haven't been plotted or planned, they've just been about going to the canvas and painting in the moment. How I live, the things around me, what I believe in—I inject that into my paintings."
In the case of Wonderful Place, Slvstr played with his trippy technicolor 90s childhood—smashing Bart into Homer, Arnold into Gerald—for a powerfully vibrant reimagination of the figures that raised him. "You see artists of our time or artists of other times picking things out of pop culture that relate to them. KAWS did the Kimpsons and Warhol chose figures like Muhammad Ali and Madonna. I look back at my childhood and I'm like, 'Yo, I really used to watch Hey, Arnold heavy!' Arnold was a New York City kid, he had real swag."
One of the show's standout pieces is an ode to the show's football headed protagonist and his cool as a cucumber sidekick. Titled Dr. King's Dream Come True, it's an imaginative and jubilant nod to just how progressive the cartoon's diverse cast of downtown kids really was. "Shows like that should be celebrated in the art world because they're pivotal not just for people of our age growing up, but in history at large, too," he explained.
Just like the childhood cartoons or streetwear titans he mines for inspiration, Slvstr's work is pushing towards a place that knows no bounds or logical limitations. "The world we live in definitely has its constraints, but I can create a world that has no hate and no fear," he said. "I feel like fear holds a lot of people back, so I just try to be effortless in my paintings. I want to attack them to show that world, to extend that world. The more I let go, the bigger the world gets."
Text Emily Manning
Photography Eric Chakeen
Installation images courtesy Thomas Welch