His white shirt crisp, flat-front trousers trim, and shoe game tight, Dexter Wimberly greets me in the main exhibition space at Chelsea’s Driscoll Babcock Galleries on one of last the days of Corpus Americus, his debut curatorial effort for the oldest gallery in both New York City and the nation. We walk through the exhibit of seemingly disparate works: paintings, drawings, and sculpture which, through their diversity of medium, locus and perspective bring a cohesion to Dexter’s probing exploration of “the American body today.” This is no “Three Cheers for the Red, White, and Blue,” but an unvarnished delving into the multiplicity of American identity and experience. Valerie Hegarty‘s Shipwrecked Armoire with Barnacles stands a vestigial shell of what once was, a palimpsest of mercantilism, yet teeming with barnacled new life beyond the wreckage. Doron Langberg challenges institutional and societal repressions of queerness in his On All Fours #3. In the Derek Fordjour painting, Fearless Foursome, sporting imagery is imbued with layers of meaning relevant to the show’s examination of American corporality.
As we settle in a gallery office to chat, I recall another walk-through, nearly twenty years earlier when the curator, then an enthusiastic, dreadlocked publicist introduced me, an Essence Magazine staffer, to a Detroit-based denim menswear collection. “When we first met you were at Maurice Malone. It’s been quite a ride,” I say. “Indeed,” he smiles.
Dexter was born in Brooklyn in 1973 and has been a resident of the beloved burg–save for a brief period in Woodstock, NY–all his life. “I have two brothers and a sister and we grew up in Bedford-Stuyvesant in the eighties. That sort of speaks for itself. It was two worlds in one. I had a wonderful childhood as my memory tells me and yet I grew up in one of the most difficult times for the city in terms of drugs and crime. I witnessed drugs, I witnessed crime. Thankfully I never participated but it shaped me.”
He attended Fort Greene’s Brooklyn Tech High School where “a passing phase of writing poetry turned into writing rap songs.” He and his buddies Mark Ashby, Saundi Wilson and Kwame Harris started the rap group, System X. “We performed all over the city and sometimes with big, established people like Brand Nubian and Public Enemy.”
“That love affair with music was the precursor to my entrepreneurial life. We were really serious about it so we were always trying to figure out how to get a record deal and market ourselves; we had to brand who we were. I was already thinking about that kind of stuff in high school. I didn’t have the tools that an average high school kid has now like an iPhone, internet access, and a high-quality printer in my bedroom. Not only did we have to work harder, there were fewer people willing to work that hard, so we were able to stand out.” To raise the fifty-dollars-an-hour needed to pay for studio time, they began to promote parties. “As I result of that I began meeting people in the music industry.” But the parties’ yield wasn’t enough “because we had to reinvest every week, so I thought about all these famous people that we now knew.” He realized there was currency in his having been the person working the door at those parties. He was often “the face” of the events. “I didn’t really know what I was on to, but I knew that those relationships were worth something. I remember reading an article about Maurice Malone in the beginning of 1994. And I set it in my mind that I would meet him and I would help his brand gain exposure through celebrities in music videos and television shows. I just set my mind on it. Through a few strange coincidences, I ended up meeting him that summer and he hired me.” About six months later, due to financial woes at the Malone company, Dexter was let go. “Right before Christmas 1994,” he says. Then he was hit by a car just moments into the new year of 1995. “A hit-and-run in Brooklyn Heights. Obviously, I survived, but it was a turning point for me. I’d just lost my job and I got hit by a car. So I said to myself, I have to take control of my life. I felt like I was at sea without a sail. I went down to Atlanta to spend time with my then-girlfriend.” It was there that he wrote the business plan for August Bishop, the PR and marketing firm he would launch with fellow Brooklyn College student Barney Bishop.
“When I came back to New York, Maurice Malone came back around and said ‘I can hire you, I got a new investor.’ I said I’d prefer if you became my client. He agreed and became our first client. That’s how August Bishop (“August” from the Leo’s birth month; and “Bishop” from his partner’s surname) started. By August 1995, they’d incorporated, secured an office and another client. By 1999, they represented prestigious clients including The Coca-Cola Company, Benetton, Virgin Mobile, and Unilever. “We hired a small staff of six people, rented bigger offices, accrued higher expenses. The dream had come true. But with that came more managerial and financial responsibilities. We never had outside investors, so it was always on us to make it work. When there were seismic shifts in the business we didn’t necessarily have the buffer to weather those kinds of storms. So the question for us became how long would we keep going. We decided it best to end the partnership, but not without great effort – making sure that we took care of the people who were working for us, as best we could.” Though it had been a painful decision at the time, Dexter acknowledges “If it had continued, I wouldn’t be a curator now.”
“Running August Bishop was the best thing that ever happened to me primarily because I became a man at the same time I was growing a business. A very unusual circumstance. Everything that came out of it wasn’t absolutely positive, but the knowledge that experience gave me about how to be was pretty priceless. Barney and I ran that company for over ten years, both starting in our early twenties. Because our focus every day was on marketing and public relations and advertising and research, all these things that were rooted in communications, I came out of that experience with a tremendous knowledge of how to present myself in a business setting regardless of whether it was centered around a PR client or what have you.”
“While we were in the midst of August Bishop a light turned on about contemporary art. I began working with a painter from London, who’d just moved to New York and needed some PR/Marketing support for his studio practice. I didn’t know anything about painting; I believed in him, he believed in me, we worked together for a few years. This was separate and distinct from August Bishop. Toward the end of AB, around 2006, the Savannah College of Art & Design asked me to come down and give a lecture on starting a business in the fashion world. I wasn’t excited about talking about fashion, but I thought it was an opportunity to meet some interesting people, so I went down to Atlanta and gave the talk. A few months later the college hired me to be an independent communications consultant. I worked with them for two years, going back and forth to Savannah and Atlanta fairly regularly for meetings with deans and professors and other folks who were more connected with the art world than I was and then it dawned on me that as an entrepreneur, I was an asset that many of these artists didn’t have. So the first shows that I curated really were a way to get the artists I was working with some exposure, not about being a curator per se. The first show I officially curated was 2001, but it was sort of a one-off thing. I didn’t start doing this in earnest until 2008/2009 and it was actually surprising to people — I took it so seriously -that it wasn’t in my background. I’m in a position now, knock wood, and don’t get me wrong I don’t get everything I go for, but it seems that now I’m in this position where opportunities are coming to ME, but they are only coming to me because of the work I am actively doing. I am finding I have more opportunities than I have time to do. Now that doesn’t mean I have more money than I know what to do with, but there are definitely more opportunities.”
On his lack of academic foundation in art, he says, “My thinking on all this is very clear. I didn’t want to have a Ph.D. in art history, it was never something I desired to have. I got involved in the art world in the purest way: from a complete love of painting. My response to any critic of what I’m doing is ‘I don’t care because I have a right to express the voice that’s within me as much as I have a right to go see a show at the Museum of Modern Art. If I am creating something that’s resonating with people, all the better but more importantly, my work is giving emerging artists an opportunity to be seen. THAT is more important than any criticism. I have given over 200 artists exhibition opportunities in the past five years. So that’s what’s important, and those artists, THEY have the Ph.D.’s,” he laughs. “I have the highest regard for education but my background is political science and sociology and advertising and PR and I think that’s fine too.”
He asserts, “That’s probably why what I do is different. I’m not trying to do what I’ve been told. But with that said I’m constantly reading everything; learning about the more rigorous aspects of being a curator, the historical significance of being a curator, and also I’m very aware that the word curator has been abused over the past few years. It’s become a catch-all for anything anyone does in putting things on a list. No one owns the word and if people want to appropriate it, who am I to say? Especially when it is something that doesn’t necessarily require a certain degree. I can’t run around calling myself a doctor or a lawyer without certain accreditation, but curator, that’s just not the case. It’s almost a benefit to the practice, as much as I find it annoying—oh I’m curating lunch—selecting the food, curating an afternoon experience, as much as it is annoying, it is a huge boost for the curatorial pursuit. The idea that someone in high school–when I was in high school I didn’t even know what a curator was—is now being exposed to the word earlier it at least opens their eyes to it as a possible career path, so that can only be good. Though it may be a warped perception of what the word is, they will eventually learn what it actually means.”
As he develops his independent curatorial practice he regularly engages in panel discussions and the like for the Brooklyn Arts Council, Fashion Institute of Technology, Brooklyn College, Savannah College of Art & Design and the non-profit 3rd Ward. ”What’s amazing to me is that even though the audience is always different, the subject always seems to be the same. I just find it amazing that so many people are graduating from college with these degrees to be painters or sculptors but are given no foundational business knowledge.” He believes strongly that it is a disservice to students send them out into the world unprepared for the commercial aspect of their artistic endeavors. “I think it’s strange that someone could graduate and be nearly 100 grand in debt and not know how to write a press release about what they do, or how to distribute it to anybody, how to approach a gallery,” he says. ”I am always shocked by the number of people I meet with higher degrees in art who have no business acumen.”
Dexter’s various interests have emerged and receded, flowed through and around this current of entrepreneurial pursuit. He boldly moves forward, often choosing the path of greatest resistance to create opportunity instead of waiting for it, espousing the virtue of doing what you love. ”I’ve always liked art in the way most people do. Going all the way back to my childhood, I loved to draw and paint. I liked comic books, I liked all of those things. Visual language. I like things that are aesthetically pleasing. I like things that are aesthetically challenging. I like things that are done masterfully, particularly when they are done so masterfully that I can’t even imagine that someone could do it. But it’s not the magic of it, I am not really interested in the illusion, what I am actually interested in is how it is possible that someone can paint or draw on a certain level. For me, I just felt a natural connection to the art world. It made sense to me. I tend to gravitate toward things that allow me to do what I want.”
Of the fifteen shows he has curated, most have allowed him “to do what I want,” expressing self-generated concepts. For only three was he commissioned to implement an existing concept. “As an independent curator, my currency has been my ideas. What I’m able to get done whether it’s at a museum or a gallery, is sometimes on the strength of what I can get them excited about.”
Though he has a predilection for figurative painting and more specifically portraiture, Dexter presented Pattern Recognition, an exhibition of works from five abstract painters at the Museum of Contemporary African Diasporan Arts (MoCADA) last summer. “What’s interesting is that since then I’ve seen a lot more abstract art exhibitions popping up. I’m not saying that these shows are inspired in any way by my exhibition at MoCADA, but I do believe that there’s a collective consciousness, and if you can tap into it and move quickly, you can be first.”
His antennae are always up. “I often conduct multiple studio visits a week, certainly several a month. I’m always seeing new art and meeting new artists. Not only do I take physical notes, I am always mentally cataloging what’s inspired me, and whom I feel I absolutely must work with.” Each of the artists in the Corpus Americus show is people I’ve met over the course of the last two years with the exception of Margaret Bowland who I’ve known longer.” The two met at an artist talk and Margaret was intrigued by Dexter’s intelligent questions. Represented by Driscoll Babcock, Margaret provided Dexter’s introduction to the gallery. Not only did he want to work with the respected gallery, he also “really wanted an opportunity to work with Margaret in a professional capacity as well.”
“The gallery’s history– it’s been around since 1852–got me thinking about the history of America and the history of art in America, who we are as Americans. Our sense of self-awareness and identity has shifted at this point, the last 150-160 some odd years,” (of the gallery’s existence) and so Corpus Americus just came to me,” he says. Evoking the idea of habeas corpus, the procedural guarantee against unlawful detention,”due process and all the things we hold dear and take for granted also comes into play.” Race, gender, sexual orientation and consumerism all come into dynamic interplay among the diverse group of ten artists presented in the exhibition.
Dexter’s first show of 2014 opened in January at the G.R. N’Namdi Contemporary Art Center in Detroit. The N’Namdi Center reached out to him to shape an exhibition of the work of Yale MFA graduates. “I don’t have a connection to Yale that is more defined than my connection to any other art school such as Pratt, RISD or SCAD. Yale has come up time and time again in my comings and goings because of its proximity to New York City. Obviously, Pratt is located in Brooklyn, but so often in New York City, I come into contact with Yale students or recent graduates. New Haven is only a couple of hours away via train, so when they have open studios for their MFA candidates, I tend to go. It wouldn’t be as convenient to visit, say Chicago or LA at a moment’s notice. New Haven is just a brief day-trip.”
Who are some of the artists he’s currently excited about? “There are so many artists that I follow and believe will be of consequence,” he says. “There are some who are well-known that I’m very excited about. I’m a huge fan of Simone Leigh (whose Cowrie #82 was featured in Corpus Americus.) She is a big deal to me. And I’m really into Wangechi Mutu‘s work. I’ve been following Derrick Adams closely. I also follow Will Villalongo‘s work. Other artists whose work I’m really into include painters, Tim Okamura, and Fahamu Pecou. To be honest there are way too many to mention.”
He is both a presenter and collector of art. He collects for the love of the work. He has no fantasies about the dollar value of his collection, “but I also don’t dispute the possibility that some of the art that I own could be incredibly valuable in the future–ten, fifteen years from now. I don’t lose any sleep over that.” Initially, the way he began collecting art was through barter. “I was willing to work for art. Not too many people are willing to do that. So that’s how I was able to get a few important pieces. Artists that I was working with as a publicist or a business manager. That came along with some financial incentives but art was part of it. Then I started spending my own money and I try to pace myself because it’s not like I buy everything that I like. Over the last five years, I’d say I’ve gotten probably around twenty paintings and nearly as many photographs, maybe nearly as many drawings and a couple of sculptures. Many are large scale so I have to keep them wrapped up and they are all around the apartment. I don’t have any walls, just art. I love collecting art. I don’t approach it from the standpoint of practicality. If I see something that I absolutely love and I can afford it –and that may mean I can afford it over say the next year–then I’ll think about it and if I come to the conclusion that I’ve got to have it, I’ll figure out a way to do it. Because I am not in the position right now (who knows where I’ll be in 5 or 10 years) to be the philanthropist I’d like to be, one way for me to be philanthropic, to put my money where my mouth is, is to collect art from emerging artists that I like. Anyone can pat an artist on the back and say great show, but most artists need more than praise. They need to actually SELL work. That’s part of my thinking about being a collector, it helps young artists make their next painting or pay their rent I suppose.”
He is basking in the sun of his commitment to art and family. ”I have a ten-year-old son, Dylan, I got married almost two years ago. I have a six-year-old dog. I’ve been able to travel a lot so things are really okay.”
Dylan loves art. “Because he is so influenced by what I do, he thinks about being an artist. And that’s made me very proud of what I do. Every few months I get to take him somewhere and share something I was directly responsible for. It’s very eye-opening for a kid.” Might Dylan be the next great artist? ”I think he is as good as any ten-year-old who applies himself.” Dexter doesn’t push him, but rather exposes him to art and lets whatever is going to happen evolve organically. Regarding fatherhood, he says, ”Ten years is along time. I can’t say with any level of honesty that I would be living my life any differently if I wasn’t a father. That would be disingenuous. My goals are still the same, it’s just now I know my life is deeply connected to someone else’s life.” He’d pursue the same things whether or not he was a dad: “health, wealth, stability. It’s not like I’d be wilding out if I didn’t have a son. On the other hand, it’s a great motivator to try to break out of the bonds of being an hourly wage earner, to break past the bounds of this economy because, you know, there are a lot of things you have to take care of to have a secure future. But more deeply, it’s made me reassess my involvement in the art world.” His son shares his “go-for-it” approach to life and enjoys a challenge. “Dylan likes and wants to cook. His resolution for the new year is to cook something that’s difficult. He said, I wanna make a creme brûlée. So we’ll see.”
A mutual friend thought that Dexter and Kanako Haji would be good for each other and introduced the pair. “She was right,” he says. “If you’d told me two years before that I’d get married in two years, I’d say you were crazy. I proposed after knowing her for less than a year. We married six months later. All things considered, it just felt right. It made no sense to hem and haw. What was I going to do; wait for five years? For what? So we’re happy."
A guiding force in his life, his beloved mother passed away on Thanksgiving 2008. “It put me through so much, it was at a time when everything was going wrong on all levels: financial, romance, family, career, just everything.” What buoyed him through that period was his son. “I knew I had to just keep going. Art became my second act. It was an opportunity for me to start fresh. I didn’t really know anyone in the art world, so it was a tranquil space for me.” He still feels his mother’s presence and knows that the reason he can face such huge challenges without meltdown is by her example. “I witnessed her overcome so much it made it clear to me that all obstacles are surmountable. You can overcome every challenge, I have absolutely no doubt about that.” Though his mom succumbed to cancer at the young age of 57, “she did what she came here to do,” he says. “She brought four children into the world, and she raised four others through adoption. She was a remarkable woman with a crazy sense of humor. She was able to see me launch August Bishop. She was proud of that.”
He is very clear, as he is with most things, about what he likes and he shares a favorites list perfectly suited to one who bears the Latin name Dexter: “skillful, fortunate, favorable, proper, fitting.”
1. OK Cigars. ”I’ve been going to OK Cigars since 1998. I’ve made some incredible friends there!”
2. Esquire’s Big Black Book. “This is my favorite men’s fashion magazine. It has been published twice a year in the US since 2006. They launched a UK edition last year. It features nearly everything I like. I have every single issue.”
Paintings from his personal collection include:
6. The Peace Queen. By Tim Okamura
7. HERE: Colored Sections. By Kimberly Becoat
8. Mirror Mirror. By Mario Moore
9. Old George. By Camille Armstrong
10. POP. By Fahamu Pecou
Dexter Wimberly profile photo: THE TROVE. Artwork: Derek Fordjour, Fearless Foursome, 2013 Oil, acrylic, polyurethane and stain on wood panel, 82 x 96 inches.
Dylan Wimberly photo: Hiroki Kobayashi.