“Unpopular Culture”: The Art of Carl Medley III

by shannon jay

Carl Medley III’s paintings subtly shift familiar imagery into something that makes viewers look twice. Tongue-in-cheek phrases are present where uplifting ones usually reside, or ones that have caved under too much pressure. Words that could be discounted as apathy may instead be acceptance, something that these familiar images are usually afraid to declare. Perhaps that’s why his latest exhibit “Fear of Acceptance” is titled as such — it’s on view at BOJUart Gallery until December 22nd. And in case you miss that, he’s got a fresh exhibition at VMFA in Richmond next year, the home of his fellowship. I shot him an email to talk about his other forms of expression (such as installations and a podcast), how to find creative balance between one’s day job and personal projects, and why the familiar makes fresh ideas more digestible.

 

When did you first become interested in art?

Probably more seriously around 4th grade. Before that art was just an activity that all kids do in addition to every other subject in school. But in 4th grade I got into Old Donation School and it opened me up to the idea that art is actually something you can do all day long and adults will actually take you seriously.

How did you transition from art being a hobby to your career?

I wouldn’t say I have turned art into my career yet because I still have a day job, but I do treat it as if it is a career. I have always looked to the next thing once I do something with my work. What started out as doing illustrations I liked turned into maybe people being interested enough to buy them. That turned into getting into festivals and shows where I could potentially sell more. That turned into trying to do installations, murals or collaborations where I could maybe make a little more money without having to do as many shows. That turned into being selective about what I participated in and made it so I could build a portfolio based on how I wanted to be perceived.

What’s your day job?

My day job is Creative Lead at RocketBike Digital Agency in Portsmouth, VA. The balance is a constant practice. I have found that making an attempt to plan my week the most helpful because it puts me in the mindset of working at night and on the weekends and how much I can realistically achieve. The other challenge is staying inspired. After a day of thinking creatively for other people I still have to have some inspiration left for me. It’s not always there so I try to pace myself. My wife does an amazing job of supporting me and helping me the whole time and helps me stay focused.

Tell me a bit about your podcast.

The podcast is called Here’s an Idea: a Podcast and it features myself and my wife Liane. The premise is two people having a discussion and one person has an idea. It could be any idea. Then the next person has an idea inspired by or in the same area of interest as the first idea. We go back and forth on talking points and eventually get off topic. We have discussed food, dogs, cars, the dentist and subscription boxes. It’s meant to feel like the normal conversations people have when someone says, “You know what would be cool?”

Any exhibits to check out you’re stoked on? (Could be your own or other artists)

My exhibit “Fear of Acceptance” is on display through December 22 at BOJUart Gallery in Virginia Beach and I will have another exhibit up in March at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. “Todd Schorr: Atomic Cocktail” is up at MOCA in Virginia Beach until December 30 and it is an amazing show. I’m also a huge Harry Potter fan and I just found out about an exhibit up in New York called "Harry Potter: A History Of Magic” at the New York Historical Society and it looks really cool. It has some of the original art from the book jackets and pages. I think it’s up until the end of January.

What music do you listen to when designing/painting?

I am all over the place with music when I paint. It’s usually whatever I’m in the mood for. Anything except pop country. If I had to pick the most consistent type of music I’d say it’s any lyrical heavy hip hop. I have been listening to Oxnard by Aanderson .Paak on repeat recently.

 
The people that push forward in the art world are the ones who develop thicker skins because they’ve dealt with all sorts of emotions.
 

Where's the most exciting place your work has been featured/situation it's put you in?

I think the most exciting situation my art has put me in was getting a professional fellowship in painting from the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. I was incredibly honored to get one and it was an incredible motivator, but when I realized that over 800 people apply to it I fully understood the gravity of where I was with my work.

Define "unpopular culture”

A lot of it is about awkwardness and dark humor. Peoples insecurities, their uncomfortable thoughts or just crushing truths are the focus of a lot of my work and it allows me to draw people in more because they identify with thinking or saying that same thing. I think honesty and transparency is the most relevant topic currently in pop culture and I think maybe that’s why there is somewhat of an appeal to what my work showcases.

How do you use familiar and often seen imagery to expose emotions often hidden beneath the surface? What are you revealing?

People like what they know. If they see something they recognize or feel like they know they feel an immediate connection. If you can layer that with a concept or a notion they are more likely to engage with it than if it was something completely foreign to them.

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Describe some of your installation work

In 2016 I was able to do a couple installations which were really liberating and I feel like I grew because of them. The first one was for the group show Native, which was curated by Charlotte Potter and Gayle Forman, and I collaborated with Neon artist James Akers. The concept was to talk about Norfolk as a sunken treasure and use a shipping container-like installation to house large paintings of gold chains and bright yellow neon lights. The piece was called Perspective and made you look at everything different once you were inside. They also used it as the shows Photo Booth which was pretty rad.

Another installation later that year was for a show called “The Ghost in the Machine” which was a new media group show curated by Charles Rasputin. Charles and I had collaborated on projects before as our self-titled duo Fang Gang NFK so I was super excited to be involved in a new media show because I was out of my element. We collaborated on a piece where I drew these ornate flowers in cyan and magenta and it looked like one of those old 3-D images. Charles produced a video piece that played over top of the illustration, but he matched the colors to the video so at certain parts of the video you would only see one of the colored flowers and not the other. It was actually quite mesmerizing.

How do you think pop art like yours reevaluates familiar imagery and why is it important?

I think it’s important because people can get complacent with seeing things that I feel like they should pay more attention to or just constantly be noticing and appreciating. The world is a lot more interesting if you can just pay more attention to everything and play with it and comment on it. I recently did a large piece entitled “Yeah, No,” which really just started out as noticing that we say this phrase all the time and it’s one of the dumbest things we say. But until someone points it out and puts it in your face you will just go on not noticing it.

What are your inspirations for paintings?

My inspiration comes from observing the everyday. Very common elements and thoughts are more prominent and combined in a way that can seem absurd or surreal, but that’s mostly just because I wanted to see those things in the spotlight or wanted people to think about it more, almost as a way to focus on them without any other distractions.

How do you think of the phrases you paint?

I keep a running list on my phone of things I hear or say. A lot of times it’s not just the phrase, but also how it’s presented that makes you look at that phrase or word in a different way.

 
If you can layer that with a concept or a notion they are more likely to engage with it than if it was something completely foreign to them.
 

Do you have any tips for other up-and-coming artists to stop from being discouraged?

I think it’s about staying driven and always looking at the bigger picture. Not really knowing why someone is specifically getting discouraged, I would say it’s fine to feel discouraged because that’s natural, just don’t let it sway you or stop you. If you’re bummed that you’re not getting the attention of specific galleries then just put on your own show. If you didn’t get into a show you wanted to, try and ask for feedback. The people that push forward in the art world are the ones who develop thicker skins because they’ve dealt with all sorts of emotions. Use your experiences as just that and build on it.