Beg, Borrow, Steal!
“Beg, Borrow, Steal” is a diverse collection of re-appropriated objects that Bahamian/American artist Tyler Johnston has–literally–begged, borrowed, and stolen. All of the objects have been painted pink, some have been reconstructed or rearranged, and each piece is titled according to its story. Originally, the objects were extraneous or devalued items in Johnston’s studios and homes. Painting the objects pink lead bystanders, family members, and colleagues to notice objects previously viewed as insignificant to perceive them differently. These reactions lead Johnston to interrogate further the color pink as well as how value is assigned in the marketplace, often arbitrarily, to commodities–people, objects, and structures of social economy.
Hilary Booker: What is the concept behind your show, “Beg, Borrow, Steal”?
Tyler Johnston: Geoffrey Chaucer coined the term “Beg, Borrow, Steal,” asserting that certain things must be achieved by any means necessary. The show is a collection of specifically-chosen re-appropriated objects whose identities have been altered by pink paint. Identity, transformation, and value are important aspects of the overall concept. Painting an object a single color is meant to allow the viewer to become hyper aware of texture and shape in a way that is unrecognizable in its original state so the object is reborn and viewed differently. Finally, the objects may not have perceived market value, as many are discarded materials. Each object, however, holds a particular story and highlighting its story is meant to offer an alternative commentary on its value.
HB: What gave you the idea for this show?
TS: Despite a desire for an organized and clean workspace, my studio in Abaco is located amongst industrial operations, impossible to keep organized, and surrounded by debris. I had to accept this reality and needed a way to exist with the detritus. I started decorating objects with pink paint and noticed that people had visible reactions to them. Objects that were once mundane or considered disposable were transformed in their new adornment. When I painted objects pink, people found it absurd, offensive because they weren’t my own, and interesting because of how the paint highlighted random objects amidst rubble. I was intrigued when something as simple as changing an object’s color garnered such strong reactions so I just kept going. Eventually, I had enough objects for an entire show.
HB: What is the significance of the color pink in this show?
TS: The purpose of using pink is multifaceted. Pink appears in the Bahamian landscape and seascape frequently. It is often used to paint buildings and structures, which also makes it inexpensive and readily accessible. I feel it holds great power in that it is often associated with human flesh, particularly the intimate sections of our bodies – mouths, hands, and reproductive organs. In the western imagination, it is also associated with feminine identity, sexuality and romanticism. Considered a feminine color, it can make people feel uncomfortable in certain circumstances when sexuality and gender roles are highlighted. Pink is not a color that is often appropriated by men or in masculine contexts so part of the purpose of using pink is to juxtapose its perceived association with femininity and the perceived masculinity of many of the objects in the show.
HB: What is your favorite object?
TS: Every object is interesting and surprising. Each object has come to me along various trajectories having its own stories and meanings. Before I painted an object, I could not predict the resulting identity until the process was complete. I was constantly surprised by the ways in which the identities of objects changed once painted – some became beautiful, grotesque, entertaining or comical. I appreciated the process as a true exercise in iconoclasm – new icons replaced old icons.
HB: You mentioned that the process of obtaining the objects is a significant part of the concept of the show. Can you speak to how you obtained some of the objects specifically?
TS: Some of the objects were given, some were found, and some were outright stolen. They were all re-appropriated. Some of the original owners of the objects that I have stolen—many unknowingly–will attend the show and I am looking forward to seeing their reactions. I wonder if people will recognize their possessions when they see them transformed in the gallery context. Mostly, I hope they will take it well…
One of my favorite stories is about a piece called Kendal Hanna’s Brain Coral. Kendal Hanna is a well-known Bahamian artist who also works out of Popop Studios. I found a piece of coral lying in the bushes next to the studio so I took it and painted it. A few days later, I discovered Kendal searching frantically for an important stone that he had stashed away in the bushes next to the yard for safe keeping. Of course, I realized right away that this was the piece that I’d taken and painted pink so I explained the situation. He acquiesced, allowing me to keep it and agreeing to participate in a performance piece during the opening.
HB: What reactions do you receive when people watch you paint things pink?
TS: People’s first reaction, often, has been to question my sexual orientation. People want to know if I’m coming out of the closet. I’m more of a traditional man – confident and comfortable with my masculine identity – so when people see me immersed in this color associated with femininity, they find it comical. People become uneasy, they don’t understand, or they don’t take it seriously. A man walking around painting things pink is mysterious to people, which often causes them to dismiss the objects as eccentric or comical. Incidentally, in some cases, this also allows people to assign meaning to the transformed objects more creatively.
Interview by Hilary Booker
Tyler Johnston is a Bahamian/American artist, actor, and movie maker. He studied film making at the Maine Media Workshops, Theatre at the University of Southern Maine, Urban Design at the Harvard Graduate School of Design and holds an B.F.A. from the Maine College of Art. He assists his family, which owns the only bronze foundry in the Bahamas, to create many National Monuments celebrating Bahamian Independence. Currently in residence at Popop Studios International Center for Visual Arts in Nassau, Bahamas, Tyler works across media, including Sustainable Design, performance and fine art. He recently founded the Bahamas Institute for Motion Pictures and is also the founder and Executive Director of the Portland Maine Film festival.