In a social media-crazed world, where any and everyone is a content creator projecting refined and sometimes distorted portraits of themselves, Jake Troyli’s art invites us to examine the spectacle around the commodification of Black and brown bodies and the performative behaviors we’ve collectively put on. His art often uses color and humor to invite audiences into nuanced conversations about the Black experience, often centering themes of otherness. 

Through a number of special exhibitions coinciding with EXPO Chicago, a major international art festival happening at Navy Pier this week, Troyli’s work is something that you should checkout at one of three locations.

Beginning April 7, acclaimed exhibition Skin in the Game will showcase Troyli’s work alongside more than 40 local and international artists. Curated by Zoe Lukov and produced by Abby Pucker, Skin in the Game is a vibrant public program, “exploring touch, transmission, and skin…as a boundary to protect from danger or as a porous border to receive.” The Chicago iteration is being held at 400 N. Peoria Street in the Fulton Market District through April 24.

Celebrate the opening of the exhibition by joining artists and curators at Blind Barber cocktail lounge for a Skin in the Game afterparty on Thursday, April 7 at 10:00 p.m.. The lounge will showcase one of Troyli pieces that’s been reimagined as a vinyl. The event is RSVP-only. Click here for ticket details. 

Additionally, from April 7-10, you can find Troyli’s work at the Monique Meloche booth in Navy Pier’s Festival Hall, the official location of the EXPO. Single-day tickets for the EXPO start at $30. 

TRiiBE publisher Morgan Elise Johnson spoke with Troyli earlier this week. They talked about his move to Chicago, his current showcase at Monique Meloche gallery and the role of self criticism in his art.

(This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity).

For those of us who may be discovering your work for this first time, how do you define your art and the creative mediums you use?

Jake Troyli: I’m an oil painter. I use oil paints pretty exclusively. I use self portraiture as a starting point. I use my own image as this loose, elastic avatar that I can manipulate, pose and stretch, and use in my thinking about the idea of subject and the object and how quickly that line can be blurred. How can I maintain agency in this space by utilizing my own image? I get to decide how it’s stretched or used or framed, you know.

Jake Troyli, "Sitting Duck." Courtesy the artist and Monique Meloche Gallery.

What brought you here to Chicago?

JT: A couple of things. First, I am represented by a gallery, Monique Meloche, where my solo show is up right now. Also, most importantly, I had to get out of the city that I’m from: St. Petersburg, Florida. It’s a small city, and there isn’t much of a contemporary art scene or culture. I just wanted to be in a city. I wanted to be in a metropolitan space where there’s diversity and there’s community. In some ways, I felt I had outgrown the space that I was in back home.

What is currently being shown at the Monique Meloche gallery? What has your experience been like?

JT: My work has been up since February 26. It’s been amazing. Monique is an amazing gallerist. She really prides herself on getting her artists into very serious conversations, very institutional collections. She’s very thoughtful in how she places work. Sometimes if you look at some of my work, someone could be, like, ‘Oh, it’s funny.’ Read it for face value and move on. She has a program that really fosters conversation and fosters a deeper sense of viewership, which is important to me.

I’m drawn to this idea of using your own image. As a filmmaker who likes to ask questions, but hates to be on camera myself, I struggle with this a lot. Why are you offering yourself up? Most people don’t like criticism or to be looked at. Why are you leaning into that?

JT: This is a great question. I definitely think of self deprecation as a tool in my work. I guess it comes back to me really wanting to be self critical. I just am self critical, period. But in my work, I want to be self critical and examine my own relationships with some of these things. It’s kind of like this impassive participant. There’s also an element, I think, of code switching. This idea of donning disguises and reshaping yourself to be able to blend in or fit into the scenario that you’re moving into. Like, do you see yourself as wearing this filter or this disguise? Or at some point, are you just completely synonymous with that avatar you’ve created for yourself?

Jake Troyli, "The Demonstration." Courtesy the artist and Monique Meloche Gallery.

We just had a Black spectacle recently with Will Smith and the slap. Is that what your work dissects? Those types of public stages?

JT: Yeah, totally. This idea of performance and the idea that, at some point, the performer can forget they’re performing and this becomes a role. I think about that a lot. I think about exceptionalism, period, and the idea of being on a pedestal and what that can do to us psychologically. One of the things I want to maintain in my work is the fact that this is not a binary space. This is why I use nudity a lot in my work. I think nudity is something that can vibrate between empowerment and vulnerability. 

I think about the pedestal as the same space. People want to be seen. They want to be heard. They want to feel important. But, on the other end, you have to kind of use these systems to your advantage if you can. But there’s this inherent danger, this pitfall, and that’s what I’m thinking about. The conversation spans entertainment and sports, and everyday interaction.

Who do you want to connect with your work? Have you been able to connect with those groups successfully in Chicago yet?

JT: Yeah, totally. Obviously, there are collectors who are usually older. But there’s a young, really eclectic group of people who’ve wanted to see the work and wanted to connect with it, which is what I want. Sometimes, white-wall gallery spaces can be really inaccessible or feel really inaccessible. And sometimes, I think that’s because of the language that the work is shrouded in. But with my world, I don’t want that. Humor, and color, people can connect to those things. Historically speaking, people are, like, ‘Oh, that’s a lowbrow underground aesthetic.’ I think it’s something we all can latch on to, just like the Sunday comics type shit. We all know that language, and someone walking into the space doesn’t need to have an art history degree to be able to connect to the way, which is what’s important to me.