Nikko Washington looks like any other student coming in to Café Logan on the University of Chicago campus to grab a bite between classes. But the 25-year-old finished his studies at the School of the Art Institute three years ago. And there’s another difference: the oil paintings on the wall are all by Washington, together comprising an exhibit called 53 ’til Infinity, on display through March 31. These are his most recent works, mostly portraits, all characterized by bold colors and the serious but joyous expressions on the subjects’ faces.
For Washington, who now lives in Pilsen, having a show in Hyde Park, blocks from where he grew up, is nothing less than fantastic.
“I used to go to summer camp down the street at the Ratner Center,” Washington says. “It’s full circle. It’s amazing.”
The title 53 ’til Infinity comes from 53rd Street, a place where Washington hung out as a kid. A place that’s gone through changes. “There were permission walls for graffiti,” Washington remembers. “There [were] a whole bunch of boutiques that are not here anymore. Food places that had their own unique vibe.” Washington grew up on 51st, and credits his mother, an artist, for giving him one of his earliest memories of artistic expression.
“My mom drew a mural of Space Jam on my wall,” he recalls. “It was very detailed. I was five years old, and I just knew that that was art somehow, and I could draw that.”
Washington went to Whitney Young High School, and participated in the After School Matters program, where he worked with professional artists and had work displayed at Gallery 37.
“That’s what gave me the idea that I could make money off art,” Washington says. “Gallery 37 gave me a stipend of $1,000 for ten weeks, which was the craziest thing to me, to get paid to do what I was doing anyway.”
His mother and father, who worked as a salesman for a book publisher, both supported his decision to pursue art. He credits Jean- Michel Basquiat and Andy Warhol as his early influences, as well as Chicago artist Hebru Brantley.
The summer after he graduated high school, Washington worked in an office where he had to wear a suit and tie. The experience would have a profound impact on the way he saw himself. It wouldn’t be his last corporate job, but it inspired him to paint a self-portrait of sorts, inspired by questions he asked himself at the time: “Will I lose myself? Will I become a corporate stiff?” Stiff is a painting of a black man wearing a jacket and tie. His eyes are downcast. There’s a large X at the right edge of the painting, a nod to Malcolm X.
Stiff is one of ten paintings Washington made that focus on black expression. These include subjects that have often been depicted as white: for example, a Madonna and child, Adam and Eve.
“I want people to get their own reactions and feelings from the work,” Washington says. “But if you ask me, it’s just interpreting black expression through a different lens and through an abstract lens.”
In the past, he explains, “black expression was struggle and pain. People would show work based off historical movement, the mistreatment of people of color throughout generations. Sambo characters or slave drawings, anything of that sort that would represent black people in the struggle. But then it’s being sold and produced and sold to different people. It’s people profiting off of black struggle and not just artists but other galleries are selling black struggle. This way I’m reinterpreting it through a lens that’s not in my head makes me feel guilty.
“I do feel that artists have a responsibility to represent [social] issues,” he says. “But nobody can tell you how to do it. Everyone has their own way because artists are human beings.”
One of the subjects he tackles is gentrification, which has affected Hyde Park. The painting Thank You for Gentrifying is a commentary on the development that’s overtaking his neighborhood. Washington says this is a double-edged sword.
The title of the painting, Washington says, was intended as sarcastic. “It’s from Thank You for Shopping [plastic] bags, because that’s where it all comes from, retail, shopping, and consumerism,” he explains. “But it’s also ‘thank you’ because if that didn’t happen, I wouldn’t be in the [Café Logan] show. Because they’re looking to connect more with the community.”
Painting canvases is only part of Washington’s vast portfolio. He’s also a graphic artist with the Save Money collective, an informal group of friends that includes musicians, videographers, and other creatives who support one another’s work. Washington has produced cover art for albums by Towkio, Sterling Hayes, and Vic Mensa.
“Sterling and Vic I’ve known since I was five, Chance [the Rapper] since I was 12,” Washington explains. “We’ve all been friends for a while, a long-ass time. It was only natural [for the collective to develop].”
Mensa remembers first meeting Washington in karate class. “He was funny and popular, and people always liked him.” For as long as he could remember, Mensa adds, Washington was always drawing and painting. Always making art.
“He’s always been a dope artist,” Mensa says. “I think what interests me about his art is like how natural it feels. There’s a freedom and intrinsic expression in his art. It really feels like it represents him.”
While they’re all busier these days than when they were kids, with everything from music projects to their own families, the Save Money crew makes time to create together and even go bowling. (Of the group, Washington would say he and the rapper Kami are the two best bowlers.)
“Work is always happening,” Washington says. “Being friends and coming together as coworkers is the same. We don’t clock out.”
Along with his painting, Washington is now designing title cards and show logos for Hulu through a new advertising agency the Times, headed by Jason Peterson, the former COO of the global ad giant Havas.
Washington’s current exhibit will overlap with a new show that opens at Soho House on March 9. He won’t reveal much about it; the only clues he gives are the word “blue” and that it’ll be an immersive environment.
But his Hyde Park show is different. Washington always knew Hyde Park was special, but now he gets to hear it from others.
“The best response I got was people saying, ‘This was my excuse to finally come down to Hyde Park,'” Washington says with a slight smile. “Or ‘I’ve never been down here. Now I have a reason to come down here.'” v