Through an Afrofuturistic lens, Reginald Sylvester II’s recent work constructs a vision of steel-cut brutalism that invokes and challenges oppressive systems. His end-of-year exhibition, T-1000 at Roberts Projects in Los Angeles, is as much a feat of sculptural construction as it is an evocative art piece. In hues of grey and silver, it is at once sombre yet iridescent, mechanical yet spiritual. As T-1000 reached its termination, we spoke to Sylvester about his process of artistic evolution through painting, abstraction and sculpture towards a spiritually sublime state.
Brooklyn-based artist Reginald Sylvester II has always considered his work in a constant developmental flux. Guided by his brush and a kind of artistic free play, Sylvester’s work has transitioned from a predominately paint-based practice to a more abstract sculptural craft that incorporates found objects and materials like rubber, steel and aluminium. His most recent exhibition, T-1000, which ran from the 16th November – 23rd December 2023, is his most sculptural collection of work to date.
Moving away from the colours of his previous works, T-1000 is an industrial grey-toned dystopia that references the android assassin of James Cameron’s 1991 film Terminator 2: Judgement Day. Like this alloy that can transform from human to inanimate object, Sylvester’s paintings and sculptures have a similarly metamorphic quality. As Sylvester stretches rubber over a chrome substrate, giving it the appearance of metal, he subverts the conventions of his materials just as he symbolically challenges the authoritarian conventions they come to represent.
Challenging these conventions, T-1000 inhabits a post-apocalyptic, which is to say post-authoritarian, space where spiritual reckoning becomes possible. It is a space where greyness becomes incandescent, where rubber scraps become relics of his artistic practice and where the floor plan of a slave ship becomes a gate to heaven. This sculptural metamorphosis is an evolution towards revolution that is symbolically incorporated throughout Sylvester’s artistic practice. In his own words, it is a “relentless endeavour” towards the revelation of truth that no injustice can ever overcome.
You began your professional foray into art-making as a graphic designer, before transitioning to a style of expressionist painting that began as a kind of figurative cacophony but has since transitioned to a more minimalist form of abstraction. Did you always foresee this transition, or was it something that developed more naturally?
My first exhibition title was: In Search of a Wonderful Plac. From the beginning I knew that I was in search of something as a young endeavouring maker. I’ve always had an interest in abstraction but hadn’t given myself the time nor had the courage to pursue it.
Once that time was had, I started to think about how I could, first and foremost, push my studio process but also bring something new to the canon. Essentially that push in the studio proceeded the gesture of a brush — it grew into developing a sensibility, more-so defining new gestures for myself through industrial material and debris from my studio environment. I’m still concerned with pure painting, but I’m truly moved by evolution and how I can push my work to a sublime state. T-1000 is the third phase of that push.
What or who inspired you to adopt a more abstract style? Is abstraction a better form by which to communicate through your art?
My first inspiration I’d say would be Willem de Kooning. As my knowledge of the canon grew, I found out about individuals such as Frank Bowling, Sam Gilliam, and Jack Whitten.
There was an excitement behind learning about these artists beyond de Kooning because their interest existed beyond the brush, paint, and sub-straight. It gave me great courage to make pushes of my own. I truly admire and thank them for that.
When beginning a piece of work, are you generally always guided by whatever might arise in the process, or do you begin with some wider idea you seek to communicate?
Paintings are like timestamps within a longer stream of consciousness. I’m constantly searching throughout the process of making and along the way you get works like Scission (2023) or Ridgewood (2023). There may be a singular idea that I’ll pursue at times, but I like to leave myself open for new avenues through play, and through working with new materials. I’m more reactive as a painter so allowing myself to build new relationships with new materials breeds new ways of picture-making.
Your use of found objects, unconventional industrious base materials and assemblage in T-1000 is consistent with your previous work, namely your previous two exhibitions: Green Gate (2023) and Painter’s Refuge: A Way of Life (2022). Do you conceive of any specific narrative link that connects your past and present works?
The industrialisation of rubber is a touch point within the work. King Leopold II and his atrocities in the Congo were horrific. The effects of it are still felt to this day. My father when serving in the U.S Marine-Core visited an active rubber plantation in 1987. I was also born that year. I touched on this a bit in Painter’s Refuge.
Green Gate was more of an exploration of the colour green and how it relates to the black and brown body. It also explored the mark-making within my work and how I used the gesture of willow trees to activate the drips on the surface of those paintings. I thought a lot about that being the last thing ancestors saw before being lynched.
For me T-1000 embodies all previous exhibitions yet there’s a stillness that the others don’t have. There’s a closer push to the spiritual. My hope is for the work to touch on the black and brown experience spiritually, past and present. 
Though many of your previous works engage with an assemblage element of sculptural practice, traditional sculpture has a more visceral presence in T-1000. What inspired this recent transition into sculpture?
The use of debris or leftover material led me to sculpture. The Gate sculpture is a byproduct of the paintings. Its form when lying on my studio floor reminded me of the floor plans of the boats used in the Transatlantic Slave trade. When you elevate those forms, they give the impression of a gate. My hope was that these gates could symbolise the gates of heaven for those of my ancestors who died within the slave trade. It also could cause this tension in space by where you want to pass through it but can’t - that tension between what’s carnal versus what’s spiritual.
The greyscale of T-1000 appears in contrast to your more expressive use of colour in previous works (e.g. Cuts (2022)). Why did you decide to move away from this use of myriad and vivid colours in T-1000?
There are a few reasons. I relied on colour a lot in previous bodies of work. I felt if I wanted to enhance my relationship with colour I needed to learn how to not lack in energy when working with a controlled palette.
This is the first time that my own sculpture is informing my paintings, they’ve put me in a position where I need to react to them. This is where the decision to only work with iridescent steel tones came from. It’s also allowed me to make materials that are naturally soft, flexible, or malleable appear hard.
Your use of industrial materials like steel, aluminium and rubber in T-1000 invokes an image of the machine and dominating forces of technology. This seems particularly relevant in the age of AI-generated art. What are your thoughts on the relationship between art and technology?
I believe technology should be used as a material like paint or canvas. It’s a new medium that can enhance the physicality or process of making art. Art for me best exists in the physical plane and that’s where it’s most felt.
I’d like to think of my work as physical and can’t be fully experienced unless soul, mind, body and artwork is present.
In contrast to its dystopian themes, T-1000 also engages with the spiritual. The fourteen-foot sculpture pillars are reminiscent of the twelve gates to heaven in the Bible’s Book of Revelations. You mention scripture provides a structure for your life – does it provide structure for your process of artmaking also?
It’s provided a new structure within my process of making. My mind is constantly thinking about paintings as sculpture and what sculpture can come from the byproducts of those paintings. What new relationships can be developed between my work and how it interacts with space.
T-1000 is described as a symbol for “omnipresent oppressive systems throughout the world” that violently suppress liberators of social and racial justice. What role do you think art plays in tackling institutional injustice?
You can only ignore great art for so long. Relentless endeavours of making through genuine intent and investigation only reveal truth.
No injustice can ever hope to overcome truth!
Finally, is there anything specific guiding the art you are making at the minute? Do you have any conception of what we can expect from your work in the future?
The pursuit of evolution.