Potent Pigments: A Review of Wadsworth Jarrell at Kavi Gupta — Caira Moreira-Brown

Newcity Art, 07.30.2019

“Come Saturday Punch,” a career survey of Wadsworth Jarrell’s work at Kavi Gupta Gallery, delves into the core elements of the artist’s practice. Jarrell’s influence on the Chicago art community began with his contribution to the “Wall of Respect,” a collective street mural created by the Organization of Black American Culture in 1966. That group was a foundation for the Black Arts Movement, the goal of which was to support the equal opportunities of African-Americans. As a participating artist, Jarrell was faced with the questions, is he a black artist, or an American artist who is black?

In 1968 Jarrell became a part of AfriCOBRA, the artist collective, the philosophy of which was to illuminate the Black aesthetic. His body of work speaks to the racial violence that permeated Chicago during the 1960s and sought to explore race relations through black empowerment by depicting the working lifestyles of everyday African-Americans.

Throughout his work, we are confronted with the influences of post-impressionism, in the way color is independent of composition, and instead seen as an emotional interpretation.

“Come Saturday Punch” features paintings and sculptures, revealing the diversity in Jarrell’s craft. Each painting is executed with thick strokes of paint and vibrant colors, highly pigmented colors that include light blue, orange and white, create a visual intensity. These colors recall African textiles and the vibrancy in African-American cultures. He creates what he describes as an “intuitive space,” as seen through the physical labor of his practice and the natural sunlight present throughout his color selection. Specifically, Jarrell’s use of the color yellow stimulates the eyes while reflecting the surrounding light.

The color range, motions and text ignite the senses, encompassing the viewer in the beauty of African-American culture, without making race the first interaction. Jarrell targets the senses that we don’t always expect art to resonate with, and works from the inside out, allowing us to understand the heritage of black culture, the details that are often overlooked when looking at black art. Black art has often taken on the umbrella term of blackness, yet Jarrell’s work strays away from representing all people of color and instead speaks to a distinct community of his own.

Jarrell wanted his artwork to reflect the everyday beauty of African-American culture that was overlooked due to the struggles for constitutional rights and respect during the civil rights movement. Rhythm is a core element in Jarrell’s work, as seen through the repetition of colors, patterns and textures. The texture is created by trowel, a tool used for leveling and spreading cement and plaster. Colorful letters appear in spirals that are easy to read. These words are present for a reason.

The influence and presence of music are evident in the exhibition, in particular, the impact of bebop, the 1940s style of jazz often characterized by fast tempos and rapid chord transitions which create an overall harmonious noise. This jazz influence is present in the repetition of geometric shapes that rapidly transition in color while keeping a consistent pattern. Jarrell seamlessly connects the abstraction of musical notes to visual art.

The beauty of Jarrell’s work lies in how he executes his examination of race on to the canvas. He explores contemporary African-American life through a psychological lens. Throughout his work, he juxtaposes design theory with African and Western motifs, creating an introspective experience of African-Americans to the present day. Jarrell’s work speaks not only to black culture but also evokes emotional and mental responses, revealing the liberation his work provides by depicting the black community in a productive and rich style. While the civil rights movement is over, and race relations have progressed, Jarrell reminds us of an intrinsic value that all humans have that transcends race.