SKIN + MASKS | Nikko Washington: Boxing by Way of Painting

August 12, 2022
Installation view, Nikko Washington in <I>SKIN + MASKS</I>, curated by Vic Mensa, 2022. Kavi Gupta | Elizabeth St.
Installation view, Nikko Washington in SKIN + MASKS, curated by Vic Mensa, 2022. Kavi Gupta | Elizabeth St.
Summertime persists in Chicago and with a sensation similar to the waves of heat that radiate off the city’s asphalt, SKIN + MASKS, at Kavi Gupta | Elizabeth St., continues to stand out amongst Chicago’s cultural landmarks of the summer. While Vic Mensa’s curatorial debut features artists from around the world, this exhibition gives a honoring nod to the curator’s hometown. SKIN + MASKS features the work of multiple generations of Chicago artists, reflecting the richness of the city’s creative communities.

Among these Chicago-based artists is Hyde Park-born painter, Nikko Washington. Washington’s gripping work Swing On ‘Em hangs in the entrance to SKIN + MASKS. This “battle royal” takes shape via a thick and vigorous painting style. Washington’s seemingly fast and intuitive strokes, predominately in shades of blue and black, feel almost like slashes.This rough application aids in transferring a sensation of urgency to the viewer. We feel the intensity of the scene and the muddled confusion of the blindfolded boxers engaged in a racist Jim Crow era competition. Washington’s personal history as a martial artist and boxer is evident in this work, not only through the subject matter, but through his calculated and forceful technique. 

Nikko Washington, Swing On 'Em, 2021. Oil on canvas, 60 x 72 x 2 in.

Washington’s investigation of boxing continues with Jack II, a  portrait of Jack Johnson, the legendary Black boxer who became the first African-American world heavyweight champion in 1908. The racially-charged anger that arose in response to this distinction led to the so-called “Fight of the Century” in 1910, when James J. Jeffries, a.k.a The Great White Hope, came out of retirement to challenge Johnson’s title. It is believed that Johnson began his boxing career through “battle royals,” like the one depicted in Washington’s Swing On ‘Em.

In Jack II, Washington continues Swing On ‘Em’s blurred blue and gray background with Johnson depicted at the forefront in shades of fiery red. The paint application is also similar to Washington’s earlier piece. Separating it stylistically is a spray-painted white ‘X’ that Washington has taken across the entire image. The texture of this addition feels intentionally removed from the portrait. It becomes less like a painting and more like a photograph that someone has written or scratched upon. A slightly menacing tone is laid upon Johnson’s image, like he’s being checked off a list or withheld in some way. This may be a reference to the 1946 car accident that resulted in Johnson’s death. The retired boxer was angrily driving away from a segregated diner that had refused to serve him. 

Nikko Washington, Jack II, 2021. Oil and spray paint on canas, 40 x 30 x 2 in.

Boxing, for Washington, is a multi-layered form of processing. His own personal history with the sport simmers at the surface while he explores subjects of racial identity through portraits of iconic Black boxers and scenes of racially-charged violence. 

SKIN + MASKS will continue throughout the summer. Stop by Kavi Gupta | Elizabeth St. to experience the visual and emotional impact of Nikko Washington’s works.