DEEPER, AND MORE EXPLICIT: Wadsworth Jarrell at Mansfield Art Center
The AfriCOBRA co-founder, Cleveland resident, and CAN Triennial exhibition prize winner is busy with exhibits and speaking engagements in New York, Los Angeles, Venice, and Central Ohio.
Wadsworth Jarrell is on the move.
At 89 years old, Jarrell has an exhibiting schedule any artist could envy. In 2019 alone, his work has been featured at New York’s Skoto Gallery and the Brooklyn Museum. In March, he travelled to Los Angeles with Jae Jarrell, his wife and a fellow artist, to participate in a symposium on art in the Civil Rights and Black Power era. In the third week of April, he flew out to Chicago, to prepare items for an upcoming exhibition in Venice.
“It’s like we live in the air,” Jarrell says.
When not in transit, Jarrell’s address is in Cleveland. In the second week of April (between the LA and Chicago trips), he invited George Whitten to his East Side home and studio. Whitten is executive director of the Mansfield Art Center. Last July, the center awarded Jarrell one of five Exhibition Prizes at the first CAN Triennial.
Winning artists were promised solo exhibits by the curators who judged the triennial’s art show. Eleven months later, Jarrell’s show opens June 22 at Mansfield, to much anticipation. No one is more excited than Whitten himself.
“I remember when I was in school, I knew of his work. I kind of rediscovered him,” Whitten said, remembering the triennial. “To bring him to our community and expose [visitors] to his philosophy was important. It’s important to be challenged and exposed to his work.”
Jarrell was given free reign to choose works to display. The selected items showcase works spanning from the 1980s to 2019, covering numerous stages of the artist’s prolific, ever-evolving career. Paintings, prints, and sculpture will be included.
All the works embody Jarrell’s desire to vividly depict the lives of African Americans and the wider Black diaspora. Over the years, he has been especially drawn to jazz musicians and Black athletes. The Mansfield show will include a portrait of boxer Jack Johnson, the legendary heavyweight champion. However, thoroughbred racing is the sport Jarrell has returned to again and again. At the Mansfield Show, Jarrell will display equestrian art commissioned for the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta, and for the Kentucky Derby Museum in Louisville. A series of pole-mounted, shoulder-high busts memorialize Black jockeys and horse trainers who raced to victory at Churchill Downs. Each wears a number of wreathes corresponding to derbies won. In the first 28 years of the Kentucky Derby, 15 winning riders were Black, including champion of the first race in 1875, Oliver Lewis.
In the massive triptych Mile and a Quarter #2, riders thunder towards the viewer on horses which are as fluid and devastatingly strong as tidal waves. The riders’ faces represent every emotion the dangerous, high-stakes Kentucky Derby can evoke: dread, resolve, smirking glee.
After graduating Northwestern University in 1958, Jarrell began painting racehorses and jockeys, propelled by a desire to make “action paintings.” Only later did he learn that Black Americans have a long history of excellence in thoroughbred racing.
Ten years later, still in Chicago, Wadsworth and Jae helped establish the African Commune of Bad Relevant Artists, better known as AfriCOBRA. Also instrumental to the collective were artists Jeff Donaldson, Barbara Jones-Hogu, and Gerald Williams. The organization was most active in the 1960s and 1970s, and acted as a voice for emerging Black political movements. Besides content celebrating African American life and political liberation, AfriCOBRA distinguished itself for painting in dazzling “Kool-Aid” colors” and its combining of representational images with repeating abstract patterns inspired by African designs.
These electric hues are on full display in Jarrell’s 1972 painting Revolutionary, which has found a home in the permanent collection of the National Museum of African American History. Revolutionary depicts author and activist Angela Davis, whose outline is defined by phrases sampled from her own writings. She is shown clutching a microphone, speaking with resolve, fire, and joy. Words radiate from her body in gold, violet, and red. (Revolutionary was on tour in the spring, and will not be featured at Mansfield.)
Along with other artists of the Organization of Black American Culture, Jarrell painted Wall of Respect on the façade of an abandoned tavern in Chicago. Created in 1968, the wall stands to this day, and memorializes African American luminaries from Marcus Garvey and W.E.B. DuBois to Malcolm X and Nina Simone.
The wall was a groundbreaking piece of public art. The year before it was painted, Martin Luther King Jr. was mobbed and struck with a rock in Chicago while demonstrating against segregation. King remarked that even in the Deep South, he had never seen white backlash “so hostile and so hateful” as what he experienced in Illinois. To proclaim Black pride on the streets of Dr. King’s attackers was an act of courage. And OBAC’s brave example was followed. Over the next decade, at least 1,500 murals were painted in Black neighborhoods across the country. Street-side murals have since become vehicles for pride and self-assertion in countless communities with diverse demographic compositions.
This influence is profound. Yet Jarrell, understandably, came to want to define himself as a singular artist, not just one member of a collective. He had long been aware of his differences with other members of AfriCOBRA. Jarrell, whose works are often at least 4 × 6 feet, recalls a discussion with Jeff Donaldson. Donaldson had warned Wadsworth that his paintings were getting too big for people to put in their houses. “He ragged on me for making large pieces,” Jarrell recalls. But he did not have mantlepieces in mind when he made paintings—he wanted his work in museums.
Around 2000, he left AfriCOBRA to cultivate himself as an individual artist. “I had to make the statement. I wanted to be Wadsworth,” Jarrell said. To mark his commitment to reinvention, he changed his personal style as well, growing out dreadlocks for the first time. He acknowledges that working with AfriCOBRA for years had ingrained certain styles the group had honed. “Being in a group that long, it’s infectious,” Jarrell said. However, he worked within his established style to create something new and recognizably his own.
The first finished product of this new period was Offerings, a bustling mixed-media painting that will be displayed at Mansfield. The work is an exploration of the rituals and shamanic mysticism of African spirituality. Though Jarrell would later return to “Kool-Aid colors,” this canvas is dominated by sky blue, white, yellow, pine green, and equatorial skin tones. A woman sits astride a drum, white garments splashed with the red blood of a sacrificed chicken. Sheared sheep float around the canvas like the angelic cows of Marc Chagall. A figure with a round face and braided hair sits like an ebony Buddha.
Both the form and the content of Jarrell’s oeuvre express a point of view. Formally, his combination of brilliant color with stylization and abstraction inspired by African art creates a distinctly Black mode of Modernism. Turn-of-the-century painters like Picasso famously drew inspiration from African and Moorish sources, but Jarrell’s use of indigenous imagery is deeper, and more explicit. In content, Jarrell celebrates Black America not by emphasizing the centuries of horror they have endured, but by depicting Blacks’ strength and grace directly. His figures’ explosive colors, palpable energy, and idealized forms celebrate bodies too often treated as disposable. His work is ecstatic, in the original sense—animated by active, blissful inspiration.
Jarrell’s exhibition runs from June 22 to July 21 at the Mansfield Art Center. An opening reception will be held Sunday, June 23 from 3:00 to 5:00pm. The Art Center is located at 700 Marion Avenue, Mansfield. For more information, please call 419.756.1700 or go to mansfieldartcenter.org.