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Family, faith, and cultural history: exploring the art of Jesse Wright

Jamaican-American interdisciplinary artist Jesse Wright discusses the importance of faith and filial ties within his multi-layered artistic practice.

by Manu SharmaPublished on : Sep 20, 2022

LatchKey Gallery is a relatively new entrant to the world of art exhibition, having been started in 2018 as a nomadic contemporary art gallery committed to exhibiting works by artists that have been overlooked, and can bring new perspectives to audiences through their unique, critical lenses. It has since found a home of its own in Manhattan, under the stewardship of Amanda Uribe. Early in 2022, the art gallery opened Reverie, an important exhibition that showcased work by Jesse Wright, who is a Jamaican-American artist who, as their website tells us, has a visual approach “that addresses his ongoing allegory on displacement, migration, and scripture.” The works presented here were made by the visual artist between 2018-2022, and create links between historical narratives and more current experiences. They incorporate layering and symbolism, creating a visual tapestry through which Wright “uses his maternal relatives as archetypes of migration. Hope, aspiration, strength, and longing are all depicted, giving attention to the complexity of humanity.”

Isiah, 2022, poster, paper on wood, Jesse Wright | Reverie | Jesse Wright | STIRworld
Isiah, 2022, poster, paper on wood Image: Jesse Wright; Courtesy of LatchKey Gallery

The mixed media artist is based in New Jersey, and has an interdisciplinary art practice. He received his BA from The School of Visual Arts in New York City, and has been featured in group and solo exhibitions at Passaic County Art Center, Newark Historical Society, Jersey City Museum, Shore Institute of Contemporary Arts, and ArtYard, which are all in New Jersey. He discusses the title of the exhibition, saying, “The Reverie spoken of in the title of the show at Latchkey is in colourful celebration of the Jamaican side of my family as so many of them are now returning to their homeland. Their narrative serves as an allegory reflecting a spiritual desire to return to one’s original source and place of beginning. So, stylistically this balance of form and abstraction, mixed media and layering represent both the subject and the subject’s spirit.”

Regal Soon Come, poster, posters on paper and wood, 42x42, Jesse Wright | Reverie | Jesse Wright | STIRworld
Regal Soon Come, poster, posters on paper and wood Image: Jesse Wright; Courtesy of LatchKey Gallery

Wright has been a practicing interdisciplinary artist since 2005, and has been guided by the theme of ascension right from the start. His work explores the transatlantic slave trade that caused so much human displacement and trauma, but finds a fount of strength within it through iconography inherited from African heritage and Jamaican culture. However, it is important to bear in mind that the artist is inspired by more than his own human context. In an earlier interview, he mentioned that Diego Rivera’s ‘Retrato de Ignacio Sanchez’ hangs in his family home, and that it has been extremely important for him: the boy is wearing a sombrero hat, but the artist identifies it as a halo; to him it becomes religious symbolism, and he has commented on his relationship to that work, saying “someone brought it to my attention that I was finding the spirit in family, and that hit me as a truth. I started looking at other artists that have done this as well, and with Retrato de Ignacio Sanchez, it depicts a person, but that person is telling another story as well. This painting really sets a certain mould for much of Wright’s practice: his visuals must be read on a deeper layer than that which is immediately apparent for their meanings to be revealed. Interestingly, it is quite ironic that it was one of Rivera’s works that brought out a Christian spirit within Wright’s practice: Rivera himself was famously atheist, and considered religion to be a form of “collective neurosis”. In fact, his criticism of religion was so scathing, that the massive staircase mural at the National Presidential Palace in Mexico City he created depicted Christianity as an invading force committing acts of violence. Returning to Wright, the artist is happy to be considered an interdisciplinary practitioner, and humorously highlights the diversity of his visual elements with this: “I am mixed race, a mutt if you will, and love mixed media all the more for it. That use of reclaimed materials is also a very Jamaican thing. It's an opportunity to carry the energy of locations directly into the art. If you put a stethoscope to a Jamaican’s heart, you’ll most likely hear Tenor Saw’s, Ring the Alarm. I have a strong desire to carry that warmth and thunder visually. It’s also an opportunity, here and there, to tip my hat to traditional sign painters like Rankine and Nurse.

Michelle Made it to the Elder’s Table, acrylic, poster, paper, paint labels on wood, Jesse Wright | Reverie | Jesse Wright | STIRworld
Michelle Made it to the Elder’s Table, acrylic, poster, paper, paint labels on wood Image: Jesse Wright; Courtesy of LatchKey Gallery

Returning to the idea of ascension, in Wright’s context, it comes from a place of Christian faith, which began at the artist’s local church that was built by his maternal grandfather. Apart from his arts practice, Wright is also involved in faith-based humanitarian work all around the world. He has helped build a medical centre in Uganda and schools in Haiti and Mexico. Biblical allegory then, unsurprisingly becomes one among the many elements that play into the artist’s practice: take Michelle Made it to the Elders Table, which features five women from Wright’s family. They are seated side-by-side at a table, and are breaking bread. The inspiration for this piece is obvious: Wright has taken clear cues from the Last Supper. However, as mentioned earlier, a multi-levelled approach to interpreting the artist’s work is critical to unravelling its many layers. Jamaican families are matriarchal adjacent, and this piece is also a way for the artist to pay his respects to the rich and long heritage he calls his own.

Four star Apples in JA, acrylic, poster, paper, paint labels on canvas, Jesse Wright | Reverie | Jesse Wright | STIRworld
Four star Apples in JA, acrylic, poster, paper, paint labels on canvas Image: Jesse Wright; Courtesy of LatchKey Gallery

While it was Riviera who first made Wright think of Christian allegories nestled within art, it was Egon Schiele that sparked his focus on family. Schiele’s piece, titled The Family made the artist ponder the vulnerability of our filial groupings, and he explains that while he is meditating on scripture and scriptural themes, he is also capturing the spirit of his subjects. Interestingly, he references one of his pieces, Four Star Apples in JA here, through which he compares his brothers, who are picking apples outside his grandfather’s church, to Cain and Abel.

Profile photo, 2022, image, Jesse Wright | Reverie | Jesse Wright | STIRworld
Jesse Wright, 2022, image Image: Courtesy of LatchKey Gallery

The artist has enjoyed his engagement with LatchKey Gallery, and discusses his plans for the future, saying, “I would really like to work on more immersive installations driven by accurate research, but it takes a lot of time to develop such projects. As of now, I am really happy with how my journey has been and how it has evolved through the years.”

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