Jeffrey Kent’s Paintings at Creative Alliance by Cara Ober
There is a palpable presence lurking beneath the surface of Jeffrey Kent’s paintings in this exhibition. This presence is consistent, though the subject matter, style, and appearance of Kent’s works are not. Unlike many artists who stick with a particular vocabulary, this exhibition playfully veers from Abstract Expressionism to Pop Art, with flourishes of folk art, quilting, and Fauvism, embracing each style with equal enthusiasm. The underlying spirit has everything to do with an intensity of vision – an inspired way of looking deep into the self and, at the same time, out on the world.
An exploration of masculinity, one that seems steeped in personal experience as well as a collective consciousness, abounds from the walls. Contradictory views of masculine heroes and African American male stereotypes vie for attention and dominance in this exhibit, and, in a way, re-enact the struggles that the artist depicts.
The first thing always mentioned, in discussing Kent’s work, is his use of color. Words like ‘passionate,’ ‘stunning,’ ‘bold,’ and ‘musical’ are accurate and fair. However, if this is all you glean from this work, you are missing much.
The African American male is an anomaly, a paradox, a puzzle. He is America’s Achilles heel and lost love. This is a subject even politicians don’t want to discuss and the pink elephant in the room of every educational debate. Current statistics suggest that African American male children have a one in four chance of serving time. This is the reality that affects all Americans, regardless of race or class.
What Kent is giving us in this show is a window into a world that most Americans don’t see or understand. He might have seduced us in with luscious color and bold compositions, but once we’re interested, he wants us to squirm. And we do. Cowboy politicians and ‘brown-nosed’ businessmen are depicted with equal reverence as ‘Gangstas, Players, and Pimps’ in baggy pants and hoodies. Super heroes like Captain America and Batman are depicted in moments of vulnerability and shame. The nature of violence and power is examined, from urban street corners to the Iraq war, and, throughout it all, Kent’s eye is unflinching. He wants us to see what he is seeing.
I see a powerful contradiction in these works that animates them. Kent’s complete surrender to intense pleasure and passion in the studio are a tangible success. In contrast with this joy, there is irony, anger, confusion, and pain. Nothing is sugar coated; yet we are willing to work to read Kent’s backwards handwritten messages. The world that Kent manages to create is lively and beautiful, rife with potential and sharp as a tack. This world is vulnerable, yet resilient, and expresses a powerful sentiment of hope, in the midst of conflict.
At the Creative Alliance at the Patterson – Jan 12-Feb 16
Gallery talk w/ Jeffrey Kent & Lamarr Darnell Shields, Urban Leadership Institute: Wed Jan 23, 7pm