For an artist to crossover from his or her own milieu to making expressively raw art is hardly new. It no longer matters who makes the art, so long as we see it as possessing life, integrity, and (some) craft. Still, ever since the exuberant artworks of East Village in the 1970s, we tend to identify roughness, energy, and charismatic intensity as the purview of the young artist, who, for the most part, has identified with a rough-and-tumble persona—a far cry from the exquisite nuance and sensitivity we typically ascribe to the historical, cultured painter. Then there is Josh Jefferson—whose background is neither underprivileged nor naïve—who has a narrow path to follow, one in which his street smarts vie with an education that would tend to take him away from the streets and graffiti-covered walls of the poorer sections of the city. Jefferson’s dilemma—recently on view, in a series of expressionist heads, at Turn Gallery, now in its new permanent space on 1st Street between First and Second Avenues—is representative of many younger artists who feel they must keep their distance from anything suave or sophisticated. And yet it becomes clear to a long term observer that the rawness is a rhetoric in its own right, albeit one that is more or less socially correct for painters under forty.
It is important to note that Jefferson’s art exists in a space that is neither deliberately brutal nor deliberately elegant. It occurs somewhere in between, at a time when even Art Brut has a history of recognition as work that skirts the boundaries of the acceptable. In some ways, the artist’s works recall the West Coast street artist Barry McGee, whose Mayan heads and decorative motifs are really about an eclecticism that Jefferson also belongs to. The raw aesthetic of the streets now has a history and a heritage. As a result, Jefferson makes perfect sense as someone on the cusp of genuine Outsider Art and the tradition of naïve work that has been popular for at least a generation. If it is true, as some have recently commented, that fine art has been in a slump for the last sixty years, then the amalgamation of high (or accepted) and low (or refused) culture may well be a highly useful path for young artists like Jefferson who want the integrity of true grit but also need to install themselves within the context of the mainstream art world.
Blondie (2015) stands out with its blue face and carefully combed blonde coiffure of hair. Undercurrents of red and some blue are found in the hair, which seems to take on a life of its own. The face is rudimentary, with an indentation beneath the forehead that supports the socket of the eye; the protuberance of the nose, which is actually not much more than a gentle bump, slides downward to accommodate a prominent chin. The overall gestalt of the image could not be simpler, but there is a weight and power to the delineation of the sitter’s profile.
Blondie shows us how the imagination meets reality in a rough, uncomplicated surrealist countenance, one that emphasizes feeling over precision of form. While the craft of the painting cannot be said to overwhelm the audience, the brushwork delineating the blonde hair is nicely done and contrasts well with the monumental blue skull. Big Red (2015) consists of a red shock of hair with blue highlights, and an extremely primitive face—dots for eyes, a button nose, and a smear for a mouth accentuate the down-home feeling of the picture. The simplicity of the image is finally a confrontation; it throws sophistication to the wind.
Jefferson’s Self-Portrait (2015) is a bit more complicated than most of the other heads. Black hair covers the top and right side of his cranium. The button eyes come into play again, and a small dark nose swims in the middle of a broad brown brushstroke. Instead of a mouth, there is a dark stripe sweeping across the width of the lower face, beneath which is the patterned collar of a shirt. The self-sufficiency of the image is matched by its deliberately naïve style, which is the source of its strength but at the same time presents problems as a painting. There is nothing wrong with simplicity, but this work and most of the other pictures depend upon a primitivism that can appear a bit mannered—this is the cost of a deliberate roughness seen in an art world that is urbane to the point of being jaded. Still, what finally comes through is the integrity of Jefferson’s creative mind, which never sacrifices the primal intensity of the image for something too sophisticated to last. In this show, we see an artist struggle with the implications of a genre that has moved beyond the boundaries of its social context with highly successful results.
JONATHAN GOODMAN is a teacher and author specializing in Asian art, about which he has been writing for more than twenty years.