Wayson R. Jones’ exhibit In Shades documents the most recent chapters in his study of value. Lining the intimately narrow stretch of Portico Gallery, curator John Paradiso concentrates on the artist’s continuing focus on dark and light, by installing figurative work on the inside wall and clusters of Jones’ smaller nonrepresentational works on the opposite, window side wall.
Whether it is the way our vision works or the manner in which culture has shaped us, there is a vitality to black and white that allows for observation of compositional study that can be lost in the distractions that color can impose, local color in particular. Depending upon the context, limiting the palette can allow an artist to deal more directly with what lies within the picture, under the subject. Jones says that, “As someone who grew up on the 50s and 60s TV and movies, the stark contrast and tension between black and blinding white and the myriad gradations between, are a lasting source of inspiration in my work.”
The word abstract derives from the Latin “to draw from,” so art of this kind should still carry something of this world, whether it is depicting objects directly or pulling something from within the artist. To be at its best, it must be more than playing with shapes. It must tap into something personal that cannot be communicated in any other way so that the art needs to subjectively describe the world or the artist’s feelings about the world. Whether it’s Jones’ luscious cake-icing textures that record the slightest movement of his hands or the layers of reworked surfaces that testify to the earnestness of his practice, we get a glimpse of the artist’s innermost thoughts and feelings through his mark-making.
The most eloquent works in the show come from Jones’ Black Presidents series. These works describe the artist’s compassion for and disappointment with the Obama presidency. These images are not immediately recognizable, as they are heavily obscured, two-dimensional busts, made of layers of black and white streaks, followed by scraping and revision of the surface. These frenzied interchanges of brushwork and splatter occupy the space where one would expect a head. These excited tangles are often bounded by straight lines, which connote features, but often do compositional duty by separating the figure from the white background. It is these unexpected qualities, along with the constant reshaping of these images, that convey the complexity of Jones’ work.
Jones says these images are “equal measure of empathy and critique,” but he has not given us the specifics; instead, we get an outline of his dissatisfaction. Jones continues, “I was really impacted by the racist backlash against Obama’s election to office, and struck by the vehemence of what had been unleashed (and which led to the Trump ascendancy). Pieces like Death Threat are a direct response to this. Too Big to Fail and Changing Mind comment on his bailout of the banks after the mortgage meltdown, and what I felt was a belated acknowledgment of LGBT rights.” While there is no one to one ratio of symbol to concept, the uneasiness is there for the viewer to infer.
Accompanying the figurative work are numerous, smaller, more formal works, such as Mountain. Made with extra-coarse pumice gel, like many of Jones’ panels, these are essentially heavily textured reliefs. While many of these paintings stand alone, some, like Mountain, are displayed as a group. These collections of his panels encourage direct comparison among them that can lay bare some subtle differences that might go unnoticed otherwise.
Mountain is exhibited as a part of a set with six other panels. This also includes: Reticulated, Snowfall, Tar Pit, Weather, and Tundra. All these titles reflect nature and present a topological view. Jones says, “For pieces like Mountain and Tundra, I wanted them to look like I went out and carved them from boulders, like an abstract trompe l’oeil.”
Another set of formal works like these stands out. On one of the longest expanses of the outer wall hang five diamond-shaped panels. These works show an array of surface treatments. Most evoke an aerial view, such as Capstone Dune and Drifting Sands. These topologies are not limited to the earth. Black Moon, with its pockmarked craters, evokes a lunar landscape.
Some of these relief-like works elicit metaphors, like The Death of Slaves that recalls not only agricultural fields, but also the forgotten people who tended them. Jones has also indicated that all the works in this group are intentionally hung to mimic Egyptian pyramids with a reflective pool in front of them. Of the pyramids he has said, “I’m interested in them as symbols of antiquity and technological accomplishments of African people. As structures, they carry so much history of an ancient way of life and a culture that is foundational to much that came afterward. I’m also interested in them from a formal perspective.”
This affection for the past adds another layer of interest to Jones’ work. He is imitating the “created” as well as the “natural,” channeling the history of these forms while at the same time funneling them through his own subjectivity in order to produce something universally understood. While he does not demand that we see things singularly, like all of us, he has his own opinions.
There is something fundamental about black and white media, making it especially appropriate for describing foundational truths. These truths may exist much like the famous parable of the elephant and the blind men, in which, several blind men are introduced to an elephant for the first time. One feels the tail and says it is like a snake, another feels the ear and says it is like a fan, and the last feels the leg and says it is like a tree. Life, like the elephant, has many facets and entertains different perspectives from where we stand. Unfortunately, all these perspectives cannot guarantee we are seeing the whole picture or that the whole picture represents all its parts. All we can do is carry on, in a sense, like Jones; erasing, painting over, and redefining understandings in our attempts to get it right. In this way, Jones is relating his experience through indefinite symbols which, in turn, give us a jumping off point for our own meditation on the world we live in.
Wayson R. Jones In Shades is on view at Portico Gallery through November 13. The gallery is located at 3807 Rhode Island Avenue, Brentwood, MD 20722. Gallery Hours are Saturdays 12-3pm and by appointment. Visit www.portico3807.com for more information or to schedule an appointment.
 Artist quote taken from exhibition postcard.
 The quotes which follow are from a series of questions emailed to the artist.