“I had a Eureka moment,” Jimi Jones told an audience at a lecture last week for his current exhibition Pixels at downtown’s Weston Art Gallery. The longtime active member of the Cincinnati arts scene had discovered he could incorporate pixels — the building blocks of computer graphics — into his paintings. Results of that breakthrough can be seen in the vibrant works in the exhibition.
Jones’ paintings defy you to ignore them. They are big, they are stridently colorful, they speak to you immediately and they need your close attention. A founding member of the Neo-Ancestralists, an African-American artist collaborative, Jones draws on that culture and a host of others. Now retired from Procter & Gamble after 27 years as art director and manager of displays, Jones grew up in Cincinnati’s West End. His design experience imposes a visual order on the multitude of ideas crowding his paintings.
He reaches back to the Old Masters even as he infuses his work with references to contemporary technology. Fragmentation of images into pixels provides artists with a fresh jumping-off point, one Jones adopts with both enthusiasm and discretion.
“Martyrs” is the first work you see. The huge canvas (68 by 144 inches) has a lot going on, its diverse elements linked by pixel-like squares and rectangles of flat, bright colors. The centerpiece shows the descent from the cross, with the martyred Christ delineated in white.
Here, as elsewhere, Jones uses white to snap a primary figure into the viewer’s immediate consciousness. Abraham Lincoln, seated to the left and above the central scene, is also white and so is still another assassinated president, John F. Kennedy, at lower left.
This use of white hasn’t anything to do with skin color; it’s the artist’s way of directing your attention. He also uses white in a hard-to-decipher passage that is in fact a shroud for Martin Luther King Jr., who is at far right, himself, in a highly pixilated portrait. Above him sketchy renditions of photographs from the scene of his assassination give a hurried sense of horror and disbelief. Despite these many subjects, a large proportion of the canvas is simply painted in a burnt umber color, the dark brown paint thin enough for brushstrokes to be apparent. Jones’ method here and elsewhere is to use many layers of oil paint with acrylic finishing touches.
Eight paintings make up the exhibition, including a small — for this artist! — study (24 by 36 inches) for “Hoods in the Hood.” Jones has said the artist Hans Hofmann is the person he would most like to have studied with, and Hofmann’s famous push-pull use of color and paint application is most apparent in the bars of color that virtually vibrate on the canvas of “Hoods in the Hood.”
Nearby in “In the Eye of...,” Marilyn Monroe receives the white treatment; other women whose beauty is their passport also appear. Tellingly, none of those people appear to be happy except one older woman, content and confident without beauty, who smiles with real pleasure.
Other works comment on shared characteristics of different cultures, on blatant hypocrisy in the conduct of war, on pop-culture figures. Perhaps the culmination of these thoughts appears in “In the Name of. . ,” where Jones treats good and evil as a philosophical push-pull, a metamorphosis of Hofmann’s theory of painting. Christ is backed by a gold leaf cross that slants across the composition. There’s a rabbi, an altered Confederate flag (one of its stars has been pulled up to become the North Star, Jones says), a devil you can see if you look hard enough and much else against the background of wonderful, life-affirming shades of rose.
PIXELS: PAINTINGS BY JIMI JONES is on view at the Weston Art Gallery through Jan 10. Get gallery details and find nearby bars and restaurants here.