Oil paint and matches on panel board mounted in wood artist’s frame (all images courtesy of the artist and Monique Meloche Gallery Chicago and by Useful Art Services, unless otherwise noted)

CHICAGO — The major part of what I aim do as an art critic is corral attention, asking readers to focus on that which I think deserves greater scrutiny. Sometimes I write about failures — because they can be instructive. Most often I write about work that has rewarded my deliberate consideration with some insight into our culture, or some surprise, or something so lovely, I have to find a place in myself to make room for it. I imagine that if the work has rewarded me in these ways, then it might reward the reader too. This ambition dovetails with another ambition that critics and writers often have but seldom acknowledge: advocacy. We sometimes want to see certain artists succeed because we want more of their presence in the world, more work from them, more insight, more dreaming in color.

When I encountered Jeff Sonhouse’s portraits a couple years ago, at Tilton Gallery in New York, at the exhibition opening I looked around open-mouthed at the work thinking, “Who is this person?” The other artists there told me they knew him, and they had been familiar with his work for many years. They all conveyed a version of, “Oh yeah, Jeff is the real deal — has been for a while.” I then wandered about that gallery making a mental inventory of the elements of his paintings that I wanted to take with me and mull over.

Installation view of Entrapment 2018 at Monique Meloche Gallery Chicago

I similarly wandered about the Monique Meloche gallery a few weeks ago to see his new exhibition Entrapment, pinging from piece to piece, marveling at the use of disparate materials: oil paint, matches, copper and steel wool, watercolor, paper. I’ve written before about how Sonhouse has used built-up acrylic paint to mirror the sheen and dense curlicues of a real, live afro. Here he does that, but primarily uses matches raked at an angle and formed into a globe around the characters’ heads. Only after the painting is complete, Sonhouse lights the matches and controls the ensuing blaze to render hair that is starless black, with a sweep of soot flowing heavenward. The figures in the paintings (all 2018), including “Selfie,” “Repeat Offender,” and “Return to Sender” all feature that wash of vertical ash, and thus look like they are moving, that they have either just landed or might soon vanish upwards.

Installation view of Entrapment 2018 at Monique Meloche Gallery Chicago

Viewers can lose themselves in the other deft manipulation of materials in his work. For example there is the copper wool that becomes a thicket of red hair in “Conductor” (2018), with wire bent into large hoops and pyramids hanging from the figure’s ears to remind me of the “door knocker” earrings worn by women around the way where I grew up in the Bronx. In Sonhouse’s “Resuscitation of a Golden Era Blues” (2018) the two boards replete with burnt matches radiate out from the figure’s head-like wings — thus although that head is impaled on a spike, it seems like it’s flying, perhaps through his own historical narrative, a trail of smoke behind him.

Jeff Sonhouse, “Resuscitation of a Golden Era Blues” (2018)

There’s beauty and material innovation, yes, and here’s the insight: he makes his figures, who are all figures of color mythic without leaning on typical mythology. They are not kings and queens of some bygone Egyptian dynasty, corporate executives, preachers, or athletes. Instead they are inscrutable. They might be harlequins, jesters, tricksters, oracles, seers, or shamans. Their faces are most often hidden behind masks; their expressions are enigmatically opaque; they are rendered in magpie color schemes; they breathe in buckshot, and they gaze elsewhere forever. These characters escape the identity trap of our current politics that ends in Blackness being a set of commodifiable types as easily used to sell outraged Fox News polemics, as to sell Bossip videos. The figures in Jeff Sonhouse’s paintings show us what African Americans, Caribbean people, and others from the African diaspora might be when our imagination is not so yoked to the oppression-degradation/heroic transcendence dialectic.

Sonhouse’s imaginative use of his figures makes me think of the poem “The Juggler” by Richard Wilbur because the painter handles identity not as a precious object to be venerated or protected, but as an object for play. Wilbur writes:

A ball will bounce; but less and less. It’s not

A light-hearted thing, resents its own resilience

It takes a sky-blue juggler with five red balls

To shake our gravity up. Whee, in the air

The balls roll around, wheel on his wheeling hands,

Learning the ways of lightness, alter to spheres

Jeff Sonhouse “Conductor” (2018) (photo by the author)

The poem further describes how this juggler keeps these balls aloft, contradicting gravity, and keeps his audience on the edge of their seats as he makes that which should not be true, exist for them — for a little while. Sonhouse’s version of Blackness is this feat of denial of what can at times seem like universal axioms: black people are defined by being hounded, victimized, and plagued. His figures come to race from an oblique angle, not as demons (as Darren Wilson,  who shot and killed Michael Brown, described Brown) nor angels, but something else. Their teeth are gold; their hair is steel; their souls are fireproof. They provide a vision beyond the old identity models of Blackness as the progenitor of the world’s offspring, as more real than other people, as an anchor for authenticity. In these portraits being Black constitutes a set of keys that let us onto an entirely different playground.

Another thing I sometimes do as an art critic is celebrate an artist’s work. I do that here with the paintings of Jeff Sonhouse. His work is not just visually stunning and lyrical, but revelatory. As the poet Wilbur again says: “For him we batter our hands / Who has won for once over the world’s weight.”

Entrapment continues at Monique Meloche gallery (451 N Paulina Street, Chicago) through August 18.

 Editor’s note: The author’s travel expenses to Chicago and his accommodations and meals there were provided by Monique Meloche gallery.

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Seph Rodney

Seph Rodney, PhD, is a senior critic for Hyperallergic and has written for the New York Times, CNN, MSNBC, and other publications. He is featured on the podcast The...

6 replies on “Blackness, Portraiture, and the Weight of Identity”

  1. “Sonhouse’s version of Blackness is this feat of denial of what can at
    times seem like universal axioms: black people are defined by being
    hounded, victimized, and plagued.”

    I love that sentence as it sums up in a nutshell, the issues i have with the lens through which art done by African Americans is viewed and assessed in the current “art world”. Personally, I don’t wake every morning thinking about my “blackness” in the context of “whiteness” or even thinking about my being black at all, I just want my damn coffee like anybody else. It’s only when I go out in the world that I’m sometimes reminded that some people take issue with who I am. But even then, I don’t want all of my life’s work to be defined by their pathologies or the constant explaining about who I am…sometimes we just simply want to bask in the humanity we wake up in each morning and just “be”? Unfortunately, the art world has gotten used to squeezing all figurative art done by any artist who is not a white, male and straight, into the limited boxes of identity and victimization and if it can’t be easily stuffed there, it’s pretty much ignored.

    1. Dear Renee,

      I had a friend of mine say the other day that Toni Morrison had written some characters in her novel Paradise, and refused to designate their race because she thought that their racial identity was the least interesting thing about them. I want to say that about several people I know: that their racial identity is the least interesting thing about them.

  2. “Editor’s note: The author’s travel expenses to Chicago and his accommodations and meals there were provided by Monique Meloche gallery.”
    I don’t have a problem with that if the gallery wants to publish it in a catalogue, and it’s a great, informative essay and I want to be really clear it’s good writing, but please to do not insult everyone’s intelligence by opening with a paragraph about your critical process and how you “write about work that has rewarded your deliberate consideration with some insight into our culture” when you have compromised yourself on the gallery’s dime.

    1. No, not really. It’s up front and clear. Other publications don’t reveal stuff like that but we have from day one, and happy to do that, so that people can make their own decisions. But good try trying to dismiss an opinion simply because it is transparent.

      1. Except that I didn’t dismiss it (good try yourself), and I guess that would depend on the critical reputations and editorial ethics of the “other publications” you were using as a point of comparison.

    2. Dear Mr. Wood,

      I am unclear on how I am compromising myself by having the gallery provide for my travel and expenses. As Hrag Vartanian, our editor-in-chief states in the comment above, I am being transparent. Should you doubt my veracity or willingness to think carefully about the work I see, look at my review of the Addison Gallery show, and my review of the 20/20 show at the Carnegie Museum of Art, both written under similar circumstances. You’ll see a range of responses from me.

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