Ben Jones, 78, has been making art for more than a half-century. His exhibition credits, overseas and around the U.S., date to the early 1970s -- and some two decades before Amani Lewis, who’s 24, was even born. But the artists’ work is united in tandem exhibitions opening Friday at the August Wilson African American Cultural Center.
Jones, who lives in Jersey City, N.J., is a painter working primarily with acrylics and employing abstraction with an Afrocentric sensibility. Lewis, based in Baltimore, is a mixed-media artist known for bold portrayals of everyday black life. Kilolo Luckett, the Center’s curator of visual arts, says the two are linked by themes and sensibilities. (Lewis uses the pronouns “them” and “their.”)
“You have this older generation with this younger generation, and ... there is this connection, these foundations that Ben has really built, that Amani then uses that as a springboard for the foundation of their work,” said Luckett.
Jones’ exhibit, mostly in the Center’s first-floor gallery, is titled “Resurgence – Rise Again: The Art of Ben Jones” and features works made since 2013. He incorporates found imagery, from nature photos and news photos to the texts of poems, to emphasize themes like environmentalism and social justice.
The works are often large-scale: “Envision, Empower, Embrace” (2018), hung on the Downtown Center’s second floor and visible through its windows from Liberty Avenue, is the largest, at 13 feet high and 30 feet long. All the works are densely layered with imagery. (Look closely at the big fish in "Envision, Empower, Embrace" and see the ghostly image of singer and activist Nina Simone.) Pieces like “Thank You BP Wallpaper” – which berates the oil giant for the Deep Horizon oil spill – use repeated patterns to suggest consciousness-raising wall coverings.
“I like my work to make you have to look different things over, not just to do a one-shot deal,” he said. “Layering, layering, layering is like another way of getting deeper and deeper, and deeper, not just passing by and glancing.”
Jones' 2016 installation “Trayvon Martin” incorporates is a grid of hundreds of images of the slain Florida teenager, each modified by Jones to reflect how Martin was seen by different people. “For some people Trayvon Martin was an angel. For some people Trayvon Martin was a threat,” he says. An audio collage features sounds like gunshots, sirens, and haunting clips from Marvin Gaye’s song “What’s Going On?” On the floor, a pile of toy revolvers sits opposite a heap of artificial flowers.
Near a wall-sized photograph of Jones at work in his studio sits a glass case containing Jones’ art tools and materials and books that have inspired him. These include works on socialism and on Cuba, which he considers a second home.
He intends his works to spark political action.
“The title of the show is saying ‘resurgence,’ because we need to make sure that the young people are paying attention, and that the young people are organizing themselves to vote in this next election,” he said this week, during a press preview of the show. “We have to rise again. Because there are good times and there are bad times, [and] we always get back to the good times, but we got to organize for that.”
“Amani Lewis: Subjective Nature” is hung in the Center’s second-floor gallery. It’s Lewis’ first solo show, said Luckett. Most of the 21 works are expressionistic mixed-media portraits of people from Lewis’ neighborhood.
“So these are real people, people that they documented, photographed, but also sourced ... from the internet, and so kind of collapsed them all together in this body of work,” said Luckett. She says Lewis photographs people, manipulates and layers the images digitally, prints them on canvas, then adds paint and other materials, including textiles and glitter. Their palette is assertive – lots of reds and rusty oranges – and the layering echoes Jones’ work downstairs. (Another similarity in their practices: Jones also employs digital text or digital compositing in most of his works in this show.)
Joining Lewis’ show is a sampling of work from Clr’d, the collective Lewis founded with Murjoni Meriweather. Especially striking are several ceramic sculptures by Meriweather, expressionistic busts of men and women with elongated necks, most painted black and accented with jewelry and gold leaf.
“Resurgence – Rise Again: The Art of Ben Jones” and “Amani Lewis: Subjective Nature” open Friday with a reception. Admittance to the Center is free. More information is here.
WESA receives funding from the August Wilson Center.