A Life in Art   

Jesse Wright’s more than 60 years of work on display at Jacksonville University

By Katie Garwood

From bright and colorful abstract works to photography of the rivers of Northern Michigan, there’s a little bit of everything in Jesse “Jay” Wright’s “A Retrospective Exhibition” at Jacksonville University’s (JU) Alexander Brest Gallery until July 20th.

The stunning exhibition, free and open to the public, is a testament to a life full of artistic creativity, with works spanning more than 60 years of the 82-year-old artist’s life. The more than 50 works contrast hard-edge, cerebral, and geomatic images with sweeping gestural paintings. 

 The exhibition marks Wright’s return to JU, where he served as the dean of fine arts starting in 1996 and later as the associate vice president of academic affairs. It was during this time that Wright resumed his career as an artist while sharing studio space with Terry Nettler, a former JU fine arts dean, in Springfield.

The earliest image in the exhibition is a pastel done by Wright as a fifth grader. He was tutored by his artist mother and showed an interest in drawing from a young age. The work on display also includes pieces completed in the past year, demonstrating the longevity of Wright’s career as an artist. 

Wright’s drawings include a small etching of Willem de Kooning’s model dating from the mid-60s where Wright’s stylus on the plate produces the first examples of his trademark strokes that would continue to reappear throughout his career.

While Wright strayed away from drawing for some time following those works, he returned to his drawing roots during the COVID-19 shutdown. Some of Wright’s most recent works in the exhibit include large-scale, black-and-white drawings and paintings.

In contrast to the freedom of his drawings, Wright says he’s also a practitioner of a more cerebral mode of abstract painting. He took inspiration from the masters—such as Josef Albers, known for his color square paintings, and Piet Mondrian, a pioneer of abstract art—and produced a remarkable array of abstract masterworks. The discipline of Wright’s four-color works, such as “Four Yellows,” contrasts the exuberance of his paintings that derive from woven sketches. 

Four of his three-color paintings from 2022 explore “the glory of pure color,” Wright says. Though these works all appear to use the same grid, the mood of each painting varies from canvas to canvas. A spectacular 12-color image, “Lovely Lovely,” jumps from one color grid to another as one’s eyes move through the front of the painting.

Wright’s recent collaboration with Ponte Vedra quiltmaker Jacque Huber is also on display in the gallery. Together with another quilter in Chicago, the three produced images that only can be done with the medium of fabric. One wall hanging in the exhibit is a reproduction of a piece that served as a turning point in Wright’s career. When his mentor at Notre Dame saw the original three-color, 12-by-eight-foot painting, he urged Wright to go to study in New York. Wright took his advice and moved to New York to study with Robert Motherwell, an abstract expressionist.

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Author: Arbus

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