Josh Jefferson’s 2016 show at Steven Zevitas Gallery featured snazzy paintings of head forms filled with bold, sensual brushstrokes. Heads again predominate in “Not for Nothing,” his new show at Zevitas, but now he arranges cut pieces of painted canvas within the busts in layered, patterned constructions.
In “Robo Dog,” Jefferson crafts each feature from several bits of canvas, colored but sooty, to create a worn visage that holds several faces within it. This is no portrait; it’s an exercise in abstraction within the bounds of portraiture — masklike and daunting, but not human, with a vital, starry, splattered-paint sky behind it.
The other heads are nearly monochrome — scrubbed, stony black or burnished, leathery red. Inside each bust he arrays intricate, built up geometries of concentric circles and squares that rise gently off the canvas.
“Big Headed” has a pattern of nested black circles, shadowy and cool compared to the high-keyed teal of its background. Each nest of circles — part googly-eye, part architecture — swirls toward the painting’s center, pulling us onto a merry-go-round that spirals deeper inward.
Jefferson’s heads reference the human form, but reach for something more expansive. It’s no surprise when the artist pays tribute to the experimental, mystical abstract painter Jack Whitten, who died last year. Whitten’s “Black Monoliths” series of faceless busts celebrating African-American leaders is in the DNA of Jefferson’s paintings.
Whitten’s heads elevated his subjects to a godly realm. Jefferson does the same for the late painter in “Black Monolith for Jack Whitten,” with a head like an open clamshell, diamond-shaped drop earrings, and concentric squares at the neck. Where “Big Headed” is busily dizzying, this more simply constructed piece is at once receptive and full-throated, a clear and open channel between inner and outer — and perhaps between God and person.
The abstracted head inevitably sparks notions of the divine. I don’t know if Jefferson’s intent is mystical. My guess is his chief concern is prodding at painting’s boundaries, and his own as an artist. That kind of work might lead anyone to wrestle with the gods.
JOSH JEFFERSON: NOT FOR NOTHING
At Steven Zevitas Gallery, 450 Harrison Ave., through Feb. 23. 617-778-5265, www.stevenzevitasgallery.com.Cate McQuaid can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @cmcq.