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Heroic Proportions

Painter Jeffrey Kent Comes Out of the Sub-Basement For a New Show

Sam Holden

By Bret McCabe | Posted 1/16/2008

Jeffrey Kent conducts a gallery talk with Lamarr Darnell Shields

At the Urban Leadership Institute Jan. 23 at the Creative Alliance

Jeffrey Kent doesn't know where his truck is. He stands inside the Creative Alliance at the Patterson four days before his first solo show in Baltimore staring at his PDA as if trying to will it to find a signal. Many of his large-scale, hotly colored paintings lean against the gallery's crisp white walls awaiting Kent and Creative Alliance artistic director Jed Dodds to plot their elevations. The truck in question was supposed to pick up the last of Kent's paintings, some of his most recent work, and deliver them to the space. And Kent has no idea where it is.

If they can't hang the show today, they'll have to wait until later in the evening the following day, giving them only about 72 hours to hang an entire show, light it, label it, and then make sure they're OK with it. That may not sound like much to do, but every artist, gallery assistant, and art handler reading this right now just had a minor stroke. Doesn't matter if a show includes only five square items to hang on one wall or an array of mixed-media work to spread through multiple environments, installing a show can involve more drama, histrionics, emergencies, potential tragedies, and, well, screaming than getting a pregnant woman to the hospital and the baby safely and successfully delivered.

And while everybody has a story about so-and-so driving work to a gallery mere hours before an opening and hanging it still wet, Kent just sort of shrugs and calmly irons out a tentative plan with Dodds before strolling over to a red sofa to sit a spell for an interview. It's not that he's overconfident or doesn't care; you just get the sense that the 44-year-old Kent, local artist and founder of the Sub-Basement Artist Studios, has encountered and dealt with much more pressing and imminent crises before-and that he realized, long ago, that freaking out isn't going to make anything happen faster or get anything done.

It's with this same understated composure that he discusses his own work in The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, on view at the Creative Alliance through Feb. 16. Kent's vocabulary straddles the raw and the refined, the flat and the textural, and stylistically isn't easy to pin down by the usual rhetoric. An available but misleading comparison would be Jean-Michel Basquiat, if only because any time a black artist combines graffiti or pop-culture imagery with textual tags in a fashion that, for right and wrong reasons, gets labeled street art, he gets compared to Basquiat. But where Basquiat's works of outsider insouciance offer constantly elusive meanings, Kent's paintings have much more sober concerns. His work is an exploration of masculinity-in particular young, African-American masculinity-and all the potential land mines that such a volatile subject contains.

It's a subject that he's arrived at over the entirety of his painting career. "I started doing abstracts and [then] I started including words," Kent says. Tall and model handsome, Kent in conversation is alarmingly disarming. He has a deep voice ideally suited for voice-over work or military barking, but he wields it as if it were a fragile reed. He's direct and candid without coming across as artificially sincere.

"And the reason I started including words is because of the way I was raised-always doing word puzzles [and] word games. Words are very interesting and a very powerful way to communicate. And to mix painting with words-I thought it'd be more engaging to have the work with words. And then I started writing backward by mistake because I'm dyslexic.

"So from writing so much on the canvases and then making mistakes, I realized that it'd be even cooler to write it all backward. You know, it gives me the opportunity to have `normal' reading people have the challenges that dyslexic people have when trying to read normal writing. Trying to read one of my paintings is what a dyslexic person feels trying to read The Hat in the Cat."

He then laughs quickly and corrects himself. "The Cat in the Hat," he says. "I get a lot of things backward. That just goes with a lot of the things I do." Then he offers a conspiratorial smile. "All this revolves around this philosophy that I have about negatives and positives," he says. And he offers his own experience as an explanation.

Kent's journey to The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly started before he started painting in 1991. It started before he accidentally opened his first art gallery in downtown Baltimore later that year. It happened before he decided to move from fashion design into the "instant gratification" of painting. It happened before he relocated to Chicago for four years in 1994, before he had to leave his downtown live/work space and stumbled into starting the Sub-Basement Artist Studios in 2004.

It started back in grade school-or wherever it is when you first start to hear simplistic nursery rhymes. "What I'm thinking about is censorship-American censorship," Kent says. "And how it's so easy for us to turn on a regular TV channel-it doesn't necessarily have to be cable-and you can see someone hold a handgun and point it at a human being. But in that same exact show, if they say `fuck' or `shit,' it gets bleeped. And then I think about sticks and stones in childhood. Guns and bullets are a lot worse than sticks and stones, but words will never hurt you."

Kent's most recent paintings borrow from these casual, familiar representations of violence in the televisual world. He combines scenes from movies with his own compositions and dialogue boxes, creating a nexus from which to examine what can be shown and what can't.

"Cowboy movies, gangster movies, we have all these movies that we all grew up on, and we wonder why we have all this violence and handgun violence and why it's so easy for kids to kill each other-it's entertainment," he says. "Video games-I've played 'em, don't misunderstand. I'm not saying there's anything wrong with it, per se, but what I am saying is why ask why we're having all these issues when we're showing these things. We make a big deal about profanity and human beauty-we won't show nudity, but we will show death and violence."

This rift between what we do and what we represent isn't a fresh observation of American culture-it was already going strong by the time Frederic Remington picked up a brush-but Kent's take on it is ingenious. He has an obvious joy of color and line that makes his compositions instantly engaging, which forces you to consider what you're looking at. The backward writing has a similar effect: transposing something that has the patina of familiarity reflected through a framing device and style that makes you reconsider what you're taking in.

The works don't always succeed, but their insistence never reeks of effort. Kent has a clear idea in his head he's trying to sift out, and he's going to do it in his own way. It's just how he's always lived his life.

"People always say I'm crazy," he says. "When I took the space at the A.S. Abell Building [329-335 W. Baltimore St.], it was really wild. It was an 8,000-square-foot space for $1,000 a month-as is. It didn't have a toilet, the windows were all messed up. The elevator never worked. But you can do a lot of things with that much space."

He's always gravitated toward such raw opportunity. In 1991 he started the HandOriginals gallery in the old Nichols shoe store on Charles Street and hanging his own large paintings in the windows at the vacated Reamer's menswear store at Charles Centre. It lasted two years, and through that venture he made contacts with people in local development. He built a live/work space in the Copycat Building soon afterward, which he maintained while he lived in Chicago. He moved to the Abell Building in 2000. A water main break in 2003 condemned the building, forcing everybody to find a new place to live immediately.

"The night that they condemned the building all the tenants gathered up in my studio," Kent says. "People were crying, didn't know what to do with their pets. And all I kept telling everybody was something bigger and better is going to come out of this so don't get all distraught and distressed."

For Kent that was the Sub-Basement, a dark, unrenovated maze of holes and disrepair when Kent first saw it and now one of the most vital-and largest-exhibition spaces in town. Through the gallery Kent has been able to show-and sometimes move-the work of local artists such as the late Larry Scott. It's not easy, but he's found a way to bring his merchandising skills from when he worked retail into the gallery world.

"Selling can be extremely difficult," he says. "We get a lot of people from D.C., lately sold some pieces to Manhattan. Recently I had my first internet sale. So it's been slow to steady, but we have had great people here and great support."

And then his phone rings and he smiles, even though when he looks at the number he realizes it's not his delivery man. "I'm very, very happy," Kent says. "I have had a very interesting life and I've been very fortunate to be able to look at my life like it's a feature and learn from it. And everybody's not that fortunate, to be able to learn from mistakes and move forward."

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