June Edmonds created a painting nine years ago that, while not marking an immediate turning point in the 40-year development of her work, nevertheless signaled a direction that has recently come into full bloom.
“Gee’s Jungle” (2012) is featured in the aptly titled June Edmonds: Full Spectrum poll at Loyola Marymount University’s Laband Art Gallery in Westchester. The painting consists of about a dozen mandala-like geometric slices of saturated colors – the entire spectrum – reproduced in short, thick strokes of dense color, each applied with controlled concentration.
The LA-based artist mixed pure pigment with gel. Each short stroke, one at a time, ends in an even thicker ridge of accumulated paint. Surface structure catches the light. The shapes slide flat on the surface of the painting, but a flat optical space opens up.
The color plane fades. Look closely, and wherever one pane crosses another, the palette will change.
Sky-blue lines shift into a sapphire segment or alternating orange tones suddenly alternate with emerald green. It’s like the color in one slice pulls hues from the overlapping slice before changing again where it overlaps on another.
The individual integrity of the signs and shapes is preserved while they are woven into the larger whole. The ritual repetition of the strokes creates a meditative quality that transforms the lively color into joy.
The title “Gee’s Jungle” suggests an inspiration: It refers to the great quilts from Gee’s Bend, the small town on a bend in the Alabama River where a rural community of black women has gained an international reputation for making amazing textile works and beauty .
Exhibition “June Edmonds: Full Spectrum” at Laband Art Gallery, Loyola Marymount University
It could also be reminiscent of a legacy from West Africa, home to countless brilliant textile traditions. Edmonds’ title weaves and superimposes these associations like her painted discs weave and superimpose color.
The welcome Laband poll, organized by gallery director Karen Rapp, begins with undergraduate work from the 1980s when Edmonds, now 62, was enrolled as a student at San Diego State University. Twenty paintings are connected with 18 works on paper, plus some self-portraits in pencil and various ephemera.
Billed as a retrospective, it’s more of a thumbnail, given its modest size. But the often oppressive selection gives a good feeling for the artist’s development over four decades.
Early representational paintings show the artist at work in her studio, young women playing a board game on the living room table or friends hanging out in her kitchen. Think of David Hockney’s flat, simplified forms, while some still lifes show an interest in Henri Matisse, in which plants on tabletops merge into organic wallpaper patterns.
A still life shows birds of paradise, as well as bananas and oranges stacked on a table, almost in silhouette. Colorful chevrons in the tablecloth are a virtual amalgamation of a crosshatch painting by Jasper Johns with the cast paint of Morris Louis’ stripes. The tablecloth demonstrates an abstract taste for color and pattern in figurative garb.
An awkwardness in Edmond’s early color handling sometimes interferes with her developing dexterity in composing spaces. Most interesting is the inclusion of lively hanging textiles, patterned carpets and clothing in the scenes of everyday life – abstract images that eventually come to the fore and leave most of the figurative representations behind.
June Edmonds, “League of Six Nations Flag”, 2019, acrylic on canvas, laminated on linen
(Luis De Jesus Los Angeles / Laband Art Gallery)
Edmonds’ trajectory, to put it a little bit simpler, played against existing expectations. Given the current success of painters as stylistically and conceptually diverse as Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, Henry Taylor, Kehinde Wiley, and especially Kerry James Marshall, it is common practice to use figurative works that transform images of black life into a larger artistic legacy in which relatively few Established artists have now met.
To Edmonds, the early figurative work feels determined but conventional, while the more recent abstract paintings take off like a rocket. In a recent online lecture for the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego and UC San Diego, she noted a recurring tension within black art since the Harlem renaissance of the 1920s and 1930s: the clear need for black depictions of black life in a white dominated society is pushing against the freedom to explore other artistic avenues.
Edmonds made a dozen Venetian glass mosaics for a public art commission at Long Beach’s Metro Pacific Station in 1995. They are scenes of different people in the neighborhood, which are built up from a medium that combines color fragments into an image. But in Gee’s Jungle, the more obvious artistic influence – in addition to these amazing quilts – is the work of Washington Color School painter Alma Thomas (1891-1978).
Thomas’ luminous, abstract atmospheres of pure color were composed of short traces of color arranged in veils, mandalas, vertical cascades and organic dispersions, sometimes reminiscent of lush flower beds. They are the syntax for Edmonds’ denser, more structured compositions.
In Laband’s work, a group of flat, two-meter-high paintings with the American flag divides the difference between abstraction and representation. The field for the stars and stripes is reproduced in short, firm lines of rich color, painted characters whose clear horizontality counteracts the upright verticality of the picture. Edmonds does not wave flags; instead, she visually weaves the warp and weft of a painted fabric for viewing.
A flag consists entirely of purples, browns, deep greens and blacks that are rendered almost like strands of genetic code. Everywhere the flags emphasize brown as an integral part of the national banner and exude a somber gravity. They encourage engaging meditation that is appropriate to the subject – and the demands of our current national mood.
June Edmonds, “Joy of Other Suns”, 2021, acrylic on canvas
(Paul Salveson / Luis De Jesus Los Angeles)
An invigorating group of new abstractions – the largest paintings of her career, some more than eight feet tall and two feet wide – was recently shown at the Luis De Jesus Gallery in downtown Los Angeles. They suggest an expansive trust that supports the retrospective.
Its large, strong, banded colored diamonds form two-dimensional portals to a wide, optically deep space beyond the canvas surface. The diamond, a shape reminiscent of a vulva, adds an element of feminine sexuality to an exciting sense of transport and emerging spiritual power.
June Edmonds: Full Spectrum
Laband Art Gallery, Loyola Marymount University, 1 Loyola Marymount University Dr., (310) 338-2880, through December 11th. Opening times on Saturday and Sunday, reservations required. www.cfa.lmu.edu