I want to fill the world with visual objects that make being black feel triumphant, honest and contemplative. – Andre Woolery
It’s All About the Benjamins, 2011, 23,850 pushpins and oil on canvas, 48” x 108”
Jamaican, New Jersey-raised artist Andre Woolery creates art that often investigates how pop icons intersect and divide with black culture and experience. In a recent conversation, Woolery cited the artists Barkley Hendricks and Kehinde Wiley as early influences, while noting the absence of diversity in the art world overall and specifically of black subject matter within contemporary art. He also spoke about his inability to find any guidance on how to paint black skin while instructions on how to mix white flesh tones abound. Essentially self-taught as an artist, Woolery’s unique mix of painting styles teems with vitality and assurance and enacts a seamless merger of history, hip hop, politics, pop culture and fashion.
In his “Bruised Thumb” series, Woolery explores black experience from both historical and contemporary perspectives. Using black male figures such as Jay-Z, President Barack Obama, Kanye West, and Benjamin Banneker (who replaces Benjamin Franklin on a one hundred-dollar bill in 2011’s It’s All About the Benjamins – see above), Woolery is positing a structure in which the familiarity of these images reflects their integration into mainstream pop culture while still retaining a particular significance within black culture. The Tackover (2011 – see below), the first of this series, uses over 7,000 pushpins in 10 colors to create a large and labor-intensive portrait of Jay-Z as he gazes off into the distance. These “paintings” were all made with thousands of pushpins to both underscore the particular pop aspect of the work and also to emphasize its intersection with digital technology, Woolery’s primary area of study at school. The use of pushpins mimics the pixilation of digital imagery and also continues and expands upon the Pop art tradition of incorporating quotidian objects such as tires and other urban detritus into a painting, as in Robert Rauschenberg’s “Combines” from the 1950s, or as in the case of Andy Warhol’s Campbell’s soup cans and Brillo boxes, the objects themselves becoming the actual works of art.
Jay-Z the Tackover, 2011, 7,633 pushpins and oil on canvas, 36”x48””
Another series of Woolery’s paintings called “Freedom of Expression” depicts the style and fashion of the Dancehall scene in Jamaica, to where Woolery and his wife recently returned so as to be able to focus more fully on art-making and related activities without the myriad distractions of New York City life. This series has the two-pronged hook of fashion and music, both areas of frequent investigation in contemporary art, from Nick Cave’s wearable fabric sculptures to painter Eric den Breejen’s recently completed mural portrait of Atlantic Record’s Ahmet Ertegun comprised of the lyrics to over 100 of Atlantic’s hit songs. One of Woolery’s Dancehall paintings, The Generals, is included in the 2014 Jamaica Biennial, apt since it celebrates not only Dancehall culture but the island’s creative spirit as a whole.
The Guardian, 2014, oil on canvas, 66” x 60”
Previously, Woolery had shown primarily in the New York City area, including in “Bruised Thumbs” (solo) at Frontrunner Gallery in 2012 and in independent curator Kianga Ellis’ 2011 exhibition “Judge and Jury” in Brooklyn, New York, as well as in other shows at Art in Flux Harlem Gallery, Neuehouse and Strivers Gardens Gallery.
Future projects include the expansion of a residency program in Jamaica to which Woolery will invite artists to work collaboratively, a process that will influence his own work in terms of — to paraphrase — collaboration, recalibration and exploration, as well a return to his digital roots.