On the white gallery wall hang two vertical rectangular paintings, one with a mustard background and the other a peach background. Both feature silhouettes of solitary black figures with swirls of vivid colors within their forms.
Leasho Johnson, "Somewhere between the eyes and the heart," installation view Credit: Courtesy Western Exhibitions

Before even entering the gallery, “Somewhere between the eyes and the heart” pulls you in. Leasho Johnson’s densely textured paintings vary in scale. The dark color palette and shiny pitch-black silhouettes are interrupted by bright splashes of color: vivid pink, yellow, blue, and tangerine. The Jamaican-born, Chicago-based artist’s subjects are abstract enough for their facial features to be indistinct, but figurative enough to feel their piercing eyes look into your soul. The tension goes both ways. 

Johnson’s work—spanning formats and media from painting and collage to sculpture and murals—is a deep dive into the culture and experiences that have shaped him. Growing up Black, queer, and male in a small Jamaican town, the artist was heavily informed by early childhood memories, his country’s postcolonial condition, and dancehall street culture that encompasses music, fashion, drugs, guns, art, community, technology, and more. The artist describes it as “vibrant, dynamic, and oftentimes controversial.” The energy of Black queer love is palpable throughout the show. So is the exploration of the vast territories of identity.

In a corner of the gallery, on the left wall hangs a painting with a light yellow-green background. A distorted black figure is on the right side of the painting, filled with streaks of oranges, yellows and blues. On the right wall is a small, horizontal rectangular painting that is a melange of black, blue, orange and yellow forms.
Johnson’s subjects are abstract enough for their facial features to be indistinct, but figurative enough to feel their piercing eyes look into your soul.
Courtesy Western Exhibitions

His approach to color and figuration in painting: Charcoal—layers and layers of it. Color emerges from the blackness of his canvas in the form of watercolors, acrylic, and DIY natural dyes. Between figurative and abstract forms, Johnson’s exhibition becomes intensely personal; fluid and open to interpretation, it grants the viewer the freedom to explore different paths, consider possibilities, and unconditionally connect with the work in their own terms.

“Somewhere between the eyes and the heart” serves both as a reminder of how far we have come and how much further we can go. At the intersections of Blackness, queerness, and the self, Johnson breaks down the barriers between high and low. Fusing pop culture and fine art literally and metaphorically, he first becomes vulnerable, then consumed, and eventually liberated. Same goes for the viewer.

“Somewhere between the eyes and the heart”
Through 8/12: Tue-Sat 11 AM-6 PM, Western Exhibitions, 1709 W. Chicago, westernexhibitions.com

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