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Abstract painter James Little breaks through with the inclusion of the Whitney Biennial and the Kavi Gupta show

Over the past four decades, abstract artist James Little has accomplished everything from monochromatic black paintings rendered in straight lines to colorful canvases filled with repeating rectangles and white surfaces adorned with multicolored circles. Although Little’s paintings cannot be defined by any particular genre, they are all fascinating abstract works that transport the viewer into a field of color.

“If I put a painting together, I have geometry,” says Little. “I could have a brightness. I have all those things that are formal, but not representative. I’m not the one who paints a tree, a bowl, a human figure or anything like that. [My practice] it relies heavily on imagination and feeling, vision and skill.

Now, Little’s virtuosity is finally gaining more widespread recognition. The canvases of the Memphis-born painter have a prominent place in the Whitney Biennial of 2022, As quiet as it is kept (until September 5th). A work on display, Stars and Stripes (2019), shows a pattern of intersecting black lines when viewed up close and, from a distance, reveals a complicated arrangement of rhombuses and triangles. These shapes feel sacred, meditative in some ways, and looking at this canvas makes the viewer feel as if they are stepping into the ink-black pool of someone’s subconscious.

Giacomo Piccolo, Stars and Stripes, 2021 Courtesy of the artist. Photograph by Ron Amstutz

“There are a lot of different meanings behind these paintings,” says Little. “The Black Star [works] reflect the way we look at ourselves, e [have] astrological connotations. I’m sure there will be people coming in and tying in some sort of sociological meaning, which is fine, but I have other goals as well. I just like to raise questions and allow the paintings to have a kind of contemplation.

Another piece on display, Big shot (2021), similarly it uses black brush strokes to create a shape that resembles a six-pointed star. This painting is punctuated with lines converging on a singular point and encrusted textures that speak of the subtleties of Little’s sacred geometry. He achieves these granular surfaces using encaustic paint, which requires the artist to carefully apply layers of wax and pigment to a flat surface, a painstaking process that can take months to complete.

“I was drawn to the paintings,” says Chicago dealer Kavi Gupta. “I was drawn to their physicality. He is mixing paints, encaustics and pigments, something that hardly anyone does “. Gupta adds: “It must be so consistent. It’s hard to get the level of pigment it’s achieved because it needs to get these huge streaks of color. “

Little recently joined the roster at Gupta’s gallery, where he will hold a solo show in November. He will feature new works based on the artist’s interests in surface, texture and color.

The relationship between surfaces and materials in Little’s work is informed by his humble beginnings. Born in 1952 in Memphis, Tennessee, the artist came of age at a time when the American South was still deeply segregated. Most of his mother’s family had emigrated from Mississippi, while his father’s family was of Native American, Irish, and Black ancestry.

“My work is born out of necessity,” says Little. “My mother was a cook. My father was a construction worker. My grandmother was a seamstress and she made quilts out of her children’s clothes. They were from Mississippi, they were poor and they found a way to advance and fly, and this is the story of many blacks in this country, especially in the south.

Giacomo Piccolo, Times borrowed2021 Collection of the artist; courtesy of the artist and Kavi Gupta Gallery, Chicago. Photograph by Ron Amstutz

Many of these early family experiences and stories had a profound impact on the painter and a vivid memory still inspires him today, as he recounted in a 2009 interview. with Benjamin La Rocco for the Brooklyn Railroad. When Little was a child, his father and grandfather took him to a construction site where they were working. When Little arrived, he saw the workers mixing and pouring concrete, a process that mesmerized him.

“This had a strange influence on my sensitivity to the surface, even today,” Little told La Rocco. “I like the idea of ​​taking this medium, this material and transforming it, making it do something different from what it wanted to do.”

As he entered his teens, Little became fascinated with materials and continued to hone his practice, working with readily available supplies and copying Thomas Eakins’ Old Master paintings from the Encyclopaedia Britannica, according to a 2011 ARTnews article by Celia McGee. After graduating from high school, Little decided to formally study these interests, enrolling at the Memphis Academy of Art, where he earned his BFA in 1974. In 1976 he earned his MFA from Syracuse University.

When Little began her career, racial tensions were always present in the background. The artist’s adolescence coincided with the height of the civil rights movement and at the time there weren’t many other black artists exhibiting in traditional museums and galleries.

“I was 21 before paying attention to any black artist because he wasn’t available,” says Little. “It wasn’t taught in schools. We haven’t seen it. He was not in the museum, there was no representation. In a way, this allowed me to develop my ideas about art. But at the same time, I felt deceived because I was simply immersed in Western painting ”.

This lack of representation did not stop Little from honing his practice, and over the years he became a true painter, engaged in abstraction even as external events and prevailing trends sought to impose figurative readings on his work.

Giacomo Piccolo, El Shabazz (B)1985 Courtesy of the artist

Some of Little’s early works speak of the artist’s interest in color and craftsmanship. El Shabazz (C) (1985), for example, depicts four pastel-colored triangles that intersect at a single point. The lines in this painting are crisp and clean; they demonstrate a diligence that underlies his entire work. Eventually, others noticed Little’s attention to detail and a commitment to her unique kind of abstraction. She began exhibiting with the June Kelly Gallery in New York in 1988 and has works in the permanent collections of the Saint Louis Art Museum, the Studio Museum in Harlem and the Menil Collection in Houston.

Little’s meticulous approach remains a cornerstone of his practice and he continues to use his workmanship to evoke emotion with his materials.

“I like the rhythm in my work,” Little said in a 2017 BOMB interview with the magazine. “Music and dance. Speed ​​and color. And those are the things I see that are as important as what we say or how we act. “

  • James Little’s work is on display at Whitney Biennial 2022: Quiet as it is keptWhitney Museum of American Art, New York, until 5 September.
  • His first solo show at Kavi GuptaChicago, November 12 to December 20.

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