John Hairston Jr.’s latest solo exhibition, Here’s What’s Left…, is a collection of works created over the past year. Most have never been shown in Charlotte until now, although they have made their way through much of the rest of the Southeast (Charleston, Atlanta and Columbia, to name a few). The paintings are on display throughout the month at Espada Bicycles in NoDa.
Hairston’s work is instantly recognizable. His colorful and often unpredictable palette, combined with his use of recurring characters, create a signature style that has helped him maintain a large following in recent years. Fellow Charlotte artist Thomas Michael (aka “UGLY”) insists that there are more than a few local artists pushing themselves to new heights simply in an attempt to catch up to Hairston’s talent.
There are several pieces in the show featuring one of his most recurrent characters, a Medusa haired woman (and in one painting a girl) named Magdelene, after the artist’s grandmother. When I expressed surprise that he’d name the man-eating character after his grandma, he corrected me, saying she wasn’t a man-eater. Instead, he claims, she’s just misunderstood. “She’s just a really pretty girl with a shit ton of baggage, and everyone knows somebody like that.”
One of the most intriguing and captivating paintings on display features the artist embracing Magdelene from behind with the one arm he has left. The other has been amputated, and apparently recently so as there appears to be blood and tendons still spewing from the open wound. The title, “My path of destruction was nothing by comparison…,” adds some context while maintaining a certain extent of ambiguity. This guarded illumination shows up in several of the paintings, in fact.
The work in Here’s What’s Left… draws from and pays homage to a rather disparate collection of influences; be it from Greek mythology (the aforementioned Magdelene character), Eastern religions (elephant heads, third eyes and multiple arms make several appearances), or personal heroes, such as the recently deceased artist and musician Rammellzee. Hairston created the piece “Once they were up, they had better be ready to fly…” as a way of saying goodbye to and letting go of an icon whose passing put an end to his dream of one day speaking with him and picking his brain for the many pieces of wisdom contained within.
Some viewers may find themselves somewhat overwhelmed by the colliding cultural, mythological and religious pulls, which are at times presented collage-like in a single work. To say nothing of the attention grabbing vibrancy of the comic book style figures often found boldly populating the canvases. But it’s next to impossible to be underwhelmed by what Hairston creates, and it’s clear that these same attributes are what attracts those who appreciate the work. It’s a group that continues to grow, and the prolific artist shows no signs of slowing down anytime soon.