Tucson

Dennis Jeffy: From Antelope Springs at MOCA Tucson

In an age when internet presence grants visibility, the sparsity of digital images and articles of Dennis Jeffy’s work makes his solo exhibition, From Antelope Springs, at MOCA Tucson a significant and rare occurrence to be experienced. Born in Antelope Springs (Navajo for Jeddito, Arizona) in 1952, Jeffy has developed a fertile artistic practice that has journeyed through a wide range of experimentation in style, material, and form. The exhibition presents work spanning fifteen years and is divided into three sections: earlier round paintings with traces of realism, a complete shift into abstraction within painting, and finally, recent sculptural explorations using Plexiglas. Each piece is completely distinct in its character and conveys Jeffy’s impressive ability to provide visual joy while captivating viewers in realms that both compress and expand time, space, and matter.

Dennis Jeffy. Dooli Sings, 2000; oil on canvas; 80 in. diameter. Courtesy of the Artist and MOCA Tucson. Photo: Maya Heilman-Hall

Dennis Jeffy. Dooli Sings, 2000; oil on canvas; 80 in. diameter. Courtesy of the Artist and MOCA Tucson. Photo: Maya Heilman-Hall.

Made in the early 2000s, the earliest works on view are Jeffy’s large-scale paintings on circular canvases. While the curatorial statement positions these paintings as tondos (a term developed in the Renaissance for round paintings and sculptures, which were typically incorporated into archways), Jeffy’s use of the circular form has little to do with this Eurocentric tradition of portraiture connected to the church. Instead, Jeffy uses the round form as a way to establish a physical and conceptual connection to the body. He explains, “My paintings are round because of the natural roundness of the eye. Our vision is round. I was raised in a hogan, which is round and represents the cycle of life.”[1] Through the direction of his paint strokes, Jeffy creates visual movements within his work that pull and swirl viewers into and around his paintings. The circular form and large scale of the canvases further enhance this bodily experience in viewing his work.

Dooli Sings (2000) is an example of one such work. It combines a variety of painting styles. Partially rendered faces sit at the edge of the painting, and are distorted and lengthened, as if they have been dragged and slowed down through time. Slanted paint marks in dark blues, pinks, purples, and teals fill the canvas and create swirling fields of color that reflect the shades of the galaxy. On top of these strokes, Jeffy inserts hyperrealistically painted images: drops of water, a pile of sand, and a spherical planet-like shape with a shadow. Each element of the painting pulls and pushes viewers around the piece, into the Earth’s surface, and out to the universe.

Dennis Jeffy. Holy Man, 2015; oil on canvas. 24 x 24 in. Courtesy of the Artist and MOCA Tucson. Photo: Author

Dennis Jeffy. Holy Man, 2015; oil on canvas; 24 x 24 in. Courtesy of the Artist and MOCA Tucson. Photo: Author.

The next gallery demonstrates Jeffy’s transition out of the circular form and realism, embracing abstraction. In Holy Man (2015), an abstract figure emanates in bright yellows, greens, and pinks, looking out toward a field and horizon. Outside of this central arena of color, the canvas is otherwise raw, stained and scribbled with black, gray, and brown marks. The piece hints at realms invisible to the eye, whether physical, mental, or spiritual. In the same room sits Poetess (2014), a large, eight-foot-tall sliver of canvas that seems to be cut out from a much larger painting. Shaped like a beam of sunlight shining down, the canvas hosts a range of colors that again recall outer space, with marks that pull viewers up and out of our world.

Dennis Jeffy. Fractals, 2014 (left); oil on canvas; 52 1⁄2 x 52 1⁄2 in. Poetess, 2014 (right); oil on canvas; 13 x 95 1⁄2 in. Courtesy of the Artist and MOCA Tucson. Photo: Maya Heilman-Hall

Dennis Jeffy. Fractals, 2014 (left); oil on canvas; 52 1⁄2 x 52 1⁄2 in. Poetess, 2014 (right); oil on canvas; 13 x 95 1⁄2 in. Courtesy of the Artist and MOCA Tucson. Photo: Maya Heilman-Hall.

The most exciting pieces lie in the last gallery, with Jeffy’s latest mixed-media work on Plexiglas. The only listed material for each work is Plexi. As such, it is unclear what precise materials were used to create the forms, which sit on both sides of the plastic sheets. The pieces are displayed five inches away from the wall, allowing the translucent and subtle forms to cast a slight shadow. The abstract symbols and marks on the Plexi’s surfaces seem to be created by directly carving out the Plexi and a combination of other materials: white milky paint or white glue that has dried, copper and light tan sand, a black Sharpie that has run out of ink, faint inklings of pink, green, blue, and yellow paint, and stains from an indistinguishable source.

Dennis Jeffy. Dreamer, 2017 (left); Plexiglas; 30 x 40 in. Alpha and Omega, 2017 (right); Plexiglas; 48 1⁄4 x 58 in. Courtesy of the Artist and MOCA Tucson. Photo: Maya Heilman-Hall

Dennis Jeffy. Dreamer, 2017 (left); Plexiglas; 30 x 40 in. Alpha and Omega, 2017 (right); Plexiglas; 48 1⁄4 x 58 in. Courtesy of the Artist and MOCA Tucson. Photo: Maya Heilman-Hall.

Jeffy describes these Plexiglas pieces in relation to archaeology, or as if looking through the telescope and seeing the layers of stars.[2] Throughout the Arizona region, petroglyphs by the ancient Hohokam, Mogollon, and Ancestral Puebloans can be found. Some petroglyphs have become barely visible over time. Their forms have faded back into the rock. Jeffy’s mastery of his materials and practice captures this fading, which is usually produced by the passing of an incredible amount of time. Somehow, Jeffy performs an impossibility; his marks appear as if they are gradually returning back into the Plexiglas material. This stunning reversal creates the experience of seeing something simultaneously futuristic and ancient.

Dennis Jeffy. Excavation, 2017; Plexiglas; 48 1⁄4 x 65 in. Courtesy of the Artist and MOCA Tucson. Photo: Maya Heilman-Hall

Dennis Jeffy. Excavation, 2017; Plexiglas; 48 1⁄4 x 65 in. Courtesy of the Artist and MOCA Tucson. Photo: Maya Heilman-Hall.

Let us not make From Antelope Springs a rare cosmic event. Jeffy’s works are too generous to be felt only in a sliver of time. The playfulness in his experimentation emanates throughout his works. His loose and controlled marks create gravitation of the eye and body, calling upon viewers to look and enjoy looking.

Dennis Jeffy: From Antelope Springs is on view at MOCA Tucson through May 28, 2017.

 


[1] Curator’s Essay, Dennis Jeffy: From Antelope Springs, 2017, https://www.moca-tucson.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/01/Dennis-Jeffy-Didactic.pdf.

[2] Christian Rozier, Dennis Jeffy Artist Statement 2017, https://vimeo.com/203916112.

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