Henry Moses '25 Visits Esteban Jefferson Exhibition in London

Written by
Henry Moses
Feb. 15, 2024

Thanks to generous support from the Art & Archaeology department, I was able to travel to London during winter break to catch the show I am writing my Junior Paper about in its final week up at Goldsmiths Centre for Contemporary Art. May 25, 2020 is a collection of works—a dozen paintings and two video works—by contemporary American artist Esteban Jefferson, and this iteration at the CCA marks his first solo institution show.

My paper will focus on four of paintings in the series, two of which center on the George Washington at Valley Forge monument at Continental Plaza in Brooklyn, and two of which center on the Theodore Roosevelt monument formerly in front of the Museum of Natural History in Manhattan.

The works in the series are marked by cohesive stylistic similarities; they all stage clashes between the finished and the unfinished, a use of color and monochromaticity, and highly mimetic representation and more abstract forms. This final opposition is one that truly came to the fore as I stood in front of the massive canvases.

Much ink has been rightly spilled in the past few years over the question of just what to do with the problematic monuments that populate our cities. It’s clear that Jefferson’s works engage and enter this timely debate. However, after seeing the works in person, I’m not sure a clear answer comes out of them, or whether giving a clear answer is even the point.

Instead, I think Jefferson’s critique is aimed at representational modes that encode within them a sense of finality. This might include monuments, with the concretizing work they do to preserve the memory of an individual as a guide into the future. But it also might include works in his own medium that simply give too simple, too rigid, an answer. It might include works that hold within them meaning that is directly accessible on a quick glance.

Seeing the works in person has completely changed the course of my research, and I’m excited to continue thinking about the problematics they bring about.

 

Two monochrome artworks hanging in a gallery, one of which has a red splotch of paint on it

Installation view, May 25, 2020, Goldsmiths Center for Contemporary Art (Photo/Henry Moses)

There’s a clear sense that these works are indeed still in progress. The notes of a draughtsman populate the canvasses as you approach to give them a closer work. One reads “Make Tail 1” Wider” and we see the outline of the earlier iteration of the tail next to it. This unfinished quality of working towards a kind of representational perfection, however, is paired with moments of abstraction that break through the mimetic urge.

Closeup of graphite on linen showing an orhanic shaoe on a grided background

Esteban Jefferson, detail of October 6, 2021, oil and graphite on linen (Photo/Henry Moses)

Protestors did indeed splatter red paint on the plinth of the Roosevelt statue in 2021, but in the painting, this event bursts out of the world of what actually happened and onto the painting itself. The blood-red paint becomes a sort of boundless form that extends beyond the plinth and into the air surrounding it. We must ask: what is being desecrated? The monument or the painting?

While in London, I was also able to see the Philip Guston retrospective at the Tate Modern which charted his development from a Surrealist-inspired figurative painter in the 1930s, and 40s, an abstract painter in the 50s and 60s, and finally a political caricaturist in the 70s. This personal morphology across a career demonstrates the capacious understanding of representation that an artist might have. 

I am so grateful for the generous funding of the Department of Art & Archaeology and for the trip it allowed me to take. Seeing the works in person has completely changed the course of my research, and I’m excited to continue thinking about the problematics they bring about.