Virginia Jaramillo’s majestic “Site No.3: 51.1789° N, 1.8262° W” (2018), acrylic on canvas, 72 x 72”, is titled for the coordinates of the ancient (courtesy of the artist and Hales Gallery and Pace Gallery. © Virginia Jaramillo. image courtesy of the artist and Hales Gallery and Pace Gallery. photo: JSP Art Photography)
The veteran abstractionist’s retrospective at Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art is triumphant, complex and relentlessly generous
Virginia Jaramillo’s first major retrospective exhibition, “Principle of Equivalence,” at Kemper Museum, is nothing short of a majestic grand tour of the artist’s prolific, decades-long career. Named after the title of a 1975 oil on canvas painting featured in the show, the massive exhibition is at once triumphant, complex and relentlessly generous.
Showcasing 73 pieces from the 1960s to the present, the Kemper proves itself a natural environment for such a diverse and substantive body of work. Expertly laid out in a sequence that is simultaneously logical and open-ended, the art reveals itself thematically and chronologically. But as Director of Curatorial Affairs Erin Dziedzic cautions, “the series of Virginia’s work may seem different, but they’re also connected.” Utilizing styles that range from asceticism to modern abstraction, Jaramillo equips viewers to use her landscapes as the beginning of a journey rather than binding them to one place. And in this spirit, each section of the exhibit space emphasizes her unique ability to explore the intersection of natural phenomena and human imagination in a variety of motifs and mediums.
Although she is currently based in New York, Jaramillo has been a presence in the Kansas City visual arts arena since 1975, when her work was featured in the group exhibition “Less is More” at the Douglas Drake Gallery. In the following years, this venue featured the artist in additional solo and group exhibitions and served as an important conduit for Kansas Citians to access Jaramillo’s ever-evolving creative output.
Jaramillo produced the earliest piece included in the Kemper exhibition, “Terra Mancha” (1964), when she lived in Los Angeles, and it reveals a fixation with texture and topography that would continue to manifest in novel ways over the course of her career. At first glance, the emulsion and gesso work suggests a mood of bleakness and desolation, with a cracked beige surface that appears to parch the canvas. Yet a more optimistic interpretation of the work offers signs of resilience — a land that has been transformed, but not destroyed, by the forces of nature. And while “Terra Mancha” is devoid of the intense colors that characterize some of Jaramillo’s later work, its visual relationship to geological processes and timescales is an important prototype for what follows.
Moving to the next section of the exhibition, featuring the artist’s “Curvilinear Series,” audiences will note several contrasts to her earlier, more weathered forms of expression. Painted primarily in the late 1960s and early 1970s, after Jaramillo had moved to New York, the large acrylic on canvas pieces showcase vibrant lines and arcs cascading across stately, monochromatic backgrounds. Some of the lines meander. Others race across space and time with hidden purpose. The series is a marvelous juxtaposition of voids and pathways, always enticing but never deceiving the viewer. Jaramillo regards the “Curvilinear” painting “Genesis” (1969), in which the dark, regal arcs look almost like conversing amoebas, as “one of (her) favorites.”
By the late 1970s, Jaramillo began experimenting with the ways in which water could influence the textures of her creations. The resulting oil on canvas pieces boast an abstraction that evokes the earthly terrains and processes of her early work but imports the color and personality of her “Curvilinear” entries. “Obrinus” (1976), an exemplar of this period, is an ethereal fog of greens and blues that utterly conveys the aroma of a springtime rainstorm. The pieces in this series are ones to truly experience, not merely observe.
When Jaramillo next adjusted her focus from painting to handmaking paper, Dziedzic notes, “she certainly shifted her medium, but not her language.” The artist’s fluency with surfaces and shapes remains at the forefront of the way she treats the fiber works in this realm of the exhibition.
The hand-ground earth pigments piece on fiber linen titled “Visual Theorems 13” (1979), with its compartmented rectangles and rows, evinces thoughts of an abacus or slide rule — something we might view as primitive, yet nonetheless associate with knowledge, scientific advancement and a broader understanding of the universe. Jaramillo’s work ultimately suggests limitations and then subtly encourages the audience to find ways to transcend them.
This ambition reaches new heights in the climactic portion of the gallery housing Jaramillo’s most recent work. Here, the paintings crackle with energy while still honoring the physical and mental artistic geography she pioneered over the past half-century. For instance, the towering acrylic works on canvas “Quanta” (2021) and “Quantum Entanglement” (2019-2020), with their cascading tendrils and networks of colorful lines, practically sing to one another.
A true masterpiece, “ Site No.3: 51.1789° N, 1.8262° W” (2018), hangs at the epilogue of the show, and the coordinates within the title give the location of the ancient monument at Stonehenge. Crisply rendered white geometric patterns sear across the black canvas, perhaps resembling alien hieroglyphics and giving imaginative viewers an opportunity to consider how extraterrestrial observers might interpret human spiritual engineering.
“Principle of Equivalence” is a jewel of an exhibition for Kansas City, and the sheer quality and diversity of artwork on display will be a treat for both longtime enthusiasts of Jaramillo’s work as well as those who may be seeing it for the first time.
“Principle of Equivalence” continues at Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art, 4420 Warwick Blvd., through Aug. 27. Hours are 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Wednesday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday and 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Thursday. For more information, 816.753.5784 or www.kemperart.org.