Appearing larger than life, the ebullient Jamaican-born mixed-media artist Ebony G. Patterson — appropriately attired in a silver dress and blingy shoes — charmed guests at the Lux Art Institute’s evening reception on April 2.
It was the opening night of her eye-catching exhibition of life-sized tapestries depicting theatrically staged groupings of working-class males from the popular Jamaican dancehall culture.
Patterson’s large-scale works are embellished with bling. Fake flowers, costume jewelry, metallic threads and upholstery tassels add tongue-in-cheek adornment to tapestries commercially woven from staged photo-portraits that re-create lipstick-wearing gangsters and young black men with bleached faces, plucked eyebrows and flamboyant clothing.
Looking primarily to dancehall culture — which surrounds a genre of Jamaican popular music that originated in the late 1960s — and its impact on Jamaica’s working class, Patterson investigates the ways in which young black men shape their identities within the mostly ignored subculture.
To retell their stories, Patterson, who has a love of fabric, designs the outfits for her models, then works with a tailor who creates the clothing. “I can’t sew or cut,” she admits; but she has the imagination to visualize exactly how the clothing should look.
“Then I take them back to the tailor to add embellishments,” she said. Making the clothing is a layered process, much the same as making the completed tapestries.
Patterson then stages a scene, which is shot by a professional photographer. She edits the digital image and sends it to a commercial weaver, usually to Walmart’s photo service. Patterson considers the superstore’s tendency to carry kitsch products very appealing. “It seems appropriate for the kitsch culture that I am portraying,” she said.
When the tapestry is returned, Patterson sets about embellishing the piece through thoughtful placement of kitschy adornments.
During her residency at Lux, through May 2, Patterson will be working on three to four wall-based tapestries related to a larger body of work that she started in late 2013.
Titled “The Dead Trees Series,” the pieces are related to images of people who died violently, imagery she discovered on social media.
“I’ve been looking at social media as a popular cultural archetype, in the same way that hip-hop and dancehall culture give visibility to average working-class people,” she said of the inspiration for the series.
“I’m especially looking at how platforms, like Facebook and Tumblr, give visibility to otherwise invisible people due to their socio-economic standing,” Patterson explained.
She is drawn to violence particularly because “these images that surface are often of working-class people.”
Much of this imagery is brutally violent. Patterson explores the now-common situation that when something violent is occurring, and bystanders gather, their initial response is to take out their cellphones and record the incident.
“The act desensitizes us to the horror that this is actually happening to an actual person; it is totally removed from our consciousness,” she said.
“Through my work I’m using all of this bling, the kind of prettiness of the surface, as a way of seducing the viewer to look at the piece,” said Patterson. The process mirrors the way the viewer is seduced by the imagery when it’s seen online.
Patterson’s unique work is held in many private collections and has earned her numerous awards, including Jamaica’s prestigious Prime Minister’s Youth Awards for Excellence in Art and Culture, and the Institute of Jamaica’s Mustgrave Award.
Since 2007, she has taught in the art department at the University of Kentucky in Lexington. Kentucky is where she works, but Jamaica is still considered home, she said.
Patterson will be in residency at the Lux Art Institute until May 2; her exhibition will be on display until May 30, 2015.
Lux is located at 1550 S. El Camino Real, Encinitas. Visit www.luxartinstitute.org for information about Ebony G. Patterson or to become a Lux member.
Ebony G. Patterson standing by “Bad Pickney,” loaned by artist and Monique Meloche Gallery. — Diane Y. Welch
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