FilAm John-Herbert Wright’s perspective in canvas: Rewind & Reflect

by Ricky Rillera

John-Herbert Wright at the Blue Gallery | Contributed Photo

NEW YORK – After years of contemplating launching a solo exhibit, New York-born Filipino American artist John-Herbert Wright confidently pushed for his vision in artistry and made his dream come true. Wright’s latest silkscreen prints and large-scale paintings — inspired by vibrant, urban images of New York intersperse with his family and upbringing — are featured at the Blue Gallery in midtown Manhattan with the theme Rewind & Reflect.

“Rewind & Reflect is my most personal collection – it stems from me looking back at my own past and the stories and the songs that impacted me,” Wright said in his remarks when the exhibit opened on Sept. 18. “My father is half Black, half white and my mother is from the Philippines— in many ways growing up folks didn’t quite understand who I was and my painting often was a way to see the real me.”

Rewind & Reflect explores the theme of abstract figurations in nine new paintings reflecting an intimate expression of his story narrated through the music that has provided the soundtrack to his life. Each painting is titled after a song that has impacted Wright. From his father’s favorite musicians like James Taylor and Simon & Garfunkel to his contemporary heroes like Nipsey Hussle and Juice Wrld.

“Smooth Operator” | Contributed Photo

One painting in this collection, “Smooth Operator,” is derived from a jazz song by British singer Sade. It is a 58 x 54″ inches latex enamel, acrylic, plastisol that beautifully portrays several abstract images of people drawn on the canvas. It prominently shows two images of a man and woman at opposite ends, a dominant figure in the center and a hue of smaller faces, amplified by small, vertical strokes within.

Anyone familiar with the song’s lyrics can easily connect them with this work. The lyrics “City lights and business nights / When you require streetcar desire / For higher heights / No place for beginners or sensitive hearts / When sentiment is left to chance / No place to be ending / But somewhere to start /are like a narration of what the artist intends to reveal as he reflects on life, but for the viewer to observe and interpret.

“You Got Me” | Contributed Photo

Another work of Wright, titled “You Got Me,” a hip-hop song by the Roots, shows a row of six prominent images sketched in dark blue — their faces painted in orange/red — looking down at an urban landscape with elements of more minor figures of people on a 62 x 54 inches frame. The contrast between dark blue, which occupies only a fourth of the canvas, and almost three-quarters of space reserved for light-colored objects complete the narrative, which seems to say something loud but is left to a viewer’s observation.

Wright was eight years old when he gravitated to painting as an escape expressing a rich inner work. His work heavily relies upon dark figurations amongst an urban landscape leaving the viewer space to navigate the world he creates. Through his works, he seeks to illuminate the universe of darkness within all of us, within himself, and that darkness contrasted with fragility has always been at the center of his work.

“I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” | Contributed Photo

His “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” seems to relate to anyone looking out a window and waiting earnestly for someone to arrive by the door. John-Herbert admitted this work as a personal experience, his father’s and grandfather’s while growing up. He told his audience, mainly of Filipino-descent that milled around, intently peering at the painting, perhaps finding a soft spot an experience in their hearts, and wondering what captured their interest in this painting.

“We are all waiting for something to happen,” Vivian Velasco said. “It can be interpreted in many ways and the artist conveys that feeling of anxiety, pain or frustration in anticipation of what would happen next.”

Wright’s other works in this exhibit include “Baby Can I Hold You,” Forever Your Girl,” “Fade into You,” “Sweet Baby James,” “The Sound of Silence/Lucid Dreams,” and “Grinding All My Life.”

Grinding All My Life | Contributed Photo

In Grinding All My Life, drawn in oil paint, latex enamel, acrylic, and plastisol on canvas, seems to portray a man slowly rising out of his continuing struggles in his pain and heartaches as he reaches out his hands to a hope that is found in his family. As rapper Nipsey Hussle sings: “All my life, been grindin’ all my life / Sacrificed, hustled, paid the price / Want a slice, got to roll the dice / That’s why all my life, I been grindin’ all my life.”

“John-Herbert is humble. He hasn’t really fit in. Being mixed race, he’s not always been able to find his community, but this collection has made him open up to his unique American experience, and I’m so happy he’s embraced his Filipino-Americaness,” Amit Vaidya, one of the curators of his exhibit, said. “I wanted to curate for John-Herbert because, as an Asian-American myself, and I know how important it is to see ourselves and our stories across all forms of art. We must share who we are, or else we’ll lose our purpose.” Mekia Machine is Vaidya’s co-curator.

Wright is a painter and street-wear designer contributing to the graphic t-shirt’s role in disseminating New York street culture across the globe. He transfers the techniques of garment making to his canvases. His paintings feature backdrops of multiple layers of silkscreened images, drawings, and text.

“I wanted to use silk screens like I do in my clothing and incorporate them into the stories of the paintings. All the photographs used in the silk screening for this collection are personal photographs of my family – from my black grandfather in Harlem to my Filipino grandmother and grandfather,” Wright told the Philippine Daily Mirror.

These photographs are evident in almost all of his paintings included in this collection, foremost among which is in “The Sound of Silence/Lucid Dreams,” where several photo snippets of his family appear.

“Although, we are not easily recognizable, I see my husband and myself in it,” said a proud Nanette Sering-Wright, John- Herbert’s mother. She was an artist, playing piano in her younger years, and found a hobby in arts and crafts. “John asked me for some family photos, and I didn’t know he would use them in his paintings,” she said.

John Herbert Wright at his studio | Photo by John Mazlish

Wright’s features are multi-racial; he is neither easily identified as Filipino nor Asian, even with black history. But ingrained in his heart is a loving and kind individual with a unique gift of an artist that conveys a beautiful albeit personal message in his works of art.

“Part of my identity is my Asianness – my being Filipino. When I saw myself in the paintings – it made me – me. Every part of my story became easier to share my truth,” Wright told the Philippine Daily Mirror.

Wright’s solo exhibit runs through Thursday, Sept. 22, and a closing reception at 7 p.m. at the Blue Gallery on 222 E46th Street between 2nd and 3rd Avenues. For those that missed his solo exhibition, Sunday, Sept. 25 at 5 p.m. is the last opportunity to see Filipino American John-Herbert Wright’s “Rewind & Reflect.”

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