Jarrett Key: Wade
September 24, 2022–October 21, 2022

Friends Indeed is pleased to present Wade, the first solo exhibition in California of works by Brooklyn-based artist Jarrett Key.

A clear ambition courses through Key’s most recent work: “to depict,” as they describe it, “the freest Black person I can imagine.” This purpose spins them in myriad conceptual and material directions. Key’s central objective animates their subject matter, motivates their experimentation with new materials, and sets loose a range of historical allusions that are at once highly personal and in touch with an expansive narrative of past and present Black life.

Two natural elements, air and water, and two activities, flying and swimming, provide the framework for Key’s proposals for a new Black freedom. The choices draw upon a rich history of Black physical and spiritual emancipation via sky, rivers, and seas. They also hark back to Key’s Southern roots and their love for a spontaneous swim with friends and family, away from unwanted stares or expectations. In works like Wade, the boundary between aquatic and airy blurs as Key’s bird’s-eye view captures bodies in water while a diver hovers above the pool. Here, water and sky blend to offer a rare space for genuine abandon unfettered by the pressures of time, social expectations, and even clothes. In Wading in Moonlight, a figure seems to float on water or, perhaps, peer down at their reflection. It’s a nod to the classical theme of Narcissus enamored of his own image, but in Key’s hands this glance in a mirror is less about vanity than finding a safe, quiet place to recognize one’s own beauty and potential. In Moonlight Dive, a body lingers in mid air; a triumphant splash into the water below or a reality-defying flight through the night sky both seem imminently possible.

A search for a new kind of freedom also propels Key’s restless visual and material experimentation. Key is wary of canonical art history, but a deep understanding of its traditions and shortfalls shoots through their compositions. They borrow from Christian emblems to underscore the ascendent force of Black liberation. They remake icons of Western modernism as portraits of Black recreation and equity. The prevalence of blue in Key’s works will remind some of the historical preciousness of aquamarine pigments, but the artist is quick to name the hue as haint blue, a shade used on Southern homes as a means of negotiating with spirits. Even Key’s novel media–paint applied to wet cement slabs–is a deliberate upending of precedents. Their process evokes fresco painting, a technique dating to ancient Greece. In switching out traditional plaster for a material linked to urban harshness, Key pulls the antique into the present, calling forth racialized stereotypes of contemporary life only to layer them over with hopes for a future Black pastoral.

The multiplicity of references and meanings in Key’s paintings sends the mind backwards in the time and forward into the future. They are evidence of a mind unafraid of grappling with their place in history and unintimidated by the task of imagining a better future.

— Jodi Roberts