Finding the light: Jimmy Wright’s sunflowers at Argazzi Gallery

Judith Singelis at Argazzi Gallery

Natalia Zukerman

Finding the light: Jimmy Wright’s sunflowers at Argazzi Gallery

On Saturday, June 22, The Argazzi Gallery opened “Looking for the Light,” an intimate exhibition celebrating the work of Jimmy Wright, an artist whose relationship with sunflowers has spanned decades.

Wright moved to New York City in 1974. Growing up gay in rural Kentucky, he wasn’t able to express himself openly, but upon immersing himself in New York’s gay scene in the 70’s, he finally found he was able to live his life freely. He began to depict his social scene, making large-scale drawings of nights out at gay clubs in unapologetic detail. Three of those drawings are now on view at the Whitney Museum, high praise and validation that Wright is giddy about in the sweetest and humblest of ways.

Wright met his partner Ken Nuzzo in those early days in New York. Sadly, Nuzzo was diagnosed with HIV in 1988 and passed away three years later. Bereft, Wright found he was unable to paint for a while, but then something miraculous occurred.

“I had no idea it was going to become an obsession,” Wright reflected on the genesis of his sunflower series. “I was a primary caretaker for someone critically ill for three years. That takes you very much out of your head and out of a studio practice.” His first encounter with a sunflower was serendipitous. “I bought a giant sunflower at the farmer’s market, and that became my first subject. Then it eventually became the only subject.”

Wright’s technique is as meticulous as it is passionate. “I work on the same series of paintings for three years,” he noted. His approach is deeply immersive, driven by a desire to explore the emotional resonance of his subjects. “I’m more interested in the painting itself, from a formal point of view,” he said. “It’s all about the ability of paint to hold emotion and communicate emotion.”

Judith Singelis, whose gallery is named after her grandparents, Antonio and Giselda Argazzi, brings a deeply personal touch to her curatorial practice. She has a deep connection to loss herself and surrounded by the images of Wright’s sunflowers, she spoke of her late husband with a quiet reverence. “I married the only man I could have married. I’ve never met anyone else like him in my life.” This sense of personal history and emotional depth permeate the gallery, creating a fitting backdrop for Wright’s evocative works.

Wright paints and draws the sunflower in all states of glory and decay. The writhing figures are infused with narrative, allowing for a process of transformation. “The work is about not only the beauty, but the fragility of life,” said Singelis. Of the title she chose for the exhibit, “Looking for the Light,” Singelis explained, “I wanted something uplifting…and sunflowers are always looking for the light. So, for both Jimmy, who just had his 80th birthday, and with everything that’s going on in our crazy world, on all counts, I thought this is so appropriate.”

In addition to having three of his drawings added to the Whitney collection, Wright recently received an honorary doctorate from the University of Southern Illinois. He is also looking forward to having a sunflower drawing featured in the 191st National Academy of Design annual exhibition this fall, the longest-running exhibition of contemporary art and architecture in the United States. As for his relationship with the sunflower, it’s changed. “It’s certainly more celebratory,” said Wright. “I think that’s the main change. The colors have gotten brighter, the expression has become more fluid. And now I’m much more looking for new ways of presenting them within the framework of formalism, composition, color and scale.” Still regularly in his studio, Wright has been working from thousands of street photos of his Bowery neighborhood in that he’s taken over the years to create a new series of figures. But, he said, “The sunflowers, I still do and will do. It’s sort of like, even if I don’t want to work, I know I can go make a flower and immerse myself in that process of making something visual.”

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