As a student at Eau Claire High School, Jacolby Satterwhite was the school’s art star. He’s still an art star, but on a much bigger stage. Following a spate of shows and positive press, he’s been invited to the Whitney Biennial, considered the nation’s premiere exhibition of contemporary art.
Satterwhite, 27, joins the ranks of well-known and emerging art stars for the exhibition opening in March at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City. He’s had an amazing last two years, with solo exhibitions in New York and Spain, group exhibitions at the Studio Museum of Harlem and the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, and media attention in The New York Times, Artforum and Art in America. Earlier this month, he did a performance at Art Basel-Miami. Next year, he’s showing one of his videos as part of the Sundance Film Festival’s New Frontier program. He also has gallery representation in New York, Los Angeles and Spain.
Still, the Biennial caught him by surprise.
“I found out by a text message — I thought it was spam,” he says in late November, a few days after he got the message. He didn’t even know he was being considered — there was no earlier phone call or studio visit from the curators.
“It really was out of left field,” says Satterwhite, who lives in Brooklyn. “It’s been quite the surreal experience.”
That’s in keeping with his art, which he calls “surrealist game.” His work exploring race and gender blends video, performance and animation shown on monitors and made into prints. He creates environments of odd shapes, bright colors and text on computer and inserts videos of his performances into them.
That he’s exploring the frontiers comes as no surprise to Janice Johnson, who was his art teacher at Eau Claire High, where she still teaches.
“He’s always been inventive and ingenious,” Johnson says. “He was always striving and wasn’t satisfied with making one thing. He’s someone I still talk to my students about.”
Originally a painter, Satterwhite put down the brushes to start experimenting with video and animation by the time he entered graduate school at the University of Pennsylvania.
“I had such intensive training as a painter, but I felt like painting had too much European history tied to it — I had to leave it,” Satterwhite says. “I had no training with animation and video. I was just staying up all night doing it and figuring it out — I’m still figuring it out. I have my own aesthetic with it.”
The road to recognition hasn’t been easy. At 11, Satterwhite had a bout with cancer that required surgery and chemotherapy and affected the mobility of his right arm. His mother suffers from schizophrenia; she has long made drawings of “inventions,” drawings that have inspired him and which he still uses as jumping off points for his own art.
Still he received a great deal of support for his art from family and teachers. He and Johnson worked together late into the night to prepare his application to the Governor’s School for the Arts and Humanities in Greenville. He was accepted, and found himself surrounded by lots of kids who were very good artists.
“It could be tough,” Satterwhite says. “You worked really hard and you failed. I experienced a lot of that.”
Joe Thompson, director of visual arts at the Governor’s School, recalls Satterwhite as a “talented, brash young man who wouldn’t be on time for class, who wouldn’t listen.
But by the next year, that façade had all washed away and what was there was a smart, hard-working guy.”
One of his classmates at the school was Katherine Elliot of Columbia. She recalls him showing a piece he’d done of a showerhead in the dormitory bathroom that was “really thick with paint in gorgeous colors.”
“It turned out several or maybe all of his paintings masqueraded as regular household items, but were very clearly about sex,” Elliot says. “I started to understand that while he seemed to be a quiet person, he was really quite bold, cunning and couldn’t give a rat’s ass — in his seemingly gentle way — about what anyone else thought.”
That attitude has changed little.
“I don’t worry about what people think of my work,” Satterwhite says. “I just hope when people see it they have a wonderful experience and ask a lot of questions. I want them to say, ‘This is a sincere person — he really means it.’”
For the Biennial, he’s creating a new video that will be shown on a monitor hanging from the museum ceiling, but he won’t give details.
“It’s going to be so polarizing,” he says, “but I’m already loaded as hell.”
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