Jonathan Harris with his painting, “Frustrated” at an exhibit last year. The Detroit artist is opening a new exhibit “Critical Condition” Feb. 11 at the Liberal Arts Gallery. (Photo by Jimel Primm)

The past year of Jonathan Harris’ life has been a whirlwind. 

Relatively new to Detroit’s art scene, his painting “Critical Race Theory” went viral in 2021, gaining worldwide attention. The piece, which depicts a white man painting over Black icons Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X and Harriet Tubman, landed Harris interviews on the MSNBC show “The ReidOut,” and “Roland Martin Unfiltered,” as well as a shout out from U.S. Rep. Rashida Tlaib, D-Detroit, and Detroit’s City Council. 

After exhibits at Gallery 46 in Pontiac and the Nicole Tamer Gallery inside the David Whitney Building downtown, the 34-year-old is back with his latest show, “Critical Condition,” an exhibit on the triumphs and challenges Black people experience in the United States. 

“I feel like this is only the beginning,” Harris said of his career. “I feel like some of my artworks can create conversations that can possibly create change.”

Harris’ exhibit opens with a reception from 5-9 p.m. Saturday at the Liberal Arts Gallery, 3361 Gratiot Avenue. The show runs until Feb. 25 and is available to view from 5-9 p.m. Thursdays and Fridays and 12-4 p.m. Saturdays. Harris will host an artist talk from 4-6 p.m. Feb. 19.

 The painting “Appropriation” is on display at the Liberal Arts Gallery on Gratiot Avenue as part of Jonathan Harris’ exhibit “Critical Condition.” (Photo by Jonathan Harris)

Liberal Arts Gallery director Duane Belin said he is pleased to be hosting “Critical Condition” and has enjoyed watching Harris grow as an artist. 

“I was very pleased when Mr. Harris requested to do a show here at Liberal Arts,” he said. “I opened in 1989, so I have had a couple notable artists on site and every time they choose to do an exhibit here, it’s very humbling and quite exhilarating.” 

Turning a love of art into a career 

Harris has always enjoyed making art, but said he never thought he could turn it into a career. In 2018, while working a marketing job at Coca-Cola, Harris was invited to a 

meeting with the art enthusiast group Detroit Fine Arts Breakfast Club. While there, he met with club co-founder Henry Harper. 

“He (Harper) inspired me and persuaded me to create works of art and tell stories and create conversations,” Harris said.

“He gave me some critiques on my art that I needed to hear at the time because when I met him, I was just painting celebrities and things like that. He took me by my hand and told me to stop that and create things from my heart.” 

“Critical Condition” explores themes like Black oppression, hardship, Black love and the Black family, he said. One piece, “Appropriation,” features Harris himself and a white artist painting different versions of a Black man in a field breaking free from a chain. The stack of money by the white artist symbolizes how exploitative art can be. 

Jonathan Harris’ painting, “6 Generations” is among the pieces created for his new exhibit “Critical Condition.” (Photo by Jonathan Harris)

Another painting, “6 Generations,” depicts a group of naked or shirtless Black men from slavery to the present looking at a timeline of American landmarks and events like the Statue of Liberty, Mount Rushmore and the Apollo 11 mission. 

Overall, the exhibit features 12 pieces–six color paintings and six black-and-white pieces using a brushless oil enamel technique. More than half of the works in the exhibit have already been purchased. 

Harris said he hopes his artwork will allow guests, especially Black people, to think in a way that they haven’t before. 

“They’ll probably have this feeling where they say to themselves, ‘Oh, I never thought of that’ or ‘I may have never looked at it that way,’” he said. Or, ‘I feel the same way, but I’ve never said it or I never knew how to say it.’

“And, I feel like people who don’t look like me, they’ll have a better understanding about some of our stories and some of our feelings,” he said. 

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