FORT WORTH — Jamal Cyrus works in layers. Overlays of materials and associations.
The Houston-born and based artist, educated at the Universities of Houston and Pennsylvania, works in a wide range of media, in two and three dimensions, and occasionally in sound. But the exhibition of his recent works at the Modern Art Museum in Fort Worth lives up to his “Focus” label.
Immediately striking are the tapestries of thin strips of shredded denim bonded together in subtly sculptural textures. Some are in cool or faded blue, others in faded white. Puffs of cotton batting and shards of zippers and leather patches occasionally punctuate the surfaces.
Some of these tapestries, collectively titled Blue Alluvial Glue, suggest soil layers formed by multiple floods. Others evoke patches of cultivated land. In Blue Alluvial Glue (Line), a jagged band of dark blue on a white background suggests a river flowing through it. But these works, in particular Blue Alluvial Glue (Form)can also be read purely as a textured abstraction.
The rivers of Texas and the cultures that grew up there were sources of inspiration for Cyrus.
“Most of the historical material I deal with relates to what would be considered the black radical tradition,” he explains in a document. “I’m interested in the ideas and strategies that black people develop to get through very difficult social circumstances.”
In the 1820s, white settlers cultivated these soils for cotton and other crops. Much of the labor was done by black slaves – 182,566 were counted in Texas in the 1860 census – and life for farm laborers did not improve much after emancipation.
Like Gee’s Bend quilts, patched together by poor black women in isolated Alabama communities, these ripped jeans evoke difficult past lives. But jeans, even in tatters, are still worn across all socio-economic strata, an enduringly shared experience.
Several strands of Black Texas music are also woven through Cyrus’ works. A lifelong music lover, Cyrus cites the legacy of Coutchman-born Blind Lemon Jefferson, father of Texas blues, and jazz greats Ornette Coleman and Julius Hemphill, both from Fort Worth. The zigzags of Common languageperhaps suggesting jazzy syncopations, are topped with a crisp army of high black piano keys.
More explicitly musical, Horn Beam Effigy is a totemic construction surmounted by an inverted saxophone, the instrument of Jefferson, Coleman and Hemphill. With heavy strings sprouting from its tone holes – do with it what you will – it caps a vertical rail with Picasso-like wings. The base is a bed of gravel framed by old railroad ties, the underlay of rural and provincial Texas escapes. Port of call whimsically attaches a conch shell – a different listening medium – to a microphone stand and cable.
The half-remembered music is evoked in two works in graphite powder on sepia paper, both titled Ballad Rite_1-Percussion. Fading music ledger lines are crisscrossed with bands of ghostly dots suggesting otherworldly musical notation.
Rooted in the earth, echoing lost music, Cyrus’ layered art is visually engaging and deeply human. Hopefully we’ll see more.
“Focus: Jamal Cyrus” runs through June 26 at the Fort Worth Museum of Modern Art, 3200 Darnell St., Fort Worth. Tuesday to Thursday and Saturday and Sunday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Friday 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. $16; discounts for students, seniors, military personnel and first responders; under 18 free. Free admission on Friday; half price on Sunday. 817-738-9215. themodern.org.