Growing up in the Los Angeles suburb of Thousand Oaks, California, Jonni Cheatwood was torn between feelings of belonging and alienation. While he had some certainty about his mixed race identity — his mother, a saleswoman, was born and raised in Brazil and his father was an African-American film and music producer from Cleveland — Cheatwood was always “curious” for some deep-seated reason he could never quite put his finger on. The 31 year-old Cheatwood long thought about the resolutions (and revelations) that might arise from new developments in DNA testing, and often discussed these possibilities with his wife. So when she bought him a kit from an Ancestry.com Black Friday sale in 2016 he was eager to participate. However, when the results arrived six weeks later he was more than a little confused. Expecting to find confirmation of his Latin and African roots, he was shocked to learn he had more Scandinavian than African blood, and that while his family tree traced back to the Middle East and Native American tribes, he had no DNA whatsoever from South America.
“I feel that my dad knew,” says Cheatwood. “When I showed him the results he just said, ‘Oh, that makes sense.’”
Slightly alarmed and slightly relieved, this revelation also had a profound impact on Cheatwood’s painting practice. Five years ago necessity was truly the mother of invention inside his studio, then based in Arizona. With a desire to move beyond figurative work into large-scale abstractions — and a wallet that didn’t allow for such expansions — Cheatwood began sewing canvases from found pieces of transparent silk brocades and burlap sacks (once filled with alfalfa or coffee), which he further embellished with bolts of white and indigo denim or jersey mesh from Tempe fabric stores.
“I had this new information and I think I realized I was piecing myself together,” says Cheatwood, who moved back to Los Angeles three years ago. What begins with an autobiographical patchwork — sometimes inviting heated political discourse as was the case after he affixed one canvas with a bag of Black Panther coffee from Indonesia — sets a foundation for bold marks of color that are further adulterated with tube squeezes of black oil. Referencing everything from the emotional abstractions of Willem De Kooning to the primitivist scrawls of Jean Michel Basquiat to the expressionistic flurries of Arshile Gorky, Cheatwood’s “inorganic forms” are constantly exploring new depths of texture and symbolism. With heavier brushstrokes amplified by the addition of molding paste the brushstrokes, the new works in his solo debut at MAKASIINI CONTEMPORARY move beyond their former flatness to reveal even more layers of his complex identity.
“There’s a certain way that I sew that creates a lot of tension,” says Cheatwood. “And I feel like I’m creating even more tension with the maturity of my mark-making. It’s all about movements and motions and action.”