Detroit painter explores what it means to be American in first solo show

Maureen Feighan
The Detroit News

What does it mean to be American? It's a complicated question, one that Detroit painter Jonathan Harris is asking himself and answering through his art.

His thought-provoking new exhibit, "Pledge Allegiance," which opened late last week, features 14 paintings, most depicting Harris's subjects wrapped in the American flag. It's displayed as part of Nicole Tamer Art inside the David Whitney Building off Woodward in downtown Detroit.

"I want to tell stories of different people coming from different life paths, wanting to be loved and embraced for who they are and where they come from," said Harris. 

Detroit based artist, Jonathan Harrison, standing next to his piece that's part of his "I Pledge Allegiance" series on  Tuesday March 15th 2022 in Detroit Michigan.

"Pledge Allegiance" marks Harris's first solo show since his painting, "Critical Race Theory," went viral last year and was shared thousands of times on social media. It depicts a frightening future world in which Black historical figures such as Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X and Harriet Tubman are literally being painting over.

Harris, who just started painting full-time during the pandemic, has since been featured on cable new shows and visited college campuses all over the country. But his ride to success hasn't been without bumps. He's parted ways with the Detroit gallery that represented him, Irwin House Global Art Center & Gallery, and originally displayed "Critical Race Theory."

Artist Jonathan Harris, who was raised in Detroit, next to his painting, "Critical Race Theory." It was originally displayed in fall of 2021 at an exhibition at the Irwin House Global Art Center and Gallery in Detroit.

Still, Harris is moving forward. In "Pledge Allegiance," his paintings are anything but straightforward. They depict subjects of all different ethnicities wrapped in the American flag. Harris used photos and then an oil enamel technique to create a unique, high contrast portrait of each subject.

Curator Nicole George, the founder of Nicole Tamer Art, calls Harris's work "emotive" with the power to move viewers in "unexpected ways."

"He stands out in his ability to connect viewers to current events and the African American experience," said George in a press release.

Of the 10 paintings in "Pledge Allegiance" that feature the American flag, Harris said he wanted viewers to see images of Black and brown people "in positions that tell stories of oppression or strength."

The exhibit will be up through the end of August. Harris also is helping with the opening a new gallery in Pontiac, Gallery 46, on N. Saginaw opens this weekend.

'Pledge Allegiance'

A solo show featuring the work of Detroit artist Jonathan Harris.

Display by Nicole Tamer Art inside the David Whitney building, 1 Park Avenue, Detroit.

Open daily from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. Exhibit runs through Aug. 23.