Josh Jefferson calls his exhibition at Steven Zevitas Gallery “Shaboopie,” street lingo for a girl who’s hard to get. He’s playful with titles. The show could be named “Whee!” for his paintings’ giant, exuberant gestures.
Then again, his works on paper — collaged and painted heads, many cartoonishly graphic — mix in angst and edge. Call them “Who Do You Think You Are?” A combative question, or one that positions each piece as a mirror.
In all his works, Jefferson uses the head as a portal to abstraction.
“Big, Bad, and Beautiful,” on paper, features paint in splatters, blots, and dramatic swoops. Facial features are simple and brash: watery black lines and dots, loosely ringed or shadowed with brushy green. The hair? One dauntless Trumpian wave in Yves Klein blue. Splatters and drips animate the piece’s surface.
The head becomes a platform for painterly bravado and a crucible for abstraction. In some pieces, Jefferson replaces features with brushwork and abstract forms. Because the head format is so iconic, the abstraction suggests inner lives.
Then, ah, the paintings! To paint his canvases, some as large as 60 inches by 48 inches, Jefferson constructed one huge brush out of four. In each, he paints the outline of a head surrounded in black. The insides swirl with luxuriant arcs, streaking color where a face would be.
Inside the head in “Gummy Bear,” curvy verticals in luminous honey tones give way like stage curtains to ember red and blue edged in white. These big gestures, one folding into the next, build space. Deep pockets beckon and glow, or retreat into darkness.
While the nervy works on paper are intriguing to look at, the canvases lure us in. Though the head shape points to portraits, the paintings go beyond any sense of a single person. If they had to depict something, perhaps it’s a deity.
Or, like most abstract paintings, they depict nothing but what we see in them — and the painter’s wizardry.
JOSH JEFFERSON: SHABOOPIE
At Steven Zevitas Gallery, 450 Harrison Ave., through Oct. 29. 617-778-5265, www.stevenzevitasgallery.com