Richard-Jonathan Nelson is a storyteller who communicates through nonlinear, multi-pronged, and diverse visual narratives that combine photography, textiles, and embroidery. The large tableaus in Nelson’s recent exhibition at Yossi Milo Gallery, Lacquered Egress, are vibrant and fantastical. Tropical vegetation, dyed and woven textiles in rich hues, and images of Black faces and bodies are seductive, though phrases, such as “was it worth it“ or “till I touched the grave,” or “where the fruit begins to rot,” a reference to Strange Fruit, the protest song made famous by Billie Holiday about lynching and racism in America, hint at a darker narrative.
Nelson, who is Black and gay, grew up in Georgia’s Low Country, and he draws on his southern roots. His mother and grandmother were seamstresses and he, in turn, incorporates various fabrics, which he weaves and dyes, into his pieces. The lushness of an imagined landscape is ever present, as are images of Black men, some seductive, others troubled or questioning, or filled with longing. Nature in much of Nelson’s work is opulent and lavish although lilies of the valley, sweet smelling but poisonous, hint it can also be dangerous.