One would be hard-pressed to find a contemporary artist who plays more compellingly with the visual languages of twenty-first-century digital aesthetics—from video games to Tumblr to club culture—than Jacolby Satterwhite. Over the last decade Satterwhite has developed a recognizable video aesthetic built on animation, dance, and his own family history and archives. “Jacolby Satterwhite: Spirits Roaming the Earth,” on view at the SAIC galleries, bills itself as the first major survey of work by the young artist. Across its large footprint, audiences can see how Satterwhite’s aesthetic has evolved while maintaining the commitment to personal history and embodied practice that launched his career.
Upon entering the SAIC galleries, visitors encounter two of Satterwhite’s earliest videos. “Matriarch’s Rhapsody Codex” (2012) is projected on a wall adjacent to the gallery’s entrance. A digital triptych, the video features family photos, illustrations and crude animations. The illustrations and animations were made by Patricia Satterwhite, Jacolby’s mother and muse. Throughout her life, Patricia used drawing and singing to cope with mental illness. And much of Satterwhite’s earliest video work contains either images of Patricia’s drawings or audio recordings of her voice. Another early video, “Country Ball 1989-2012” features a similar combination of photos, drawings and objects, supplemented by home video of Satterwhite and his family. It is installed at the SAIC in a makeshift gift shop and concept store—a materialization of another theme, commodity and commerce, that Satterwhite returns to regularly in his work—where patrons can purchase copies of work by Satterwhite as well as versions of products from Patricia and Jacolby’s visual universe.
Family history and commerce are only two of the ideas Satterwhite explores in his densely packed oeuvre which grapples intensely with the process of healing through the intersectional lenses of race, gender and sexuality.
Primarily known for his work in video, “Spirits Roaming the Earth” is a vibrant, sound-filled show. The video installations take a variety of forms—many of his earliest works are installed on smaller flatscreens with headphones while later, more expansive works are multi-channel projections the beat-driven music of which bleeds across the galleries. Most of Satterwhite’s videos are set in 3D animated worlds populated by fantastical creatures and architecture that Satterwhite builds out in software programs such as Maya. The 3D software allows the videos to achieve an impossible sense of movement as his figures, objects and architectures, recalling the activity of video games, circulate dizzyingly across the space of the screen.
Most of his videos also incorporate Satterwhite’s own body, captured performing in front of a green screen, in nature, on city streets or in nightclubs. The comprehensive exhibition features examples of his earliest work, each of the videos in his ongoing series “Reifying Desire,” and more recent work from series such as “Birds of Paradise.” Visitors to the gallery can watch the evolution of Satterwhite’s animations, from the crudeness of “Matriarch’s Rhapsody” to the sophistication of the most recent video work in the exhibition, “The Measure of All Things” (2022-2023). Throughout each of the videos Satterwhite plays with layers of reality, fusing ever-more complex visual universes full of impossible shapes and figures with his established iconography comprised of images of his mother’s drawings, consumer products, celebrity figures, and his own body. Although there is a sense of play and levity in his work thanks to the bright colors and curious combinations of figures and objects, the works also often contain explicit depictions of sex and violence, gesturing to the interconnectedness of life and death, pleasure and pain.
Satterwhite has recently returned to painting, the medium in which he was originally trained. As his art world stature has grown, he has also turned to the creation of larger sculptural works formed out of neon and resin, a number of which are on view in the SAIC’s lower-level galleries. Many of the more recent plastic works materialize figures, objects, or language from his videos, a relationship which is made explicit in the proximity of video and object in several of the downstairs galleries. The turn to the material is a fitting gesture for an artist who has since his earliest video animations of his mother’s drawings and objects, been exploring the overlap between real and virtual space.
“Jacolby Satterwhite: Spirits Roaming on the Earth” is on view at SAIC Galleries, 33 East Washington through December 2.