Utmost caliber: Jack Graves III reflects on the art world with ‘Icons’

Jack Graves III’s exhibition “Icons” is on view along with an extensive collection of contemporary art at Graves International Art through October 18. Photo: Courtesy of artist Jack Graves III’s exhibition “Icons” is on view along with an extensive collection of contemporary art at Graves International Art through October 18. Photo: Courtesy of artist

For Jack Graves III, art is a family affair.

“My dad started an art gallery in 1978 in Jacksonville, Florida, with a $600 loan from his dad. By the time we moved up [to Gordonsville] in 1992, he had the largest art gallery in northern Florida,” Graves says.

“Before I was old enough to go to school, I would go into the gallery and draw. I grew up around this whole slew of art from established artists, around all those types and different styles, work that covers 400-some-odd years of art.”

That range of art includes engravings by 1500s-era masters such as Albrecht Dürer through contemporary prints and paintings by Roy Lichtenstein and Jim Dine.

In Florida in the ’80s, during Graves’ childhood, he and his family sold more Andy Warhol and Robert Rauschenberg than traditional work. Though they packed away much of the modern art when they moved the gallery to Gordonsville, Graves’ father (along with his brother Alex) recently brought the whole collection back out again.

This unveiling—now joined by a collection of Graves’ own recent work, an exhibition titled “Icons”—is part of Graves International Art’s latest move from Orange County to Charlottesville proper. “My family is very excited,” he says. “We hope to present something new to the community and something of the utmost caliber.”

Art history makes an inescapable context for Graves’ own artistic evolution. He tells the story of returning from a trip overseas at age 16, witnessing scenes from Jacques- Louis David’s 1807 painting “The Coronation of Napoleon” and how, suddenly, his whole perspective shifted.

“Instead of just being around what I was used to, what I was staring at really sunk in,” he says. “I had the background, but now I could grasp what I believe true artists were trying to bring forth from our history. It’s like knowing a different language.”

Just like that, the teenager realized how every aspect of a painting was chosen specifically to conjure emotion. In this way, a painting of a cow standing in front of a barn instantly became so much more, a form of visual language with infinite potential for self-expression.

Graves knew he wanted in. “I figured I would just cover a whole page in design work. As long as it was disciplined and changed and flowed then I was on the right track,” he says.

He began using pen on paper, eschewing pencils and erasers after a very successful artist, a friend of his father’s, told him how his parents broke the eraser of their son’s pencils with the instruction to “just do it right the first time.”

“That stuck with me,” Graves says. “So I thought, okay, I’ll just do pen to paper the first time.”

He began making black and white ink drawings, developing his understanding of depth, perspective and composition through simple lines and abstract shapes. “It’s like subtle architecture. You learn to build it right so it lasts longer.”

Line studies gave way to illustrations with animals such as elephants and cats, flowers and other plants, and finally human faces. “Subconsciously I was following the history of art,” he says. “If you look at any culture anywhere in the world, at their pottery or other art for everyday use, it all started with design.”

After 10 years he allowed himself to use color, marveling at the way just a few dabs of blue could transform a piece. Careful application of color is a hallmark of Graves’ current style, which has morphed into a combination of intricate graphics, bold colors and photorealistic drawings layered in collage-like compositions.

“I began pairing different works together to see what feeling or idea they can give you,” he says. “I want to make something original and timeless, and each and every time it ought to be powerful and beautiful.”

Graves describes this vein of stylistic exploration as eclecticism. “I can connect to other art styles, so it doesn’t sound chaotic or arbitrary, but it’s complete madness at a certain point. You go down the rabbit hole. You’re on your own study, your own path.”

Now, he says, the real effort is maintaining his focus on any one style for long enough to do it justice. The intensity of this effort makes each piece incredibly time-intensive, and, like many artists, he dedicates the majority of his life to it.

“When I went off to college it felt natural to take art classes, so I just did it and didn’t worry about it. I knew I wouldn’t be happy doing anything else. You’re only going to live one time.” Now the trade-off for his commitment is living at home, with full knowledge that he can’t afford to pay for both rent and food.

But Graves, who’s been exposed to the business of art since he was a child, has no illusions about the difficulty of “making it.” And really, that’s not the point.

“If I was more business, I’d go straight for pop surrealism and make glorified cartoons. But I can’t do that,” he says. “So I’m going to wait it out, bring what I think needs to be brought and expand and bring process and show something different and unique.”

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