Oliver Lee Jackson: Someplace Else

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Oliver Lee Jackson has been making expressive paintings which explore pictorial and perceptual power, force, and sacred space for over 50 years. His large scale colorful paintings and intricate works on paper are celebratory in nature and invite us to rejoice in seeing for the sake of seeing. Circumventing expectations of a narrative, his works contain (often recurring) figures who exist in their own world, not the world of the viewer. Jackson’s intention is to let the mind travel to a place that is unfamiliar and compelling, allowing the work to unveil itself through time and layer by layer, often showing us objects as invitations into the work. These figurative elements are embedded within and inseparable from the field: crouched or lying figures, faces in profile, flowers, silhouetted birds, a pair of shoes, the cone shape of an eye, or an extended arm with pointing finger. In disengaging these elements from a narrative, familiar world, we may become open to seeing in a new way, allowing ourselves to get lost within the field, and Jackson continually challenges us to do so.

Jackson’s artworks are in the permanent collections of The National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC; Museum of Modern Art, New York; The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; Contemporary Art Museum, Chicago; Yale University Art Gallery; San Francisco Museum of Modern Art; Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco; San Jose Museum of Art; Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive, and many other public and private collections across the U.S. During his academic career between 1964 to 2002, Jackson was an instructor, lecturer, and professor of art. He lives and works in Oakland, CA.

No. 4, 2017 (6.6.17), 2017, Oil on panel, 95” x 72”

No. 11, 2017 (10.1.17), 2017, Oil on panel, 95” x 72”

Painting (1.1.11), 2011, Watercolor, enamel on canvas, 65 3/4� x 64 1/4�

Painting (11.7.10), 2010, Mixed media on canvas, 65 3/4” x 65 5/8”

Painting (5.12.11), 2011, Oil-based pigments on linen, 108� x 108�

Triptych 2015, 2015, Felt, chalk pastel, alkyd, mixed media on wood panel, 95” x 72” (each)

Painting (12.3.10), 2010, Watercolors on gessoed canvas, 64 1/4” x 64 1/4”

No. 1, 2018 (1.2.18), 2018, Oil-based paints on panel, 48” x 48”

No. 1, 2017 (3.13.17), 2017, Oil, spray enamel, silver and gold leaf on panel, 95” x 72”

No. 3, 2018 (2.5.18), 2018, Oil-based paints on panel, 72” x 72”

No. 2, 2018 (1.31.18), 2018, Oil-based paints on panel, 72” x 72”

No. 14, 2015 (12.1.15), 2015, Mixed media on masonite, 25 1/2” x 14 1/2”

No. 13, 2015 (10.18.15), 2015, Mixed media on masonite, 25 1/2 x 14 1/2 in.

Painting (12.22.10), 2010, Mixed media on canvas, 22 1/4” x 22 3/4”

Painting (12.15.10), 2010, Mixed media on canvas, 20 1/4” x 20 1/4”

No. 10, 2017 (9.5.17), 2017, Oil on panel, 44” x 40”

Composite (10.30.12), 2012, Intaglio print, mixed media on paper, 38 5/8� x 27�

Left: Composite (4.25.01), 2001, Mixed media on paper, 21 1/4” x 27 1/4” Right: Handcolored Woodblock Print (7.21.08), 2008, Woodblock print, mixed media on paper, 29 3/4” x 22”

Between World and Interior: The Art of Oliver Lee Jackson Robert L. Pincus There is a paradox at the heart of Oliver Jackson’s art. The figures that inhabit his works exist in a world separate from ours. They are virtually inextricable from the lines that define the space that often envelops them. Yet the effect isn’t to separate them from our sense of the world, of what it means to be human. Instead, that bond with the mysteries of existence becomes intensified.

No narrative is offered, and yet his paintings beckon powerfully to the viewer. Part of that pull is formal, the way that the eye pieces together the figural forms. These figures don’t evoke flesh and blood; their skin is pigment. Yet the other force they exert transcends formal concerns. It’s a kind of force field in which line, structure and color set off its charges. “Fierceness” is a word that Jackson often uses to characterize his work. It’s not that he wants the paintings to be combative or confrontational, but it is clear he seeks a structural and imagistic tautness, an intense focus that subordinates intellect to intuition. “You have to decide if you’re going to serve the work,” he has observed. “It requires a lot of self-discipline. I can see in the work the fierceness of choices. I look for that which is most efficient.” 1

Few figurative artists have created such a vigorous body of work in the last five decades, which should tell you that tapping into his intuitions is a process that always involves the eye as much as the emotions, an impressive level of draftsmanship and painting as much as a genuine level of experimentation. Jackson’s overarching artistic aim can be phrased as a question: How does one make art that transcends references to everyday surroundings while establishing a strong bond with the viewer’s visual sense of the world?

His paintings and sculptures combine sustained scrutiny of Michelangelo and Rembrandt with eloquent insights gleaned from Baule and Ivory Coast sculpture as well as the paintings of Pollock and de Kooning. But like all inventories of stylistic influences, this reveals interests but not outcome. Like all distinctive artists, he replays his debts

to the past handsomely, with a vision we can readily identify as his own. Through the years, he has been classified as an inheritor of the New York School sensibility, a latter day representative of the Bay Area Figurative School and a West Coast practitioner of Neo-Expressionism. These labels may serve as convenient guideposts, offering a short historical context. Surely working in the Bay Area, where the expressionist ethos of the ‘50s remained vital after it had gone into decline on the East Coast, was beneficial to Jackson’s evolution and his continuing vitality. But Jackson’s way of thinking, his way of working, wasn’t – and isn’t – regional. It concentrates on essentials; a statement he made decades ago still explains his approach:

If we don’t yield to the way we see, as makers, then we can’t really work. Picasso said we need to forget what we learned. I need to clear my mind of training. That’s the rigor: to start to make something apart from my own taste, to practice clarity on my feet, to be ruthless but also passionate, to accept the way the figurative element is made with learning. 2

This is a precise description of the process by which Jackson combines knowledge and rigor, while eluding an excessively academic approach to the making of art. And he puts his approach into practice not out of an obligatory or perfunctory need to be experimental, but because this is his only way to arrive at the structural and spiritual intensity he strives for in painting. For a work of art to “get past the eyes,” as he once put it, it has to attract the eyes first and be engaging enough to keep them fixed on the composition for a period of time. Then, the work can exert its more profound pull on the viewer. Jackson’s art meets this demanding criterion.

Jackson’s formal rigor provides receptive viewers with an experience that transcends form. He means for you to have the aesthetic equivalent of a spiritual experience. It is a vision with roots in both Romantic and Modernist thought. His paintings embody a macrocosmic view of the cosmos, in which figures and ground (people and universe) are intertwined and inseparable. Yet even as that relationship of men and women to world is intimate, their pictorial universe is hardly tranquil. Jackson’s style is precisely keyed to his notion of a large, unstable, at times tempestuous, universe.

Jackson is just as inclined to create an economical painting full of white space as one dense and baroque in its effects. In Jackson’s paintings, open space becomes the world in which figures exist. The space has a mythic or magical quality; figures metamorphose into others. White space has continued to be a vital element of Jackson’s

style through the decades. The gessoed surface, true to Jackson’s ability to merge figure and surroundings, functions not as background but as an emblem of infinite space which the figures inhabit.

Jackson acknowledges that music has been an influence on his work, and, in particular, on his expansively open paintings that make generous use of white. Silence and pauses are as integral to a great musical number as melody or arrangement. Since Jackson’s formative days in St. Louis, when he was associated with the Black Artists Group, he has numbered jazz among his passions, and musicians among his friends. But it is probably even more useful to think of jazz as a variety of inspirations more than a direct equivalent.

Much like a musician who has mastered the structure of music thoroughly and whose ability to improvise is rooted in such knowledge, Jackson has honed a moving and flexible approach to making. His approach has allowed him to invent paintings that do more than seduce the eye. He never employs paint simply for formal effect, even when an expanse of a canvas is abstract. It always contributes to an emotionally resonant pictorial puzzle. “You have to decide if you’re going to serve the work,” is how he puts it, “the artist is a tool.” 3

This doesn’t mean he sees himself as some sort of medium for visionary images. Rather, he believes that an artist needs to sharpen his or her skills to the point where the most powerful form that a composition can take becomes clear in the process of making it.

The gestures of Jackson’s figural forms have concreteness comparable to that of a precisely choreographed dance, whose implied movements or poses are most often drawn from life. But their anatomy or position in space, which adhere proportionally only to the logic of the painting in which they appear, lends his figures a visionary quality: they appear as if they could easily evaporate into surrounding space. Yet they are also doing recognizable things: walking, reclining, or sitting in a circle. This elemental way of integrating a figure into his pictorial world has been a constant in Jackson’s art, but he shows no sign of exhausting its possibilities. His paintings contain and express a lucid, symbolic vision of our inseparability from the natural world, of the extraordinariness of ordinary activities.

Jackson’s paintings mean to establish an immediate bond with us by referring to the way we ordinarily experience the world physically. He taps knowledge that isn’t generally classified as consciously recognized knowledge: how walking a certain way connotes ebullience or dignity; how simply forming a circle with others connotes intimacy or friendship; or how the position of a raised arm and hand conveys pain or struggle. This insistence on the transcendent qualities of common experiences is one of the key things Jackson is referring to when he speaks of moving through and then past the visual, of when he talks about the “dumbness and intimacy” of his art. Though he presents the world anew, he relies on what we already know and the emotional messages we express and convey with our bodies.

To be sure, a painter working in a more realistic style could communicate some of the same concerns and revelations. Jackson would likely agree. He speaks just as admiringly of Rembrandt and Vermeer as he does of Van Gogh or de Kooning. One has to study the work of masters intensely to even catch a glimpse of the machinery behind their work, to employ his term for the way painters structure their compositions. The sheer emotional force of their work makes that difficult. This kind of looking has taught him to understand “the fierceness of choices,” as he phrases it. “I look for that which is most efficient, that is most rigorous.” 4

His own choices represent his way of understanding the world, through the senses and the soul. There is also physical knowledge, just as with the figures he represents. The distinctive look of Jackson’s paintings also derives from the placement of the canvas on the floor during its composition. He works, quite literally, on the canvas at many moments – a fact he has sometimes signified by including a likeness of his shoes within a painting. This self-referential allusion is also an invitation for the viewer to imaginatively enter Jackson’s paintings.

In his most densely organized paintings, the field seems to be constructed almost entirely from figures, and this category of Jackson’s paintings does offer the viewer a different variety of experiences. Jackson’s figures inhabit a universe more powerful than themselves, where they gather in circles for comfort, navigate tempestuous terrain and skies, or shield themselves from the elements. But in giving eloquent shape to this vision of human existence, Jackson also testifies to the reach of human vision, the reach of art.

The artist observes: “I want to get me out of the way. I want to create an incisive tone of feeling, an equivalent of a spiritual state of being.” 5

Jackson likes to call the successful art object a machine, because he is convinced that each element must relate flawlessly to every other element. This concept holds, he asserts, whether the artist is Vermeer or Pollock, a Dahomey sculptor or Michelangelo. Only if the “aesthetic machine� is precise will the work have the power it aspires to possess. Only then will it become a machine for elevating the spirit. It is a testament to Oliver Jackson’s abilities that so many of his works demonstrate the validity of this notion: they are eloquent mechanisms that fix the eye and move the soul.

Notes: 1 Oliver Jackson, personal interviews, December 1 and 2, 2002. 2 Jackson, personal interviews, December 1 and 2, 2002. 3 Jackson, personal interviews, December 1 and 2, 2002. 4 Jackson, personal interviews, December 1 and 2, 2002. 5 Jackson, personal interviews, October 1992 and January 1993.

Robert L. Pincus served as the art critic of The San Diego Union and The San Diego Union-Tribune for 25 years, and was an art critic for the Los Angeles Times. He has written regularly for magazines, including Art News and Art in America, for three decades and has contributed stories and commentary to The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times. He has won many journalism prizes, including the Chemical Bank Award for Distinguished Newspaper Art Criticism. He has a combined Ph.D. in English and Art History from the University of Southern California and is the author of a seminal book on the major American artists Edward Kienholz and Nancy Reddin Kienholz, On A Scale That Competes With The World, and has contributed essays to many other books and exhibition catalogs. Pincus has taught as a Visiting Professor at the University of San Diego since 1998, offering courses in art criticism, theory and history. He also teaches courses in writing, theory and criticism for the graduate art program at California State University, Long Beach.

For all inquiries, click here to contact Trish Bransten

Published on the occasion of the exhibition Oliver Lee Jackson: Someplace Else at Rena Bransten Gallery / March 3 - April 28, 2018 Photo credit: M. Lee Fatherree (works) & Phillip Maisel (installation)

Essay Between World and Interior: The Art of Oliver Lee Jackson Š 2018 Robert L. Pincus

Design by China Langford

All artwork Š Oliver Lee Jackson / Artist Website

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