Oliver Lee Jackson
Oliver Lee Jackson: Recent Paintings
National Gallery of Art - Washington, D.C., East Building, Mezzanine
March 24 – September 2, 2019
ARTFORUM: Oliver Lee Jackson
An eclectic mix of paintings and sculptures by Oliver Lee Jackson was exhibited at Burning in Water. If you're unfamiliar with the artist's work, know that the octagenarian has a rich past: Amongst other things, he founded in 1971 the African Continuum arts organization, a body dedicated to the support and advancement of black thinking and culture, and from 1968 to 1972 he collaborated with Saint Louis's cross-disciplinary Black Artists Group (or BAG), befriending and working with the avant-garde jazz musician Julius Hemphill. Jackson's show was a modest sampling from a lifetime of production by an imagination still going strong (a major retrospective of the artist's work is scheduled to open next March at the National Gallery in Washington, DC). All the pieces on view were infused with a broad modernist spirit. One could locate subtle references to an assortment of forebears, such as Klee, Kandinsky, Pollock, and Picasso. Three freestanding, painted sculptures--two of steel (Bust VI, 1998 and Striding Figure, 2004), and one of wood (Head No. 5, 1988)--were rather cubist in feeling. Yet Jackson's vision is singular: A cunning handling of materials pushed the works well beyond formal quotation of clichéd distortion.
In three black paintings, No. 12, 2013, and No. 6 and No. 7, both 2014, abstraction and representation ingeniously converged, suggesting their inseparability. At first glance, Jackson's canvases might come across as thoughtful extensions of Ad Reinhardt's "black paintings." But then, slowly yet surely, a figure appears, like a mirage--a phantom evoking Ralph Ellison's "invisible man." Of course, blackness has a different meaning for Jackson than it had for Reinhardt. Yes, black is a color, to borrow the title of Matisse's 1946 essay. Though in the United States, black has a profound social and political meaning--an aspect the French painter of bourgeois pleasure likely did not fathom. Jackson builds death into blackness, and his black figures appear to have risen from the grave to haunt us: They possess the inevitability and majesty of death; they are absence given uncanny presence. His beings surge from the souls of the painting with nightmarish persistence, conveying the negation, devaluation, and deindividualization African Americans have suffered in this country. His figures, disappearing into oblivion even as they make an unforgettable appearance, are emblems of a violent black history, tragic memento mori.
Three intaglio prints in the exhibition were also powerful: Composite, 2012, and Intaglio Print XLVI and Intaglio Print XLVII, both 2013. To my eye they were the most intensely wrought and aesthetically convincing works in the exhibition--combinations of heavenly light and hellish shadow, depictions of bodies both damaged and adored, feats of draftsmanship complemented by a flair for expressionistic chaos. The artist creates a palpable tension by merging his particular stripe of formalism with his politics--it's what gives his works their grandeur, a revelatory beauty.
Oliver Lee Jackson (b. 1935, St. Louis, Missouri) is a painter, sculptor and printmaker based in Oakland, California. Jackson was awarded a BFA from Illinois Wesleyan University (1958) and an MFA from the University of Iowa, Iowa City (1963). During the 1960s, Jackson worked extensively with community-based arts groups in the St. Louis region during which time he was Assistant Director of the People’s Art Center and later the Director of Program Uhuru. He was closely aligned with the landmark Black Artists Group (BAG), which included musicians, theater performers and dancers in addition to visual artists, and he was a close collaborator of renowned jazz musician Julius Hemphill. Jackson also co-founded the arts organization African Continuum.
Jackson was an artist-in-residence at Harvard University from 2000-2001. His artwork has been exhibited extensively at major institutions including the Whitney Museum of American Art (New York, NY); the Museum of Modern Art (New York, NY); the Museo de Arte Moderna (Rio de Janeiro, Brazil); the Seattle Art Museum (Seattle, WA); the Museum of Fine Arts (Boston, MA); the Museum of Contemporary Art (Chicago, Illinois); the Albright-Knox Art Gallery (Buffalo, NY); the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (San Francisco, CA); the Portland Art Museum (Portland, OR); the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (Los Angeles, CA); and the New Orleans Museum of Art (New Orleans, LA). Jackson's recent show at Burning in Water - New York, Untitled Original, was recommended by Artnet News and Time Out - New York and selected as a "must-see" exhibition by Artforum magazine.