Gerald Jackson transcends himself

In a Magazine bomb 2016 interview with the painter Stanley Whitney, Gerald Jackson tried to explain the difficulty – for a black artist, like him – of accessing an authentic sense of self when his identity is a construction imposed on him by a dominant white society based on a history of slavery. He had to reconstruct, he says, his whole subconscious: “I am not a madman; I am not a black person. I am only what I invent.

Jackson grew up on Chicago’s Southside, as he recounts in the interview, wearing a suit and carrying a gun. In the early 1960s, he fled to bohemian New York, via a stint in the military. A polymath whose work has taken forms including (but not limited to) figurative painting, minimalist abstraction, grainy assemblage, collage, poetry and fashion, Jackson has tried many identities. Exhibitions of his work last year at White Columns and Gordon Robichaux in New York introduced many to the breadth of his accomplishments and the sometimes bewildering heterogeneity of his styles. Two new exhibitions in Los Angeles carefully choose to focus on narrower slices of his output.

Gerald Jackson, Untitled (Painting on skates), 1980s, spray paint on wood, 72 × 72 cm. Courtesy of the artist and Parker Gallery, Los Angeles; photography: Paul Salveson

‘Psychic Rebuilding’ at Parker Gallery presents two interrelated works made in the 1980s: a group of paintings on canvas using stencils and spray paint, and his ‘Skid Paintings’. Skates, in this context, are the wooden pallets that Jackson scavenged from the streets around his Bowery studio, initially to burn in his oven during the winter months, but later as supports for roughly hewn abstract paintings. which could also include knotted strips of fabric, shredded paper and his own earlier canvases nailed to wood.

Jackson’s stencils were also mostly found objects, or transposed found images: Native American and ancient Egyptian symbols; nursery rhyme illustrations; floral patterns. In Untitled (1985), the largest and arguably the best work in the series, they are laid out haphazardly alongside erratic blotches, broad brushstrokes of enamel, and spray-painted squiggles. The painting evokes the fury and freedom of a graffiti subway wall. “Psychic Rebuilding” feels like Jackson is forging an unstable alliance between his current reality, his imaginative aesthetic projections, and his allusions to the past, both ancient and personal. Wooden skates transmit strength and endurance; what holds them back seems delicate and tentative.

Gerald Jackson, Untitled (Skid Painting), 1980s, detail view, acrylic, spray paint, masonite, wood, nails, staples, paper and wire, 1.6 × 1.7 m.  Courtesy of the artist and Parker Gallery, Los Angeles;  photography: Paul Salveson
Gerald Jackson, Untitled (Painting on skates), 1980s, detail view, acrylic, spray paint, masonite, wood, nails, staples, paper and wire, 1.6 × 1.7 m. Courtesy of the artist and Parker Gallery, Los Angeles; photography: Paul Salveson

At Marc Selwyn Fine Art, more refined acrylic paintings – on canvas, fiberboard and paper – surround the space. Almost all are based on rectangular bands of green (below) and blue (above), as if to signify rudimentary landscapes. Green is not grass green, however, and blue is not sky blue; these color field experiments are more aligned with Whitney’s deceptively simple abstractions.

The exhibition’s press release says that in these paintings, which were made between 2003 and 2021, Jackson aims to “transcend the self,” with blue and green “mov[ing] beyond social constructs like race and class, to tap into a universal realm of human spirituality”. I don’t know if it’s possible, but I understand the impulse. The work only came to life for me when I recorded some of the paintings’ supports: battered pieces of cardboard with nail holes and fuzzy corners, red logos printed furtively behind the painting. The exhibition is called “The Cure of Color: Blue and Green”. If the self, for Jackson, is something hereditary, an impression imperfectly shaped by external conditions, then it is understandable to want to counter that pain with the balm of pure color.

G erald J ackson Untitled, 1 9 8 5 Acrylic, enamel, spray paint and oil paste on canvas 6 7 x 9 7 inches (1 7 0 .2 x 2 4 6 .4 cm
Gerald Jackson, Untitled, 1985, acrylic, enamel, spray paint and oil pastel on canvas, 1.7 × 2.5 m. Courtesy of the artist and Parker Gallery, Los Angeles; photography: Paul Salveson

None of the works in these exhibitions are truly transcendent, but I wouldn’t want them to be either. It is their palpable stories – manifested in their materiality and in the confluence between the biography of their creator and the history of race and class in the United States – that imbues them with talismanic power.

by Gerald JacksonPsychic reconstruction‘ is on view at the Parker Gallery, Los Angeles, through June 4. ‘The cure for color: blue and green‘ is on view at Marc Selwyn Fine Art, Los Angeles, through June 18.

Main image: Gerald Jackson, ‘Psychic Rebuilding’, 2022, exhibition view. Courtesy of the artist and Parker Gallery, Los Angeles; photography: Paul Salveson


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