Malin Gallery is presenting an exhibition of paintings and sculpture by Oliver Lee Jackson: Take the House. Based in Oakland, the 84-year-old artist has been pursuing his singular artistic vision for over five decades.Take the House is the gallery’s third solo exhibition of work by Jackson and follows his acclaimed exhibition at the National Gallery, Washington: Oliver Lee Jackson – Recent Paintings.
Born in 1935, Oliver Lee Jackson initially emerged as an artist amidst the vibrant, cross-disciplinary arts scene of St. Louis, where he led a series of community arts programs and was closely affiliated with the Blacks Artists’ Group (BAG) that fostered collaboration among musicians, dancers and theater performers in the St. Louis area from the mid-1960s to the mid-1970s. Jackson was deeply enmeshed with the avant-garde jazz musicians at the heart of the BAG movement, including its leader Julius Hemphill, who became a life-long collaborator. As one of the two visual artists affiliated with BAG, Jackson created sets and costumes for the group’s performances, and his artwork graced album covers for the musicians. In addition to its creative innovations, BAG was also pioneering in its adoption of community-oriented, participatory art programs and its commitment to activism. As historian Benjamin Looker notes in his history of BAG, Point from which Creation Begins, Jackson’s role in BAG extended beyond primary visual artist. Looker describes Jackson as additionally serving as the key “theorist” within the group – constantly evaluating the group’s activities within a broader sociocultural context and frequently pushing for more direct action. Although the milieu around BAG was suffused with socio-political exigencies that he confronted directly, in his artwork Jackson strove to engage viewers on the most intimate, profound terms, asserting that, “The responsibility of the artist is to give back — not a reflection, but a sense of clarity about the spiritual state.” He aimed for directness that could beguile and provoke viewers in a manner unmediated by historicity, theory or circumstance:
Can you see?
Can you bear witness — not interpret — can you bear witness?
People always ask…”Who is this for?”
It’s for anybody that’s got eyes.
“Well, is it for your people?”
Anybody that’s got eyes…
By 1972, Jackson along with several of his BAG contemporaries, had departed St. Louis – chaffing against the in hospitability of the Midwestern civic milieu towards their social and artistic ambitions. Alternating academic stints with sojourns abroad studying sculpture in West Africa and learning traditional marble sculpture techniques in Carrera, Jackson embarked on his own trajectory artistic experimentation. Having now entered a fifth decade of his artistic project, Jackson maintains his endeavor with a preternatural degree of vitality, ambition and radical openness. His formative experiences with BAG remain critical touchtones in his work with the aesthetics of avant-garde music and dance persisting as animating forces. Beyond the elements of his work that may be seen as visual correlates of the spirits of jazz music, dance or African rhythms lie deeper undercurrents that flow through Jackson’s work through the years: a celebration of the transformative potential of art and a continual striving towards transcendence. Moreover, Jackson’s compositions flourish in that most desired, sacrosanct realm of the jazz ethos: they swing.
In describing his approach to art, Jackson frequently invokes the terms power and fierceness. His avowed intention is for his art to serve as a conduit to archetypal, quasi-spiritual spaces that exist outside of the physical realm of material, form and line. Rather than pre-ordained pathway or closed forms, he sees his artworks as points of departure. Jackson states his intention to make work that can “get past the eyes” and facilitate discernment of a “vision beyond.” Jackson’s agenda predicated neither on formalism nor narration. Rather, he invites viewers to step into their own dreams.
Although allusions to human form are elements that recur throughout Jackson’s body of work, he eschews characterization as a figurative painter. The bodily forms evident in his work, Jackson insists, are “paint people” who are defined by their materiality and whose “anatomy” exists only “in the paint.” Though his visual elements may seem superficially familiar, the power and fierceness of Jackson’s images derives from their ultimate ineffability: Look, painting is not a verbal language – it bypasses understanding…it is pure modality — it is about states of being. And paintings have a certain force, and they cut into you in certain places within your spirituality.
Drawn from over a forty-year span of Jackson’s career, the selection of works in Take the House demonstrate visual elements that have re-emerged in his work over time. Several of the artist’s “white space” paintings from different periods are featured. Echoing Ornette Coleman’s selection of his friend Jackson Pollock’s painting The White Light (1954) as the cover art for the seminal 1961 album Free Jazz, Jackson’s “white space” works suggest parallels between a bright visual expanse and seemingly limitless possibilities for creation. As art historian Robert Pincus has noted:
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…. In Jackson’s paintings, open space becomes the world in which figures exist. The space has a mythic…quality; figures metamorphose into others. White space has [been the] 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…
This show lasts through March 7, 2020.