He is a gifted visual artist, but Oliver Lee Jackson has the added ability to use language to provide a unique perspective to viewing art. His talk about what drives him to create sheds light on what artists set out to achieve with their personal creative responses to the world as they see it.
Such was the case recently when the St. Louis native discussed some works currently on display as part of the programming organized around the presentation of “Oliver Lee Jackson” at the Saint Louis Art Museum. The exhibition is curated by Simon Kelly, Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art, and Hannah Klemm, Associate Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art, along with research assistant Molly Moog. “Oliver Lee Jackson” is free and open to the public and will be on view in galleries 249 and 257 until February 20, 2022.
During the virtual program that took place via Zoom in December, Jackson discussed select pieces that spanned more than five decades with Harry Cooper, Senior Curator and Head of Modern Art at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. . Jackson’s work was exhibited at this prestigious national venue for over five months in 2019.
Conversation was a masterclass in creative intent.
“In this painting, I wanted it to be beautiful – but awful – beautiful, but awful,” Jackson said when describing a work from his famous Sharpeville series. “This back and forth of how the flame-like application of paint around the figuration is beautiful on its own, but the addition of the figuration is on top of another figuration and they should be pretty blended in terms of experience.”
The paintings are inspired by photographs of the Sharpeville massacre in 1960, when 250 South Africans were killed or injured for protesting apartheid in a non-violent way.
For the viewer – and Jackson saw himself as such – his goal was to bring out a sense of urgency as viewers grasp the tragic reality that inspired the art.
“The sense of urgency in the paintings we reviewed was fundamental,” Jackson said. “It’s about making the experience very rich in terms of the emotional shifts that the event would take place for a person in that situation – a type of urgency and feelings that keep changing in many ways of being elegant , desperate and strong at the same time.”
Cooper pointed to Jackson’s proclivity for inserting characters into his work that fosters a multiplicity that keeps the viewer engaged — and draws a new experience with each viewing — as they discussed additional works in the exhibit.
“I personally go back and forth and when I live your work,” Cooper said. “Often I don’t try too hard to come up with the numbers right away because there’s so much to look at.
“I don’t think there is ever anything hidden in a painting, but you have to learn its vocabulary,” Jackson replied. “Each work has a kind of vocabulary that is determined by the effect of the field that you want to attract the viewer.”
He likens his paintings to the making of a world.
“And in that world, everything has to increase the scope of the work, but belong in that world – so the aesthetic can’t get out of it,” Jackson said. “They have to be beautiful, but the beauty inside that particular modality. It’s making a fluid representation with a field.
Jackson went further by discussing the process of creating images.
“The word drawing itself is to bring out an image,” Jackson said, “When you draw you are doing two things simultaneously – you are marking what can be marked to bring out what can be seen. As you draw , you also mark. It’s an interesting dynamic. You mark by drawing on it, but at the same time the marks have to produce something.
During the talk, Cooper and Jackson also mentioned paintings and sculptures featured in the exhibit “Oliver Lee Jackson: Any Eyes,” curated by his longtime collaborator Diane Roby, which is currently on display at the Di Rosa Center for Contemporary Art in Napa Valley, California. until February 20.
They also talked about a very personal project, “Dear Friend,” which Jackson recently developed as a tribute to the late composer and Black Artists Group co-founder Julius Hemphill.
The “Dear Friend” folio was conceived and designed by Jackson and features scores of Hemphill compositions paired with paintings and drawings that add visual context to the music.
Hemphill, who was also a co-founder of the famous World Saxophone Quartet, spent several years in St. Louis – where creative collaboration and friendship were fostered between him and Jackson.
“I wasn’t trying to have anything to do with trying to draw music, but I was trying to see the relationship — which is so beautiful — between his marks and my marks,” Jackson said of of the project. “Every page will have a feeling.”
Jackson insisted on sharing a quote from Hemphill with the audience.
“I’m not an evangelist,” Jackson read. “I am simply a man, trying to guide himself through his own confusion so that he can communicate in a sincere voice with other human beings.”
The words of the late musical genius apply equally to Jackson’s artistry – and his ability to express the pathology behind it.
“Oliver Lee Jackson” will be on view in Galleries 249 and 257 of the Saint Louis Museum of Art until February 20, 2022. For hours and additional information, visit www.slam.org.