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May/June 2019

Photo © Weston Wells

Oliver Lee Jackson is an artist who expresses himself in many ways. His prolific works—created over the past half-century—include sculptures, prints, and drawings. But Jackson’s true masterpieces are paintings that use a wealth of unexpected items and techniques that border on mixed media.

Though he grew up in St. Louis, Jackson now lives and works in Oakland, California. The Oliver Lee Jackson: Recent Paintings exhibit at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., which opened April 14 and will be running until September 15, focuses on the artist’s paintings from the last fifteen years.

Jackson is likely the first Vietnam Era veteran to have a major exhibit at the National Gallery. He was drafted into the Army in 1961, and spent a year on active duty. Although Jackson doesn’t cite the military as one of his major influences, he believes that the people he met while he was in the Army were.

“You meet extraordinary people you would not ordinarily have met,” said Jackson. After some consideration, he concedes that his experiences in the service influenced him as well. “The military as an organization is like a small version of society that also had to work through problems of the times, like racism and feminism,” he said.

The influence of his acquaintances is evident in his paintings. Though many of his paintings are wildly abstract, they still manage to stay rooted in the human figure. To Jackson, there are many more visual opportunities in the human figure than in landscapes: “There’s an intimacy in the more relatable human figures.”

Beyond this familiarity of human figures, however, Jackson takes abstraction to a new level. He uses innovative techniques—many of his own invention. “He’s doing things no one else has done,” said the National Gallery of Art’s Head of Modern Art (and friend) Harry Cooper, who curated the exhibit. Included in his paintings are different kinds of paint, such as oil, enamel, and even spray paint. He also uses chalk, graphite, stencils, and—in some works—scraps of felt and linen.

Techniques and materials aren’t the only artistic conventions that Jackson blows out of the water. He holds unique views about how his art—and art in general—should be interpreted. Unlike many artists, Jackson insists that his paintings stand alone without the need for context. He believes that too often people struggle to interpret a work of art within the framework of the artist’s time period, background, gender, and race. But Jackson’s intention is not for viewers to know him through his paintings. In fact, he doesn’t want to give any hints about his works’ meaning.

Though many of his works in the exhibit bear the title “Painting,” Jackson insists that all of his works are in actuality untitled, so that there aren’t any clues to influence interpretation. He points out that people often get caught up in their interpretations rather than simply looking at the paintings. Jackson also recognizes that modern viewers often have a fear of things that don’t speak aloud, another reason he doesn’t title most of his paintings. Though his paintings don’t “speak aloud,” Jackson says that there is “a whole language in itself” in his art—“a language that doesn’t have a dictionary.”

Instead, Jackson’s intention is for the interplay and tension within a work to fuel the viewer’s interpretation. “You don’t need to know what it is. You just need to be engaged,” Jackson said. When forming their impressions, he hopes viewers focus on the significance of a painting to them, rather than deciphering its meaning. “The meaning is secondary; the significance is primary. Pay attention to what moves you.”

As for what moves him, Jackson said: “I’ve made paintings that I didn’t know if I liked it, but I knew it was correct.”

When describing his works, Jackson uses words such as “dynamic,” “activate,” “brute force,” and “tension,” which convey their eclectic energy.





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