Mark Jackson

Betsy Rosenfield Gallery

Mark Jackson’s new work is disturbed by fear and paranoia. Not that his previous paintings weren’t psychologically pregnant with a certain dread, but what was before a covert unease has now blossomed into full-blown horror and hallucination. A man looks over his shoulder as giant facial features materialize behind his back; a woman balances precariously between leering, disembodied men’s heads bobbing around her like balloons; a man raises his arms to fend off a woman’s grinning face coming at him from the upper right corner of the canvas. Titles like Out of the Darkness, 1983, and Between the Shadows and the Light, 1984, reinforce the ominous feeling of these pictures.

The 32-year-old artist’s first solo show, two years ago, largely featured paintings of single nude male and female figures, each provocatively posed in such a way as to suggest an unseen onlooker—perhaps the viewer—to whom the subject is responding. Wildly garish patterns rendered in a bogus ’50s style frame the figures, and cloyingly crusty surfaces reaffirm the works’ uncomfortable intensity. While the men and women in the current show are still nude, Jackson has introduced a number of changes. The paintings are larger. Thick impasto is reduced to nearly smooth flatness. Single, full figures are still depicted, but now free-floating heads and enlarged background faces are added, and often a sexual or racial duality is maintained between male and female or minority and white people. The figures themselves, seemingly styled after comic book illustrations, are less caricatured and more streamlined than in the earlier work, and their presence is consequently more assertive. Disembodied heads, incidentally, can be found as often in the work of Odilon Redon as in Spider-Man comics, but the similarities in Jackson’s paintings to the work of comic artists are unmistakable. Jackson also derives his images from detective magazines, and from pornographic magazines featuring blacks and Hispanics, as well as from live models.

The most notable change from the earlier work is that the claustrophobic patterns that once hemmed in the figures are gone. Only a trace of their curlicued design remains, in the mannered tresses spilling upon several foreheads. Backgrounds are generally mottled blue fields marked by lighter, circular areas like spotlights, the light apparently emanating from the menacing heads and throwing high-contrast shadows on the figures. They serve as clever visual puns, putting the figures literally and psychologically “on the spot.”

It might be tempting to lump Jackson’s paintings into the plethora of neoexpressionist work being cranked out today, but he is actually a closet realist with an overactive sense of psychodrama. His draftsmanship is superb; it is only an inhibited capacity for composition that compels him to isolate his figures in ambiguous emotional atmospheres instead of placing them in arenas of reality where they might assume more significance.

Michael Bonesteel