Jo Jackson

One advantage of creating a narrative within a personal pictorial universe is that you can steer it in any direction you want it to go. Viewers function as voyeurs, witnesses to a mythography they will never fully decode. The work in Jo Jackson’s recent exhibition “Victory Over the Sun” at Kavi Gupta Gallery was of precisely this ilk: A dozen works on paper and a silent, looped, three-minute 16-mm film projection immersed viewers in a self-contained fantasy realm.

There’s no difficulty in identifying the components of Jackson’s repertoire—her ink drawings and watercolors depict, fairly straightforwardly, arrays of antique skeleton keys, piled-up playing cards, moonlit Nordic seascapes, grids of monklike robed figures, rows of toy soldiers standing at attention, and gamboling nude women re-enacting Yves Klein’s “living brushes.” It’s rather less clear what brings all these elements together: These objects, depicted separately in smaller works on paper, congregate side by side in the piece Victory Over the Sun (all works 2006), and in the movie of the same title that Jackson assembled from stop-motion photographs of these and other pieces. Objects in the film transform themselves in a manner that recalls the short animations that Terry Gilliam contributed to Monty Python’s Flying Circus, often humorously, but sometimes with more sinister inflections in a filmic stream of consciousness without logical beginning or end.

There is a lissome openness to this process, a faith in instinctive choice that practically becomes a subject in itself. Jackson’s rehabilitation of the famous black-and-white photograph of Klein’s performance Anthropometries of the Blue Period, 1960—in which Klein is shown supervising as nude women drag each other’s paint-smeared bodies over blank canvases—is an unexpected but evocative selection, representing the kind of sudden imaginative leap that characterizes Jackson’s project at its most successful. She concentrates solely on the women (they appeared in four separate works here), depicting them in vivid colors, and they look as if they are performing some kind of comic water ballet. Jackson’s brooding landscapes, on the other hand, recall those of Edvard Munch, while her keys, cards, and toy soldiers have a quaint, Victorian air. The entire oeuvre is a paean to memory, to shards of the personal and cultural, linked finally by little more than the artist’s will.

Jackson lives and works in Portland, Oregon, but the exhibition’s location had a particular resonance, Chicago being the city where Henry Darger spent several decades in isolation working on his vast illustrated novel. Jackson’s solipsistic narratives have a similar masturbatory element: They are completely satisfying, engrossing, and meaningful to their creator, but perhaps less so to an observer. While the pictorial elements selected by Jackson (and Darger, for that matter) are instantly accessible, their context is not, and our engagement with the latter comes to depend on a quasi-subconscious connection, as if we were experiencing someone else’s dream. Jackson’s project is at once specific and meandering, and requires viewers to adopt a similar mind-set in order to appreciate it fully.

James Yood