New York

Oliver Lee Jackson, Composite, 2012, intaglio print and mixed media on paper, 40 1⁄4 × 28 7⁄8".

Oliver Lee Jackson, Composite, 2012, intaglio print and mixed media on paper, 40 1⁄4 × 28 7⁄8".

Oliver Lee Jackson

Burning in Water

An eclectic mix of paintings and sculptures by Oliver Lee Jackson was exhibited at Burning in Water. If you’re unfamiliar with his work, know that the octogenarian artist has a rich past: Among other things, he founded in 1971 the African Continuum arts organization, a body dedicated to the support and advancement of black thinking and culture, and from 1968 to 1972 he collaborated with Saint Louis’s cross-disciplinary Black Artists Group (or BAG), befriending and working with the avant-garde jazz musician Julius Hemphill. Jackson’s show was a modest sampling from a lifetime of production by an imagination still going strong (a major retrospective of the artist’s work is scheduled to open next March at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC). All the pieces on view were infused with a broad modernist spirit. One could locate subtle references to an assortment of forebears, such as Klee, Kandinsky, Pollock, and Picasso. Three freestanding, painted sculptures—two of steel (Bust VI, 1998, and Striding Figure, 2004), and one of wood (Head No. 5, 1988)—were rather cubist in feeling. Yet Jackson’s vision is singular: A cunning handling of materials pushed the works well beyond formal quotation or clichéd distortion.

In three black paintings, No. 12, 2013, and No. 6 and No. 7, both 2014, abstraction and representation ingeniously converged, suggesting their inseparability. At first glance, Jackson’s canvases might come across as thoughtful extensions of Ad Reinhardt’s “black paintings.” But then, slowly yet surely, a figure appears, like a mirage—a phantom evoking Ralph Ellison’s “invisible man.” Of course, blackness has a different meaning for Jackson than it had for Reinhardt. Yes, black is a color, to borrow the title of Matisse’s 1946 essay. Though in the United States, black has a profound social and political meaning—an aspect the French painter of bourgeois pleasure likely did not fathom. Jackson builds death into blackness, and his black figures appear to have risen from the grave to haunt us: They possess the inevitability and majesty of death; they are absence given uncanny presence. His beings surge from the souls of the paintings with nightmarish persistence, conveying the negation, devaluation, and deindividualization African Americans have suffered in this country. His figures, disappearing into oblivion even as they make an unforgettable appearance, are emblems of a violent black history, tragic memento mori.

Three intaglio prints in the exhibition were also powerful: Composite, 2012, and Intaglio Print XLVI and Intaglio Print XLVII, both 2013. To my eye they were the most intensely wrought and aesthetically convincing works in the exhibition—combinations of heavenly light and hellish shadow, depictions of bodies both damaged and adored, feats of draftsmanship complemented by a flair for expressionistic chaos. The artist creates a palpable tension by merging his particular stripe of formalism with his politics—it’s what gives his works their inner grandeur, a revelatory beauty.