Oliver Lee Jackson describes his artmaking with the meticulous detail of a skilled engineer.
“This process is to make a machine that activates you – it must do that work,” Jackson said in a video interview by New York’s Burning in Water Gallery, which housed Jackson’s “Untitled Original” exhibition last year. “For it to hold you, it must create in you an orchestration. It has to orchestrate you. [If it does] You can contemplate and it’s worth your time.”
Next week, in partnership with Burning in Water, Jackson – an acclaimed multidisciplinary visual artist and alumnus of Vashon High School – will have his work prominently displayed in the East Building of the National Gallery of Art, which is located on the National Mall in Washington D.C. His “Oliver Jackson: Recent Paintings” exhibition will open April 14 and remain on display through September 15.
“Oliver Lee Jackson: Recent Paintings” will include more than 20 paintings created over the past 15 years, many of which are being shown publicly for the first time.
“Oliver Lee Jackson’s paintings encourage viewers to slow down and take time to absorb their energetic use of color, line, and texture,” said Earl A. Powell III, director, National Gallery of Art, Washington. “We are pleased to have Jackson join our tradition of presenting the world’s leading contemporary artists in the East Building.”
Jackson’s career spans five decades and his work resides in the permanent collections of many major institutions including the Museum of Modern Art (New York); the Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York); the National Gallery of Art (Washington, DC); the Museum of Contemporary Art (Chicago); the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (San Francisco); the Detroit Institute of the Arts (Detroit); and the Seattle Art Museum (Seattle).
While in St. Louis, Jackson collaborated on community cultural projects with composers and saxophonists, including Julius Hemphill, Oliver Lake, and Marty Ehrlich, and members of the cross-disciplinary collective Black Artists Group. Jackson served as assistant director of the People’s Art Center in the early 1960s and as director of Program Uhuru in the late 1960s – an initiative he established at Pruitt Igoe to bring creative discipline to the youth who resided in the public housing project. He relocated to California in the early 1970s and has lived and worked in Oakland since 1982.
“Unlike many artists who came of age in the wake of abstract expressionism, Jackson never abandoned his figurative orientation,” said Harry Cooper, senior curator and head of modern art, National Gallery of Art, Washington. “Having worked with Jackson for over two decades (including on a 2002 exhibition at the Harvard Art Museums), I am excited that we are presenting his recent work, Oliver Lee Jackson – which for all its discipline has an extraordinary freedom and daring. The paintings presented here may be the fruit of Jackson’s long experience, but they have a youthful energy that recalls Ezra Pound’s battle cry of modernism, ‘Make it new.’”
“Oliver Lee Jackson: Recent Paintings” also marks the first time financial services institution Morgan Stanley has sponsored an exhibition at the National Gallery.
“Jackson’s experience working with writers, musicians, dancers, and other visual artists directly inspires his colorful compositions,” said James P. Gorman, chairman and chief executive officer, Morgan Stanley. “His work has captivated audiences worldwide and challenges viewers to see in new and different ways. At Morgan Stanley, we strive to challenge ourselves to discover new perspectives to share with our clients and communities, and we are pleased to be able to play a part in sharing Oliver Lee Jackson’s work.”
For Jackson, the most critical element the exchange between the viewing audience and the work is the transformation that happens while connecting with the art.
“I’m the first viewer after it is made,” Jackson said. “Once it comes into completeness, then I have to figure out, ‘does it do what I intended?’ Not my idea, but what I intended.”
The desired result is that all who gaze upon the work, Jackson in particular – are “put into a fierce state of being.”
“Notice how I said, ‘It puts me in a state of being.’ It is not in a state of being – it puts me in a state of being,” Jackson said. “If it’s not doing that, I’ve missed it.”
Success or failure, the moving parts that come together to create his work depend on a feeling.
“They say this is art. I don’t know about that,” Jackson said. “But this machine better work if I want an adult to stand before it and contemplate it.”
“I want to be moved,” said Jackson. “Otherwise, why am I looking at this?”
The National Gallery has created a robust lineup of programming to compliment “Oliver Jackson: Recent Paintings” over the course of its display and will include esteemed fellow St. Louisans. Famed saxophonist, composer and painter Oliver Lake (Music and the Visual Arts on April 12) and renowned poet and Miles Davis biographer Quincy Troupe (Two Writers on Art, Music, and Modality on May 19 – also featuring playwright and legendary drama educator Paul Carter Harrison) are among the featured guests that will take part in events related to the exhibition.
For more information on the National Gallery of Art, visit https://www.nga.gov/.