A Flood That Carries Along Beauty and Destruction: Suzanne Jackson at Ortuzar Projects
Suzanne Jackson: News! At Ortuzar Projects
November 20, 2019-January 25, 2020
9 White Street, between Sixth Avenue and West Broadway
New York City, ortuzarprojects.com
Art can be a disordering of life, disrupting its familiar flow. But seen another way, it can reveal that our lives are actually full of extraordinary moments that are both disjunctive and connective, simultaneously.
The hallmark of Suzanne Jackson’s work is poetic expression, bonding together pieces of experience into visceral, lyrical membranes. She uses physical and painterly means to conjure a meeting place of her inner life and the world. In her paintings and quasi-sculptural “anti-canvases”, she makes meaning out of layered images of humans and animals, and out of salvaged and translucent materials. There is the sense of recovery in Jackson’s art, of memory and history, and of feeling, through the act of making a single fabric of the sensory and the personal.
For some, this exhibition will serve as an introduction to Jackson’s work; it is her first solo show in New York. However, at 75 she has a long, distinguished career that has ranged from the West Coast to Savannah, GA, where her work was recently the subject of a retrospective at the Telfair Museums. Her prints, drawings, and paintings carry the traces of her earlier work as a costume designer, dancer, and poet. As a young artist in Los Angeles in the late 1960s, she founded the seminal Gallery 32 which showed work by emerging African-American artists such as Betye Saar, David Hammons, and Senga Nengudi.
The earliest pieces in Jackson’s exhibition are from the 1980s and the most recent are five revelatory works from the past few years, many of which are suspended from the gallery ceiling like cascading, luminous tapestries.
We can see her work in the context of artists such as Sam Gilliam, Alan Shields, and Joe Overstreet,who in the 1960s and 1970s began to make paintings that functioned as dimensional, sculptural objects. Jackson shares with these artists an improvisational engagement with materials, and an eschewing of regular stretched canvases in favor of loose, open hanging.
Exemplary of the imagistic vein in Jackson’s work is a history drawing-cracked wall (2016-2019). This large, horizontal work, over eleven feet in width, is a kind of compendium of memories, and includes many faces and hands, human figures, plant life, and a bird and a cat. They emerge from a matrix of lens-like cells that act as portals into a variety of times and places. There is a kind of hectic lightness that arises from the swiftly rendered forms, and the layered washes of acrylic and coffee.
In this drawing and in the three watercolors in the exhibition, we can see some of the recurring themes in Jackson’s work: a connection to the natural world, a diaristic impulse to remember and to commemorate, and a fluid way of working that expresses the vagaries of lived experience. In the large paintings, three on canvas and one on collaged paper, the pigment often becomes thicker and more gestural, but remaining are the color-drenched, abstracted human and animal forms, separate and merging. Especially touching is El Paradiso (1981-84), a painting done in brushy and flowing acrylic wash, with two semi-silhouetted heads in profile, almost but not quite kissing. Surrounding them are an Eden of color, with a flowering bird-of-paradise whose root is a bulging, bruised heart.
Jackson’s “anti-canvases” are an ongoing series of works, mostly from the past decade, that combine paint and found materials, both manufactured and organic, with expanses of built-up, clear acrylic medium. We look at the collaged and suspended matter, and through it at the same time. The hanging works have a front and back, and can be seen from both sides. These pieces are both limpid and distressed, as if we are confronted by a flood that carries along both beauty and destruction in its wake.
A very large piece, oldblueshanging, while she waits (2017), is constructed on a painting stretcher whose top is attached to the wall and then cants out from it on two legs. Built upon it are collaged skins of stained clear acrylic, drawings, curls of wood, sand, reflective bits, and palmetto leaves. There are open gaps in the crimped, rough surface left edge of which appears the almost hidden figure of a woman, along with the head of a cat. The overall impression is of a deluge of experiences, fragmented brokenness, and patched together survival.
The reference to the blues is key, with the African-American experience revealing itself in many forms in Jackson’s work. It is expressed in His and Hers (2018), a hanging flow of translucent acrylic resin that is the support for collaged elements. On the lowest register are paired pillow cases that evoke the artist’s parents, in the middle is rucked scenic Bogus paper, and above, and below, are bright radiating and fan-like pieces from her mother’s unfinished quilt. In all, the spirit is celebratory and valedictory, a sweet farewell.
Ebenezer Crossing (2017), another hanging, layered acrylic piece, recalls an atrocity during the Civil War in which hundreds of emancipated African-Americans were drowned due to the actions of a Union general. This tragic event, which took place near Savannah, is embodied in the torn, overlapping red netting, with a vaguely cruciform shape that emerges from it. Silencing Tides, Voices Whispering (1988) is an early example of Jackson’s work in clear acrylic, here with netting, woven tapes, mixed papers, and wood, a see-though scrim capturing what the artist terms “memory experiences”.
The purely abstract Light, Light into Being (2019) consists of a sheet of acrylic in which are suspended flows of color, leather, beads, and other materials. The work seems to embody this artist’s personal, material way of reaching for clarity and for the transcendent.