“I both want to clarify and deepen human vision.”
An interview with painter Jonathan Peter Jackson.
No Rescue for the Robot Ghost
I love your Flood of Memory series. It’s so dreamlike and evocative, and the figures seem so beautifully vulnerable and untouched. Can you speak a little about your inspiration for the series? Are these places that you’ve visited in your travels or your dreams?
Flood of Memory came, like the title implies, all of a sudden with a very powerful half-conscious vision, and has evolved from that initial fissure into the tension between body and deconstructed environment that it is now. For me, everything is about the body because I very much insist that as human beings we must contemplate the mystery of our existence, particularly our corporeal selves, in order to transcend. The title comes from Proust, who is one of the most painterly writers and a gifted seer.
The sense of evocation you very keenly pick up on is crucial, because ultimately the works themselves aren’t about anything particular and certainly don’t tell a story – so they must work on another level to succeed. That level is dialectic because I both want to clarify and deepen human vision.
When I’m working well, I ride waves of instinct that enable me to make something that changes perception and renews the spirit. The paintings are my sensations, my thoughts, my life, manifested with intensities; they are me attempting to communicate profoundly to the subconscious.
Barely Holding Together
The canvases being shown now in the gallery are actually the studies for much larger pieces that will be shown later this year. From my bio you can see that because of my family history I’m someone who has lived their life largely in exile and always on the move. I have a particular comfort zone in the third world, and find it to be most stimulating for my work, so the deconstructed environment is for better or worse part of my embedded awareness. There are ever-growing areas of the third world in the US that makes things more convenient since I have a young child and it’s more challenging to move in the zones I did before. So the “places” in the paintings are both a part of my experience and a collective unconscious…as are the bodies.
My models are rarely professional and I require normal position, gesture and motion to create the dreamlike states for which I’m striving. Initially the style of the figures was merely shorthand to describe a small version of something to be much more fully fleshed out. Then a friend of mine who is a prominent art critic and biographer of Rubens had a quite provocative reaction to them, describing how they indicated to him abandonment and innocence. So for the larger pieces that are emerging now I’ve retained those qualities as much as possible, and here we are.
It seems you’ve traveled frequently. Your images are strikingly rendered and subtly political in a way that becomes far more powerful than a more obvious statement. To what extent do you think of your work as political? Do you comment on specific conflicts or on the state of the world at large?
I come from a prominent radical family, so it’s always been of the utmost importance for me to not depict anything political. Perhaps because it would be too easy and for the work to be good it must be challenging. As you say though, my work can shade toward political, but I achieve that through aesthetic and technique rather than an overt sign.
Artistically I find specificity to reduce power of expression. Of course when one looks at “Barely Holding Together” and “All The Lines I’ve Crossed” there is a strong sense that this is territory subject to bombs, drone strikes and outright street warfare. I trust a viewer’s sense and sensibilities enough to allow them the space in creating their own narratives and context. This is part of a basic optimism and humanism but I really do trust this happens when experiencing an exceptional painting.
All the Lines I’ve Crossed
The synergy between artist and viewer unlock the valves of intuition and perception about the human situation at a deeper level – that is infinitely more important that anything I could directly say about this or that injustice, those or these contradictions. And so both making and viewing painting is an act of faith and transgression….an alternative to the commonplace quicktime consciousness we’re encouraged to live now.
I love the dramatic light and shadows in your work. The raking slant of light and the emptiness of the landscapes remind me of Di Chirico. Is he an artist whose work you’ve looked at? What other artists have inspired you? What musicians, writers or filmmakers inform your work?
Yesterday I was hiking in the Cascade mountains and half way up Mt Hood, right at the timberline, there are these fantastical, vivid driftwood formations of dead, almost fossilized evergreen trees. Twisted shape, intricate patterns, bleached sparkling grey: it was all right there. Naturally I made sketches. But instead of returning to studio and painting that scene in nature, I will certainly use the figures in the current Flood of Memory project.
So you can see that I am a disciple of Cezanne. If you look at the small studies of Cezanne’s Bathers you’ll probably find the most direct touchstone. For me, as for many realist painters, these studies are EVERYTHING. From the rendering of the bodies, to the composition, symbolism, technique even. Everything.
Tree of Life (Baobab)
Helen Frankenthaler and Lee Krasner come to mind recently as influences, their transfer of energy to canvas and balanced use of tones.
Perhaps I would also name Degas for the suspended moment, that sense of that stolen moment of unexpected access. That sense pervades most of Flood of Memory.
Of course most contemporary art continually suggests the body but doesn’t have the courage to depict it. So my commitment to realism has mostly to do with my vision, but also what I feel is needed in the art world: the body, the beautiful, the courage to honestly and truly show something without distortion. The last is perhaps the most difficult because we live in the age of the digital, in which the image is instantly and infinitely malleable, so the temptation to distort is very strong – especially if one’s drafting skills aren’t good enough – in an effort to make the subject seem more powerful and interesting. The London School distorted to make an assault on the nervous system in the wake of a deluge of photography. Now in the tidal wave of so much digital distortion I choose not to distort to make a similar assault. It’s very important to make the effort, otherwise you might as well go work for a millennial ad agency or Hollywood.
Stay Ahead of the Weather
I won’t mention any of the popular music I listen to because most musicians get more attention than they deserve in the current age, but I will say that a Bach Partita played by Glenn Gould is a lovely way to start the day.
Film I enjoy immensely with a wide variety, from Satiyajit Rey to Antonioni to Kubrick. Unfortunately film has been a men’s club, but this is changing for the better. I love big broad scope epic films that I know very well like Lawrence of Arabia, Casablanca, Giant, The Searchers, 2001 A Space Odyssey. I don’t really look to filmmakers to shape my work visually, but I do use their work to unwind looking at beautiful things and also to think. Sometimes I’ll close my eyes and listen to a movie, or even have one playing in the studio if I can’t see the screen.
Everyone gets a question from the Proust Questionnaire and here is yours: If not yourself, who would you be?
I’d like to be a skilled artisan before the machine era involved in building a great cathedral or castle or stone gorge bridge. Something where the materials and elemental forces were straining against my physical body and my will. I would also like to be a gardener/botanist/arborist.
Do you make a living from your art? Do you have any advice for up-and-coming artists on balancing craft and business? To what extent do you employ social media to get your work out into the world? What techniques do you use to promote your online portfolio?
Aside from parenting it’s all I do, if that’s what you’re asking. I would love to put in part time at a greenhouse but those gigs are hard to come by.
I have no insight about the business of art, but to other artists I would urge them to use clever ideas in their life rather than their work. Work should be about something altogether deeper than a smart notion. We are through with the all-too-long era of clever and concept art. And believe me, if you’re going to be a lifelong artist you’ll need every ounce of caginess to walk the line.
Social media is a complicated project, and as time goes on I find it makes more sense to post less work and more about myself and my life. The “Mud and Mayo” blog on my website I hope to make into a happy medium about both…we’ll see. Blogging is fun but painting is infinitely more rewarding.
People’s Harvest (Cosecha del Pueblo)