Nancy Jackson, born in Chicago, received B.A. with honors from Oberlin College in 1977. In 1983, her work was included in the Provincetown Art Museum First Annual, juried by Alice Neel. She has also been included in juried exhibitions organized by Lucy Lippard at the Women’s Building, Los Angeles and by Patterson Sims at the Laguna Gloria Museum, Austin. Shows curated by Michael Duncan include the Guggenheim Gallery, Chapman University, Orange, CA and the Weingart Gallery, Occidental College, Los Angeles and the San Jose Museum of Art. Additionally, Jackson's work has exhibited at The Drawing Center, NY; Pomona College Museum of Art, Pomona, CA; The Armory Center for the Arts, Pasadena, CA; and Julie Saul Gallery, NY. Her works are in the collections of Nora Eccles Harrison Museum of Art in Logan, UT; Frederick R. Weisman Museum of Art in Malibu, CA; and Pomona College Museum of Art in Claremont, CA. Jackson currently lives in Maplewood, NJ. She began exhibiting with Rosamund Felsen Gallery in 2001.
The Medium is the Message
At Rosamund Felsen Gallery adjacent to CB1, dyed and hand-sewn felt pieces by Nancy Jackson incorporate her usual detailed drawings but rendered as small lenticular discs. One represents images of women, with eyes that open and close, embedded in a design that references cosmology. Others are abstract symbology. It is a wonderful show by an eccentric but always interesting artist. Also on view are the unexpected pleasures of paintings by veteran Les Billar. On view through August 8.
Nancy Jackson sets the stage for our journey out of the ordinary with “Interior,” a modestly sized gouache and ink work on paper. Displayed on the entry wall of the gallery, it establishes the muted pastel pallette and passion for ornamentation that instantly informs us that we are “not in Minimalism anymore.” Those familiar with the work of Florine Stettheimer, an introspective early 20th century artist best remembered for the innovative cellophane and lace sets she designed for the 1934 operatic production of “Four Saints in Three Acts,” may discern echoes of her concerns in Jackson’s output. Both New York-based women - if separated by time - effectively incorporate references to transparency and luminescence into their art, suggested metaphorically here in the diaphanous drapes that frame the windows of Jackson’s “Interior” and the slightly off center reflections she captures in her ornate vanity mirror.
Jackson’s “Paraportal (Photo-Op)” invites viewers to center themselves under a delicately colored, conscientiously constructed, ornamental cut paper construction that serves as a framing device. After realizing that each viewer's own image appears relatively small when the totality of “Paraportal (Photo-Op)” is present in their camera’s view finder, visitors may conclude that, like Alice complying with instructions to “Eat Me,” they can grow their size relative to the artwork simply by stepping out into the room, away from the wall and closer to the camera.
When visitors have their backs to “Paraportal (Photo-Op),” the ceramic elements laced together in “Space Lace #1-9,” hung sky high on the opposite wall, are most clearly visible. Jackson wears a necklace similar to elements in the wall hanging, reinforcing her shaman-like appearance in Grant Mudford’s insightful photo portrait, featured on the gallery’s invitation to this show. Next to the artist, enthroned on a mountain of pillows, is “Blue Tree,” an enchanting assembly of intricate jewel-like elements that is a worthy tribute to Jackson’s complex sensitivity to color, texture, pattern and form, and most likely a coincidental acknowledgement of Stettheimer’s posthumously published book of poetry, “Crystal Flowers.”
Also amazing on an intimate scale, are the four works in Jackson’s “Cozy Bubble” series, featuring doll sized beds centered in protective shell-like frames, with a variety of interiors designed to provoke delightful dreams. On the opposite end of the size scale, elements composing Jackson’s wooly installation “Shagman,” evoke an evening of carnival fun, intermixed with Mike Kelley’s incredulity. Even though “Streetsweeper 1” and its twin, equipped with brushes that serve as tails, add touches of frivolity, a disconcerting element clings to this work.
The scene-stealers in this show tend to be the intricate, multi-media sculptural pieces exquisitely fabricated by Jackson. But those who pay less attention to the half dozen paintings Jackson positions throughout the galley, performing like poetic chapter headings and sign posts, may miss subtle innuendoes embedded in the artist’s work. The most autobiographical of Jackson’s flat, framed creations may be “Blue Bubble,” a collage constructed out of gouache, pastel, watercolor, and thread on paper. In it we see a figure resembling the artist strolling nonchalantly on an embossed, biomorphic sky blue platform of her own creation, orbiting above the curved surface of the earth. Carefully observed, this painted work and other fantasies created by this intuitive artist compel us to take time to dream, adjusting our perspective to fully examine each work we encounter in her enchanted world of possibilities with a sense of wonder before continuing down the path towards the next adventure Jackson has in store for us.
(Rosamund Felsen Gallery, Santa Monica)
Nancy Jackson’s latest exhibition, her sixth with Rosamund Felsen Gallery, was a lighthearted tour de force consisting of seven paper mobiles, at once intricate and majestic, nine works on paper and 12 sculptures. The keen balance of intellect and intuition Jackson has displayed in prior exhibitions was here injected with levity and wisdom, revealing another facet of an artist adept at using fantastic imagery and meticulous processes to probe psychological mysteries and metaphysical dramas.
Untitled (Large mobile), 2010, is 22 feet high, and it stretched from ceiling to floor. The all-white work is made of plastic rings strung together with thread, one above the other, each hung with cut-paper shapes, thousands in all—curlicues, discs, moons, arrows and the like, all in rhythmic patterns. Peeking out from the bottom is a solid glass object; shaped like an upside-down exclamation point and surrounded by a fluff of monofilament, it resembles a sea creature and exudes a playful sexuality. In the same room was a small gouache and ink on paper, The Way it Works (2009), in which a lush plant, its juicy green leaves and delicate pink tendrils bursting from a thick stalk, erupts from a mountain of human skeletons. The undulating shape of the plant mirrors that of the mobile, and their actions are reciprocal—one descending gracefully, the other reaching energetically up.
Six equally elaborate mobiles, each about a quarter the size of the large one, occupied a second room, along with a wall sculpture, Untitled Heads 1-11 (2010). In the latter, 11 shiny black papier-mâché-and-clay masks sit in the end of springy velvet-covered tubes that stretch into the room like serpents. Each face, about a foot high, sports a set of pointy white teeth, a bright red mouth and a quirky hat. In the context of the artist’s interest in psychology and dreams, the creatures connote anxieties and neuroses, yet their grins suggest mischief. The area of the wall on which the heads were installed was painted in broad swaths of matte black; the immediacy of the brushstrokes struck a balance with the labored intensity of the mobiles.
The dreamlike narratives of the paintings and drawings in another room have a darker sensibility but retain seeds of optimism. In one four-part ink-on-paper drawing (each sheet letter-size), a turbaned woman snatches a glowing crystal from a stand, only to have it grow back during her getaway. The storyboardlike sequence suggests a parable about a benevolent light. In a small gouache on rice paper, Untitled (NY), 2010, a detailed depiction of an urban street, a torrent of yellow, blue and white lines seems to have replaced the buildings. Is the city being blessed or destroyed? It depends on one’s perspective, but the rest of the exhibition—with the patient process inherent in the hand-cut mobiles and the playful absurdity of the heads—tips the reading toward the benign over the apocalyptic.
Image: Nancy Jackson: Untitled Heads 1-11, 2010, enamel, papier-mâché, aluminum tubing and mixed mediums, 80 by 87 by 21 inches; photographed by Grant Mudford, courtesy of Rosamund Felsen Gallery.
A Tonic Against the Inauthentic
Responding to the sense of alienation in art that she felt had been fostered by modernism, historian and critic Suzi Gablik made a case for “The Reenchantment of Art” in her book by that title, published in 1991. She called for a renewal of art’s social responsibility and moral purpose, a reconnection with its roots in myth and archetype. Though Gablik voiced her concerns about the soulless state of art nearly two decades ago, that despair is just as easily invoked by much of the insular, over-schooled and hyper-strategic work that fills galleries today.
Which is why Nancy Jackson’s new work at Rosamund Felsen Gallery feels so restorative, so truly enchanting. Jackson’s show, as ever, is an event for the spirit, invigorating in its authenticity. A group of mobiles, all-white, floor-to-ceiling cascading rings, dangling dots, loops and fringe, is breathtaking, both blatantly festive and quietly sublime. Made of paper, Styrofoam, aluminum, polymer clay, thread, monofilament and glass, they hint at the mystical and also the musical, while testifying to the fundamental human impulse toward ornamentation.
In one room, six of the mobiles are offset by a group of shiny black, vaguely animal heads on tubular, velvet necks protruding from a painted dark patch on one wall. Comic and grotesque, with sly smiles and ridiculous hats, the pack looks slightly crazed, as if malevolent forces were intruding upon the sanctity of those ethereal, gently twirling white confections, sullying the innocence and purity of the assembly, and playing out a primal conflict between light and darkness. Jackson’s ink and gouache drawings, too, often set beauty against death. Strange, fantastic and darkly funny, they affirm Jackson’s commitment to an art of exquisite craft, complex beauty and a deeply human sense of fear and wonder.
The Fantastical and the Real
Nancy Jackson's work embodies the fantastical, but in her most recent show I wasn't thinking in any way of modern fairytales which skip the difficult parts of life, but of old, ancient fairytales, the kind that A.S. Byatt talks about in The Children's Book as being dangerous. The kind of fairytales the Grimm brothers collected, and that most parents won't read to their children because fairytales like these are really meant for adults.
And at the same time, Nancy Jackson's work also reminds me of Emily Dickinson's poetry, because it is fierce, lonely, and exultant in its loneliness. All through her show I was amazed by the sense that I had never seen anything like this before, and that all this was sincere, real, the inner workings of not just any artist's dreamlife, but Nancy Jackson's particular and peculiar dreamlife, laid out with absolute honesty. Her cat-masks with their long whiskered chins were scary without being frightening, friendly but also sinister and dangerous. I had the sense, which occurs in the very best fairytales, the ones most sublime and at the same time most true to life, that I was fully enwrapped in her world, discovering that the mobiles spin at different rates when you move by them or breathe on them with some of the reflected power the artist must have felt at the same discovery. And on such a scale! Twenty-two feet from floor to ceiling, trailing whiskers and threads and white flower blossoms, and all without ever tipping out of the poetic intensity of the dream.
My favorite pieces in the show (along with the cat-masks) were the drawings, which were a revelation. They reminded me of Ensor's drawings in their intricacy, loneliness, and also in the scale and style of the work, but without his note of perversion. The skeletons in the drawings, the autumnal themes brought a note of death into the show which was deeply moving, and appropriate. It reminded me of what I was thinking about with the skull in Braque's studio---that all artists, to some extent or another, are making art to postpone their death, or to live on beyond death (to not be forgotten)---that they are, in fact, making art for or against death, in preparation for its coming. Death is an undercurrent in all art, just because it is either passing quicker than we are if the materials are ephemeral, or because we know it will last long after we die, if the materials are lasting. And at a deep level, art is a way that thought lives on even after the flesh decays. And I have to admit that the skeletons felt like something out of my dreams, because I used to dream often about skeletons throughout my childhood and adolescence. But I digress.
The Threesome gave me the thrill of the cat-faces again, in that it was something the likes of which I had never seen, and in which I instantly and implicitly believed. There was something about the emptiness of the room, the blurry city outside the windows, and the way the three ghosts seemed to describe three parts of the same process of disappearing: tears welling up on the left, invisibility in the middle, rock-like stoicism on the right.
What both artists reminded me of, and which I am grateful to both of them for, and which most great art makes me feel, is the sense that even though art is the most refined fantasy, still it teaches us deeply of the real, that it is in fact, deeply real, life distilled and intensified in an object or image.
Nancy Jackson's current show splinters in two directions. In her narrative works on paper, detailed drawings and paintings come off as quirky, cutting and humorous. The surprise, however is the multi-part mobiles that hang from the ceiling in the main gallery. White cutouts of flowery, geometric and ornate shapes dangle from one another, spanning the distance from floor to ceiling. These obsessively fantastical and intricate works are both seductive and charming. Each piece resembles a chain of an ornate chandelier (made from light materials) that has been taken apart, stripped of the original context, and fashioned together to become more than the sum of its parts (Rosamund Felsen Gallery, Santa Monica).
There's no glamour, just deep themes
Intimacy is Nancy Jackson's forte. Each of her seven diorama-scaled sculptures and page-size drawings in another room at the gallery creates such a convincing little world of its own that it's easy to forget yourself in its presence -- not to mention where you're standing and everything else around you.
Jackson's meticulously rendered gouaches are all about contemplative solitude, of following one's own path and meandering through out-of-the-way places. "Crossroads," "Hard Rot" and "Bird Mountain" suggest that difficulty, luck and humility may lead to self-knowledge, but only if the self doesn't get in the way.
The two best pieces are the most elaborate. "Ka" is a wall sculpture that mimics the format of a ceremonial mask but also embraces the nestled complexity of multiple realities, its eyes and mouth opening onto worlds-within-worlds.
The only free-standing sculpture, "Oum," is more than 6 feet tall. But it is made of such fragile materials -- string, wire, clay and porcelain -- that it doesn't tower over viewers, but rather seems to be the model of a solar system inspired by dangling earrings and delicate chandeliers.
As a group, Jackson's low-tech, handcrafted works engage viewers -- and the world around them -- by making room for respite.