In an era when art has plumbed new depths of frivolity, Roy Jackson (1944-2013) was almost too serious for his own good. He stubbornly believed the only thing that counted was the quality of the work, not the ephemeral ego gratifications artists enjoy during their 15 minutes of fame. He wasn’t even sure about the finished product. “My works are not pictures,” he said, “they are processes, objects, things.”
However, Jackson would have been less than human if he hadn’t craved a little recognition. Is any artist so pure of heart that he or she can sit on the margins and watch the world roll by? It’s more a matter of making a virtue out of necessity. If critics, curators and collectors refuse to pay attention you must cultivate your talents in monk-like seclusion.
Jackson was no monk, but he found a sanctuary in the artists’ colony in Wedderburn, on the outskirts of Sydney, where he lived in close proximity to other painters. He had the seclusion he needed to work, and a close-knit group of friends. It was a final twist of fate that as a lifelong non-smoker he would be diagnosed with lung cancer, and die a year later, in July 2013. When given the bad news by a doctor, he laughed.
Although it sounds almost too clichéd, since his death Jackson’s career has taken off. A retrospective held at the Drill Hall Gallery in Canberra in September 2013 was an eye-opener for everyone, even those who felt they already had a good understanding of his work. A second version of that show, put together by Terence Maloon and Sioux Garside, may now be seen at the S.H. Ervin Gallery, where the loss of some pieces and the addition of others has not diminished its impact. There is also a satellite exhibition at Defiance Gallery, which is handling Jackson’s estate, and another at the Yellow House in Macleay Street.
Finally there is an impressive new book that I’ve agreed to launch on 1 April at the Yellow House. My only personal stake is as a born-again fan of Jackson’s work. There must be a lot of people like me, who feel they underestimated him.
A retrospective is the ultimate test for any artist, which may be why so many prefer the term “survey”. Works that looked good in group exhibitions can appear monotonous en masse. Jackson provides a contrary example. He was an artist who could be hard to read in a solo show, where he would wear his influences on his sleeve, or seem fixated on a particular kind of pattern-making. Bring together 50 years’ worth of work and it all makes sense.
Jackson rejected any distinction between abstract and figurative art. Some of his paintings are all-over grids; others are filled with figures and faces, spindly trees or buildings. He might also incorporate fragments of text, such as a quotation from Samuel Beckett, although the emphasis was chiefly on his awkward calligraphy, each letter lurching drunkenly to left or right, like graffiti scratched onto a stone wall with a blunt knife.
In the Ervin Show all the shifts and changes in Jackson’s work, which had a bewildering effect on his audience, come across as different aspects of the same fundamental quest. He was, as Terence Maloon writes, a seeker – “a spiritually exalted agnostic, a quasipagan and cryptoBuddhist” – who saw art as a doorway to a deeper understanding of life.
In the book we learn how Jackson could not keep away from churches and temples, even though he had no professed religion. He was seeking an intensity of experience, an authenticity that went beyond conscious considerations of style. He found this same feeling in the works of artists such as Jean Dubuffet, Tony Tuckson and Ian Fairweather, to name only the most obvious touchstones, and was prepared to borrow from each of them in an effort to uncover their secrets.
The Burial of the Sardine (1985-86) in the Ervin show, owes a debt to Dubuffet, but it is also one of Jackson’s masterworks. Based on a scene in a novel by Fernando Arrabal, it describes a crowd of distorted figures squeezed into a broad horizontal band, against a rusty backdrop streaked with white. It’s a work that manages to feel expansive and claustrophobic by turns; a vision of squirming, monstrous humanity that crackles with life.
Directly facing this canvas is a set of coloured grid paintings from 1975. At first they look like the work of a different artist, but one soon recognises the same marks, the same loose swipings of the brush. In all of Jackson’s paintings and drawings there is a respect for the spontaneous gesture that carries a burden of unspoken meaning. One reads how he would paint rapidly, barely looking at the work. Sometimes he would paint with his eyes closed, to keep the demon of “conscious style” at bay.
A painting such as Mereenie loop (1996) acts as a visual diary of a journey, with images of cars, roads, figures, trees and rocks inscribed seemingly at random. Keep looking and one discerns a wonderful rhythm in the distribution of these pictograms, and the subtle interplay of colours.
By the time of the works shown at Defiance, which cover the period 1999-2005, the paintings had become obsessive exercises in pattern-making. Blue Note (2005) is a crazy pavement of various blues, pale greens, pinks and white, enclosed in thick, dark lines. It is the different types of line and the translucency of the paint that provide the visual interest. The work enacts a battle between order and chaos, as the neat geometry of the grid keeps breaking down and reasserting itself.
In Alongaline (2002), a pale grey mesh appears underneath the darker surface lines, like a palimpsest, or a mistake that refuses to go away. Jackson seemed to relish these mistakes and missteps. They occur so frequently one might see his career as a sum of mistakes accumulated by an artist who refused to believe there was a right way and a wrong way to make a painting. The only rule is that rules must be broken.
If this didn’t lead to disaster it’s because it is probably impossible for a trained artist to work with perfect freedom. Jackson had a love for the art of Outsiders and children, but could never escape a deep-rooted need for structure. Maloon quotes from the artist’s notebooks: “Rhythmic structure – spontaneity plus deliberation – raw, primal, natural.” In practice this meant that he would begin within certain preconceived parameters and gradually push the boundaries – reworking, overpainting, discarding the failures.
This might lead to a frenzied abstraction, or to a work such as Ewaninga (2000), in the Defiance show: a harmonious arrangement of thin blue lines on a scarred brown backdrop. In trying to immerse himself in Nature, Jackson understood there were many moods to be drawn upon. The work need not be in a state of permanent upheaval.
Nevertheless, there are few moments in the retrospective when Jackson was able to relax and paint in the “raw, primal, natural” way he desired. He was forever returning to a painting, adding another layer, complicating the surface, until each piece attained the density he required. It had a lot to do with his state of mind. When his private life was a mess, his paintings became equally agitated. When he travelled to the Aboriginal rock art sites of Cape York, his joy in the peace and solitude he discovered is reflected in the play of simple, repetitive forms.
Jackson would return to Cape York year after year, just as he would return to Greece throughout his life. There was always something new to be found in a favourite place. Like all seekers Jackson’s life’s work contains many false starts and wrong turnings, but he had a tremendous determination to keep pushing onwards, knowing he would eventually arrive at a better place. There was no sudden revelation, no Eureka moment of self-discovery. Jackson’s journey was cut short when fate called a halt, with no glimpse of a destination. It is only when we look back over the relics of such a restless life that we realise its value.
Roy Jackson Retrospective 1963-2013
S.H.Ervin Gallery, until 12 April.
Roy Jackson: Inch Time Foot Gems
Defiance Gallery, until 4 April.
Roy Jackson: Hands On at the Yellow House,
until 12 April.
Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, Saturday 28th March, 2015