On a breather from my studio, I set yesterday aside to see Herb Jackson’s latest exhibition, “A Door is not a Window”, curated by Lia Newman and Roger Manley, at the new Gregg Museum on the campus of NC State University.
Like countless artists, my life story pivots on an encounter with Herb Jackson who, 40 years ago, figuratively picked me up out of an art trashcan, dusted me off, gave me a brief list of pithy instructions, and set me on my life’s path. I cannot imagine my life without that pivotal moment and those instructions. So, to see this exhibition was to return to the well— to the Fatherland.
The paintings are, in any circumstance, as brilliantly colored as a bag of gemstones, with textures that evoke geodes, crystals, star dust. And the exhibition has been installed, famously, to make that inescapable. It hangs in a blackened gallery, with light projected directly onto the canvases— and only the canvases.
Herb Jackson is a stone cold master of construction. The interior bone structure— the architecture— of his paintings is always masterful because he has been deconstructing paintings since he was a child. Many of his pithy instructions to me revolved around pictorial architecture. It took me years to master it. I can remember, in my early 30’s, working on paper, so that after the work was complete I could crop it like a photograph to discover the hidden structural power.
I had the gallery all to myself. At first I was an astronaut, zooming through space, watching the cosmos spin by from the safety of my darkened space craft. Then the Rothko chapel came to mind, and I was meditating on these ideas, distilled and illuminated— the rest of the world held at bay.
Then I made up a game. I went from painting to painting, making sure to NOT read the titles, so my associations could run free, and for each painting I wrote in my little notebook a list of words they evoked. I saw landforms and geography. I saw the earth from space. I saw strife, human flesh, ciphers, moonlight, midnight, continents and fissures, the Milky Way, sunrise and sunset, jewels, comets, ether, hurtling stones.
I dropped in by parachute, or was grabbed by the hand, or sometimes by the scruff of the neck and taken into the painting through a route that had been carved out for me. That route was as inevitable as one day following another. I studied his incised lines that read like flesh wounds, each uncovering another buried world of nuance/pattern/color.
The work was, by turns, calm, violent, delicate, brutal. The viewer could get by on nothing but the diet of color that is dished up, without any other thoughts or associations, because there is in this work, the deepest possible understanding of color, manipulated with great originality. In a lifetime of looking at art I can’t say that I have ever seen anyone use color as knowingly. And I fully comprehend the gravity of that statement. That alone is worth the trek.