Wednesday, 2 March 2011

'A daydream of everyday life.' by Tony Benn

Written to accompany Sam Jackson’s exhibition ‘The Fearful Joy’

When Gautier exhorted artists of Paris to paint from life to make paintings of people in their ordinary clothes in the 19th century little did he know what he had done and undone. Manet attempted to enter his Tuilieries painting to the Academy salon; it was roundly rejected by Delacroix amongst others for its slap dash approach and the painting of people most of whom were unrecognisable or unremarkable.

The recognition factor of Jackson’s paintings, a quality that is important to the portrait genre, is always held at some reserve. The figures of men are memorable or at least access those parts of our cultural memory we feel familiar with, but perhaps do not know why; the style and dress of the people painted seems to come from a long time ago without appearing completely historic. They pose and face towards us but rarely look at us. Their eyes always seem lost in some internal reverie, making them never quite available to us for scrutiny and enquiry.

Jackson paints with a limpid oily quality to his work. The brush strokes are there and apparent, but don’t impose themselves against the depiction of likeness, nor do they emphasise forming and shaping in any demonstrative way. The use of paint is tactful without always being polite. I refer to Sam Jackson’s perhaps more earlier, perhaps more notorious work of pornographic scenes such as ‘Heel’ or ‘The Journey’ where the characters are performing some deep personal ritual that is not all about simple pleasures given and received.

In the new works exhibited at CHARLIE SMITH london the characters that perform for Jackson’s painting are no less lost to some deep personal wonderment and dream state. They might be the same ones as the ones in sexual dramas; before they removed their clothes or after, and entered into their personal rituals of pain and pleasure. These people might be about to embark on their journeys of self-discovery, where the body will discover its own limits outside of the constrictions and reifications of bourgeois productivity.

Tactfulness is often exhibited between those whose demands upon the world are extraordinary; in a more noble soul it is the quality of one who acts with a certain sense of propriety of doing the right thing at the right time. It can also mean a sense of touch - it has a quality of decisiveness to it. Tact requires a certain touch that is in the end the tacit, the precise manner of touching upon people and difficult subjects. The paintings demonstrate in front of us this certain touch. Just here and here but not so much there. There is no overload of gesture with paint, no over emphasising or stressing where the figure will be touched and described in paint. One is reminded of the tact that occurs frequently in Cezanne, especially in the card players, where the peasants are stated clearly seated at the table but where proximity is the issue: this near, but only this close, no closer.

Closeness to surfaces is of high importance here in these new paintings; in fact the surfaces of flesh are animated, but not all over; only in certain places. The brush is used to activate the skin in much the same way a sadist might animate the skin of the willing submissive with a feather or a riding crop: your flesh will be touched there and there, but not everywhere. It could be said that painting is the art of tacit knowledge; that painting ‘is its own argument’, as T.J. Clark has said in ‘In Sight of Death’.

Perhaps it is also true that painting keeps its distance from us, that it imposes or describes a distance which is not just a literal distance of the painting in this space from my body. The act of painting whether representational or otherwise is an abstraction upon a primary experience of distance. Merleau-Ponty would describe this as a spontaneous experience that precedes language and yet emerges through and within language. ‘The world is flesh’ (M-P) or when looking at painting is about the world becoming flesh. Painting implies depth whether described or denied, it is proffered forth to the viewer, and implies the viewers will accept the painting in their own space.

The figures in Jackson’s paintings seem lost to their own world and lost to our world too. They are at a distance, a certain distance, a distance from themselves and most definitely at a distance from us. They exist silently within their brown rooms and dusty interiors. At once appearing as if from another age, but not one that is locatable. They are dislocated from themselves and from us at the same time. To return to the example of Cezanne again, he was painting at a time of crisis, when the world was no longer an utterly certain rationalist universe, if ever it were, where the certitude of the bourgeois revolutions and the Bonapartist regime no longer held the centre.

Often in times of crisis the daydream becomes the escape route. For many of us who can barely summon the energy to face a cheerless reality of a world utterly hollowed out, the daydream allows more subversive thoughts to arise. A world without any meaningful use for a material history (not that it isn’t thought about and discussed academically). This world where meanings and all the problems that spring from it are eviscerated of all their potencies that could hold community and spirit together.

Jackson’s paintings remind us gently, tacitly of a world that could be dwelt upon, thought about, remembered actively and touched upon in thought and gesture. The daydreamer might be the last person left alone in the library or the bar but still that person has thoughts that need sifting through and evaluating for their quality. A painting, a good painting is just that, a dwelling upon a thought or concept that has to be taken through the medium of paint to remind us of the important restorative qualities of just that act.

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