Mississippi artist Philip R. Jackson’s unconventional still lifes ask viewers to see the beauty in everyday objects.
by James A. Metcalfe
|The Mighty Goldfish Cracker
2004, oil, 8 x 10.
By casting ordinary items—a bunch of grapes, a broken egg with its ragged shell, a rustic teapot—in a bit of theatrical mayhem and bathing them in enticing light, Philip R. Jackson beckons viewers to reconsider the beauty we too often overlook in our daily lives. This Mississippi resident believes that the world of advertising and pop culture permeates our society in a way that ultimately numbs our senses and prevents us from appreciating the simpler things. He also feels strongly that his role as an artist is to present “a time away from that world where we can put our individual complications on hold long enough to experience a sense of solitude, relaxation, and enjoyment,” he explains. The element of theatre in Jackson’s work helps him achieve this vision and is what he calls “a vehicle to speak dramatically about these overlooked values of simple, funny, absurd, awkward, and quiet moments that we all experience.”
But what qualities must a subject possess in order to catch Jackson’s eye? “Something new, something old, something inventive,” says the artist. When he approaches a piece, he usually does so with a definite concept in mind. Jackson insists that his first requirement for a still life is aesthetic, “a formal balance of composition, color, and space. Second, the concept must speak to me. Whether it’s calm, invasive, or humorous, I look for something that, in the end, will elicit a strong reaction from the viewer.” After considering the focus of the piece, Jackson chooses objects from his personal collection of manmade items for their distinct characteristics, such as size, shape, texture, and color. The artist selects objects that offer strong contrasts between the manmade and the natural since, he says, “They must capture the environment in which we live. For example, I am fascinated when I look over the dinner table and see a natural arrangement of fruit and teacups or gaze out the car window and see trees and telephone poles juxtaposed. Overall, our daily interaction with such things creates an odd, but normal, existence because of the common role they play.”
|Tension Series: Party’s Over
2004, oil, 12 x 12.
In his early work, Jackson’s interest was purely perceptual—how light defines form. But, as he began to experiment with various ways of arranging his objects, he says, “I began to see a rare connection in which objects seemed to build tension and communicate.” He appropriately titled this series the Tension Series. “I began exploring visual tension, the contrast of one object to another, their body language, and the weight or weightless qualities they posed,” the artist explains. His painting The Mighty Goldfish Cracker was the first in this series and actually happened by accident. “I had placed a Delftware vase in my light box along with a few other objects and took a break to have a snack: Goldfish crackers. I accidentally dropped one of the crackers in the box and left the room for a few minutes only to return and find this amazing jewel. That moment clicked, and it was then that I really started to play with the idea of balance, giving the Goldfish cracker greater strength by outweighing the vase.”
Although Jackson is a firm believer in the natural process of observation, he also knows that, above all, he is creating an illusion, and for the sake of the visual experience, there are times when decisions have to be made to sacrifice reality. “In my painting Balancing Grapes,” the artist explains, “I attempted to create an intimate conversation between objects that, by association, are polar opposites but, by gesture, have a connection between them. The teapot is more of a masculine object—hard-edged, geometric, and manmade; the grapes are more feminine—delicate, full of life, and natural. Since I believe opposites attract, the connection is the point where both objects meet, almost as if the teapot is embracing the hand of a lovely woman. A union is formed, and the image becomes as motionless as a memory.”
|The Juice Extractor of the
Balancing Tomatillo Act
2006, oil, 7¼ x 8¾.
Collection the artist.
Jackson believes that the greatest illusion in painting is creating a sense of space. “In my work,” he stresses, “I want to create a sensation that convinces the viewer of the air between the objects and the infinite space in which the objects are placed. I am suggesting that it isn’t the time or place that is significant but the space between the viewer and the painting, an attempt to connect the viewer to an imaginable space.” He notes that developing the sensation of atmosphere in his work takes a great deal of layering. “After developing a full monochromatic study, I begin scumbling many layers of complementary tones and rotating layers of warm and cool shifts to describe both the objects and background,” he explains. “I continue this throughout the entire process, making sure both the object and atmosphere have the right consistency of paint application and color contrast in creating the best representation possible.
“When painting the first background layer, I usually begin with a hue that will contrast with a dominant color of one object,” the artist continues. For Balancing Grapes, in particular, Jackson chose the first hue to be a very intense red-violet. “I used very thin coats of paint with very loose brushwork,” he says. “In the next few layers, I used multiple complementary neutral tones of red and green, interchanging them between each layer. This is part of the process that creates the pockets of atmosphere. Until this point I had been using low-key tones. I then began to bring in layers of middle-key to high-key tones, which set up the sense of light for the background. I used very little paint and mostly drybrushing for this technique, allowing the underpainting to be seen through the veil of light.
|Balancing Grapes (detail)
2006, oil, 12 x 12.
Courtesy Edith Caldwell Gallery,
“I was especially concerned with the distinction of touch between both objects in this painting,” the artist continues. “The grapes were a bit more complicated because of the many facets of reflected light shining through them. I chose an indirect approach, treating the paint with a fluid application to give the grapes a translucent quality and relating a touch of delicacy. On the opposing teapot I applied the paint more directly, drybrushing the layers more as a modulated tone, starting from a middle-key tone and constantly building the contrast of the reflections and highlights.”
In Delicate Impact, the artist included objects that are normally used as working ingredients for something more “beautiful and tasty.” During the process, Jackson became less interested in the final product and much more intrigued by the ingredients left after their use. “I wanted to create a playful connection between the objects by taking them away from their restricted purposes. Although they provide us protein and tickle our taste buds, when have we really given thanks for what we have? I guess this work is a plea to look closer and observe the beauty in the commonplace. I want to encourage a break from our rigorous schedule to reconsider the value of life.”
|Tension Series: A Retro Cultural,
Natural From Dichotomy of a Radish
2004, oil, 9 x 6.
Jackson’s major technical challenge with painting Delicate Impact was giving individual treatment to each of the three surfaces. “The eggshells had a very matte finish and subtle shifts of reflected light from the dish and butter,” he states. “I painted them with very thin, dry glazes, subtly building the form first by establishing the source of light, then adding reflective qualities last.” For the butter he used a thicker body of the paint to enhance its solid form, and he finished it with wet-in-wet glazes to bring attention to the slickness of the surface. “It was challenging to make the blue color of the dish really feel like a blue glaze on something ceramic,” he admits. “I tried to paint it as if I were putting the glaze on the dish, and once I revealed the color that bled into the surface of the porcelain, it became successful.”
Jackson believes that the second greatest illusion in painting is convincing the viewer of the physical weight of an object. “By this I mean making a decision based on the qualities of a physical mark (thick vs. thin), opacity of the mixture (opaque vs. translucent), and tonal shift that is most appropriate,” he says. “There are times when the first mark applied works, but usually there are more that aren’t working even after several attempts. Although the many mistakes it takes to get to the right touch seem endless, the viewer is invited to see the inner workings of process, the harmony between each stroke. It also creates a bond between the viewer and the painting by revealing the human touch. I am always reminding myself that I am trying to create something three-dimensional on a two-dimensional surface. This is by far the most challenging obstacle, and I believe the only way to truly achieve this is from observation.
2006, oil, 9 x 12.
Collection the artist.
“Creating the texture of an object is often misleading when converting the real to the observed,” Jackson continues. “I have found that an object needs to be broken into several segments: the core shadow, the highlight, and the reflected light, which is a starting point to see the form. As I advance the painting, I continually reduce those sections into smaller segments to identify the character of each object. Because there are so many facets in an object, it is easy to overlook and generalize, but maintaining the integrity of the painting by re-evaluating and readjusting to each part proves to be more convincing.”
The painting Broken Yolk—wherein the artist posed a dramatically lit broken egg and yolk as a metaphor for tragedy and hope—was one such work that challenged Jackson to convincingly portray the subject’s character. “The color throughout the yolk and its powerful reflection onto the eggshell was so amazing,” he says, “but very difficult to translate into a painted surface. I became convinced I needed to approach the painting from a different angle.” He began by developing a local-color study to work out his technical issues of form and then determined a consistent source of light. “Once the first layer was dry, I worked a few transparent glazes of color with a higher volume of medium into the mixture of paint. The layers of paint acted as sheets of liquid weaving on top and through one another, which solved my problem. I began to treat the painted surface as the elements were formed in front of me.”
|Delectable Imposition Act
2006, oil, 7¼ x 8¾.
McMurtrey Gallery, Houston, Texas.
Jackson, who for the most part works with oils, readily admits that he takes most of his color and design roots from the minimalists such as Piet Mondrian and Mark Rothko. “Although my paintings deal with high contrast,” he says, “I develop them on an extremely tonal level. I focus on a neutral palette to divide the space, giving the eyes a break to relax before examining another intense or chromatic tone. My neutral tones are from full-color custom blends ranging from warm to cool, and I rarely use black.” This tonal approach also helps Jackson achieve dramatic lighting. “The role of light is probably the most important and inviting element about my work,” Jackson admits. “I see light not only as a means to reveal form but also as a metaphor—revealing grace as the element uniting everything into one.” Jackson credits the great classical painters Chardin, Fantin-Latour, Joseph Decker, and Walter Murch for inspiring this part of his process. “Each of those painters had his own clear distinction of paint application as well as palette choices, but all shared the relationship of how light defines form,” the artist says. “As a contemporary realist painter, I try to carry that same quality of intimate observation, also redefining the commonplace.”
|Cherry Balance Act
2005, oil, 7¼ x 8¾.
About the Artist
Philip R. Jackson currently heads the painting department and teaches at the University of Mississippi, in Oxford, where he resides with his wife, Nicole, and baby daughter, Sophia Grace. He graduated in 2000 with a B.F.A. from the Columbus College of Art & Design, in Ohio, and earned his M.F.A. in 2002 at Bowling Green State University, in Ohio. In 2001 Jackson received the prestigious, internationally juried Elizabeth Greenshields Fellowship. The artist is represented by Center of the Earth Gallery, in Charlotte, North Carolina; Edith Caldwell Gallery, in Sausalito, California; The McMurtrey Gallery, in Houston; and the Hammond Harkins Gallery, in Bexley, Ohio, and on Martha’s Vineyard. His work is also included in the public collections of the Fort Wayne Museum of Art and the Evansville Museum of Art, both in Indiana. For more information on Jackson, visit his website at www.p-jackson.com, or e-mail him at [email protected]
James A. Metcalfe is a freelance writer residing in West Warwick, Rhode Island.