GEORGE O. JACKSON’S ABSTRACT PORTRAITS
by FERNANDO CASTRO R.
Portraits typically are depictions of an individual person in the medium of drawing, painting, sculpture or photography. However, not every historical age has found it desirable to depict individuals. Classical Greek artists like Kresilas (480-410 BC) arguably did not depict the individual Pericles in the celebrated portrait bronze statue that once stood at the Athenian Acropolis. Rather he carved the archetype of a strategos —not only a military commander, as some literature has noted, but a zeitgeist leader of Athens. Pliny the Elder said of said portrait, "a work worthy of the title; it is a marvelous thing about this art that it can make famous men even more famous." Although lifelike, an archetype is not exactly an individual; instead, it is an ideal free of the accidental imperfections that make an individual who he is. Hence it is an idealized form we have in our minds of how someone ought to look like given his personality, stature and deeds. George O. Jackson's Portraits from his abstract Thaumaturgy oeuvre probe into the viewer's mind in search for an identification and recognition of his subjects. In a sense they snap onto, at the point of almost pure abstraction, a historical cycle that may have started with archetypes, gone to the discovery of the portrayal of individuals, stylization, expressionism, hyperrealism, impersonation, etc., and the myriad alternatives of contemporary art.
In the context of Jackson's own oeuvre these portraits are the missing link between his abstract work and his ethnographic work; in particular, with his documentary work that shows the ritual use of masks in religious festivities. They reverse the interpretation of photography in the documentary mode in which the photographer acts as a medium between an actual scene he saw and photographed, and the viewer who can benefit from the visual information, to photography in the imaginary mode in which the viewer is invited to interpret imagery according to his own psychological inclinations. The portrayed subject in Jackson's portraits is the one projected onto the image by the viewer.
The viewer's projection of an individual onto a depiction is not that peculiar. It is a moot question how faithful the depictions of the pharaoh Akhenathen in ancient Egypt were. Those depictions were probably a distillation of how the pharaoh looked like, how he wanted to be remembered, how the artists convinced him he looked like, and how his subjects wanted him to look like. In the history of art it is widely accepted that the first known instance of the depiction of actual individuals who were not rulers were the Greco-Roman funeral portraits (circa 1st century AD) of the Fayum district, Egypt. These portraits do not appear to show the individual at the moment of their demise, but at some point in their lives that may have been judged to be their acme. As one probes one of Jackson's portraits, one may read into it a personality that is more exemplary than accurate, a psychological acme.
Some of Jackson's portraits transport us to paintings like Senecio, the 1922 series of paintings by Paul Klee; or Amedeo Modigliani's 1917 more stylized portraits like Blue Eyes (portrait of Madame Jeanne Hébuterne). Yet, as it is expected from abstract imagery, there is something more fluid in Jackson's portraits. That fluidity is akin to the multiplicity of perspectives in Cubist portraits (minus the geometric fragmentation) as is the case in Pablo Picasso's 1936 rendering of Dora Maar. Faces in such cubist portraits may have noses orienting themselves in one direction while mouths and eyes point to a different one. That is what happens in Jackson's abstract works like Untitled Y.
Jackson's portraits do not denote specific persons. As was said above, they function more like psychological archetypes than photographic portraits in the documentary mode. Indeed, they fall off the tradition of photographic portraiture. They invite the participation of the viewer in establishing denotation by psychological association and detection. His abstract portraits may suggest a fearful, pathetic, or sinister character. At times they may even be taken to be several subjects in one form.
It may seem outrageous to propose Jackson's portraits as such, but it is not that farfetched. It is worth remembering Gertrude Stein's telling anecdote and the portrait Picasso made of her. The Spanish painter depicted Stein as a massive figure with clay-like skin staring
blankly besides the viewer. Stein famously stated, "I was and I still am satisfied with my portrait. For me, it is I, and it is the only reproduction of me which is always I." To those who objected to her mask-like features, Picasso replied, "Everybody thinks that she is not at all like her portrait,
but never mind, in the end she will manage to look just like it." George O. Jackson's portraits leave it up to the viewer to connect them with a particular person, or to themselves. They use the tools of color and form, brightness and shadow to propose an interpretation to the to propose an interpretation to the viewer. At face value, light, color and form are the substance of their difference and materiality.
Fernando Castro R.
A problem with the term "abstract" as applied to art is that it differs ontologically from what is abstract. For what is abstract is defined as that which exists in thought or as an idea, but not as a physical object. Artworks, on the other hand, usually if not always, have a very physical existence. We are thus forced to change the meaning of "abstract" in order to speak of abstract art to "relating to art that does not attempt to represent external reality, but rather seeks expression using shapes, colors, and textures." So the emphasis in abstract art is that a physical object (hence, not-abstract) denotes something other than physical objects. The case of abstract photography is made even more difficult because those shapes, colors and textures are derived from physical objects, thus forcing the very genre into yet another ad hoc definition; namely, "photography that shows shapes, colors and textures which, in spite of being pictures of actual physical objects, do not denote them."
Thaumaturgy is an exploration of wondrous shapes, colors, textures, transparencies, light, and darkness. It is a series of works that force us to walk in and out of pure abstraction and discernible pieces of visual reality. In a time when all ideologies play out in art, this artist obviously delights in this ambiguity and pursues it in different ways. But, the problem with photography is that —more than with any other medium— the viewer tends to ask, "What is this a picture of?" —meaning, what is its referent?
One subset of Thaumaturgy is titled Fata Morgana. The latter is the name of a kind of mirage that significantly distorts the objects on which they are based, to the point that they become completely unrecognizable. That is the case with the Fata Morgana works. We are presented with waves of color in patterns that sometimes resemble Rorschach stains for their specular symmetry. Darkness alternates with luminous translucent color so that the viewer experiences intermittently the enjoyment of color, and the anxiety of darkness. Although occasionally we "see" a face or an animal shape, as is the case with a Rorschach stain, Fata Morgana liberates us from asking for a referent and delivers us to imagined denotations.
In Thaumaturgy, this artist does not stop at the depiction of the object; rather he/she squeezes it until it loses its objectivity, and flows through his/her imagination into our subjective interpretations. His/her interaction with the subject matter is akin to Jackson Pollock's dripping or Paul Jenkins' pouring, except that the colors "flow" into the photographic "take," as theirs do onto the canvas. Just as these painters learned to control the element of randomness in their technique, this artist has learned to control the visual input on his/her digital camera. He/she could have just as well used an airbrush, or a camera-less digital medium, but he/she is a self-styled creator of enigmatic wondrous pictures who happens to use the tool of photography.