Visiting this exhibition, I often thought of Matisse. Vanessa Jackson encourages the comparison by titling one work Homage a Henri, while ‘Rough cut’ evokes the jagged edges of Matisse’s papiers découpés. Amongst Jackson’s previous work, too, the wall painting Throwing Shapes (CPG Café Gallery, 2010) not only developed from a paper-cut maquette, but with its interlocking forms, like links in a chain, put me in mind of Matisse’s La Danse. But even before I became aware of this, I was convinced that the relationship between painting and collage was central to the pictures at Marcelle Joseph. The two media are contradictory—painting involves building up layers in an additive process (however much removal might be involved in between), whereas collage, before anything else, requires its components to be isolated, cut, removed from their context. Before he decided how to assemble his papiers découpés on the studio wall, Matisse had to cut out the shapes, giving them autonomy prior to their contribution to the artwork. In Jackson’s paintings too, there is a feeling of the geometric forms on the canvas already existing, needing only to be layered on the canvas like shiny slabs of linoleum, sometimes resembling no-entry signs across the grainier ground beneath.
The exhibition centres on three paintings made this year, which mark a continuation from the wall paintings documented in Jackson’s recent catalogue Off the Wall. Like those installations, these large paintings relate to the physical presence of the viewer. The small, rather boxy Hatton Garden room where these paintings are exhibited might have cramped them, given their size (each 213 x 183cm) but in fact they work well in this environment (the natural lighting is a bonus). With each picture in close proximity on different walls, I felt surrounded and enveloped by them. They convinced me. Each one is made up of four near-vertical quadrilaterals, each the size of a tall person, inside more wiry forms resembling arches or doorways. Not that any of the pictures makes you think of people, but rather architectural forms made to accommodate people—pillars, statues, columns, and, where two forms are twinned, drawing-room screens . Like Surrealist biomorphs, they offer just enough familiarity for you to do the work of establishing relations, and in the case of Look on the Bright Side, I immediately thought of the alienated architecture in de Chirico’s landscapes, inviting me into the picture between the two shapes on the right.
All of this might be expected from the shift from wall to canvas. While keeping much of the same vocabulary, the focus shifts to a smaller, more confined space and increased depth. The surprise, then, was when I realised how different the other two pictures (Homage à Henri and Lighten Up) are in spite of their initial family resemblance. Apart from their more evenly distributed forms, their colour also resists any landscape echoes. In Look on the Bright Side, even the colour is reminiscent of de Chirico (its mustard ground is not too far from the colour of parched landscapes such as The Enigma of a Day, 1914) whereas the aggressive scarlet of Homage à Henri and the inky grey of Lighten Up provoke other associations.
Of these latter two Lighten Up seems by far the more interesting, resembling as it does a nineties screensaver, its geometric forms twisting through endless space. This is where I finally felt I understood the title of the exhibition. Because ‘Rough Cut and Faceted’, while appropriate for a show held amongst the jewellers of Hatton Garden, brings to mind not painting but diamonds and sculpture, three-dimensional objects grasped not all at once but only in time. And despite the clear debt to Matisse, unlike the rigorous flatness of those Matisse collages, Jackson’s paintings, when they work, have the resonance of forms in space that we can interact with. They seem to have their own autonomous life (I see the orange shape on the right of Lighten Up as drifting away from a canvas too small to accommodate it, rather than a shape created specifically to fit the space of this painting). Of course those screensavers, themselves fed off of the language of geometric abstraction. They threw out, once again, that classic twentieth-century dilemma: once art’s innovations get assimilated into popular culture, how does art stay art within the new context? One difference is that those screensavers refused judgement. They were mesmerising, and fulfilled their decorative purpose admirably, by manipulating their shapes in time through the endless permutations of a system. But they also resisted the choice of any one moment as more significant than the next. The success of Lighten Up is that, like Giacometti’s groups of walking figures such as The Piazza, it brings disparate forms into temporary proximity, suspending their future and past in an ongoing moment. I’m certain they are all about to drift away as the orange shape has already started to, but for the moment they seem by chance to have aligned almost perfectly.
The exhibition is completed by two earlier series of small paintings, titled Spring Note and Summer Note. Like another homage, that of Albers to the square, these are variations of limited formal resources (in keeping with the calligraphic resonances of Jackson’s forms, in one of the series these resemble the letters U N I in different arrangements), in high-keyed colours recalling Michael Craig-Martin and Patrick Caulfield. As with many series though, these don’t sustain interest on their own, only in relation to each other. These small paintings (whose canvas sizes incidentally are those of small monitors) don’t work for me because they seem arbitrary moments of an interminable game, variations with no real theme. In contrast Lighten Up somehow contains the multiplicity of a series within a single canvas. Jackson’s challenge, then, is the same as that facing any artist working with a restricted formal language, to give each individual painting its own identity beyond that of a merely structuralist interest. A larger show would reveal whether the more interesting paintings here are part of a productive line of enquiry or anomalous successes in a formal cul-de-sac.
Vanessa Jackson: Rough Cut and Faceted is on until the 27th of September at Marcelle Joseph Projects, 84 Hatton Garden