By Gerald E. Sheffield II
In Wild Topiary, Alex Jackson plays with the foundation of human perception by challenging viewers to suspend their historical understanding of painting and actively participate in a wild new exploration of color and meaning.
The 30 listed affirmations in the press release and titles to the paintings all refer to different aspects of seeing and knowledge accumulation based on historical associations with color and meaning. It is of all but few propositions one could possibly arrive at in Alex Jackson’s debute LA solo exhibition, Wild Topiary up until October 27th at Zevitas Marcus gallery.
Topiary is a horticultural practice of clipping plants into geometric shapes. The hedge of topiaries is a form to create walls, boundaries and screens. As an art form, it is considered a living sculpture. Topiary is discipline of rigor. Jackson attempts to use color as a topiary of modernist geometric abstraction to an equal degree of complexity. Plants become anthropomorphic forms, geometric shapes, and gridded patterns, and range in scale and quantity as the structural foundation of his paintings. Perhaps his use of topiary in the exhibition’s title alludes to an entanglement of unfamiliar forms growing into a fantastical new visual experience.
In one of the more complicated large paintings in the show, Basic Tools for Transmutation, 2018, multiple figures are present in what appears to be an artist’s studio, a laboratory, or both. The setting conjures up a specific genealogy, as artists have participated in the process of alchemy for centuries, manipulating earth pigments into liquid paints, and constructing illusions of images to which the viewer could recognize and give meaning. This leads me to believe we may be witnessing a confluence of organic and inorganic objects all at once. In Jackson’s paintings, the composition appears to take on a similar quality to light, and a scientific understanding of sight and meaning.
Everything we know about our visual world is based on our perception of light: a single-digit percentage of what makes up the entire universe. Light touches the surface of an object and bounces back into our eyes, then our brain constructs that information into an object. Seeing then becomes an active process through our cognitive associations with materials in the world. Jackson uses elements of science, the material of paint, and the illusion of representation to challenge the viewer to look at an old medium with fresh eyes.
The artist is seemingly offering the audience the freedom to explore a world shifted a few degrees from our own, for the sake of imagination, but also at the possible expense of its inhabitants.
Some paintings exhibit a more direct parody of modern colonialism — An extractive process of occupying political control over another country in order to exploit its labor and resources for economic purposes. In modern times, colonialism has affected (infected) the Americas, the United States, Afghanistan, Vietnam, Philippines, Australia, and South Africa to name a few. The consequences of colonialism are well documented in the revisionist history of academic research: the extraction of natural resources, exploitation and violence against indigenous cultures and oftentimes a complete erasure of the historical relevance of generations of people. Settler colonialism has also used the authority of racial science to abstract unfamiliar and strange worlds beyond its borders, in the name of progress.
But unlike the colonial experiment, all of the elements in Jackson’s paintings matter to an extent beyond our own conditioned method of making meaning of images. It reminds me of the inherent qualities of science to exploit our curiosity and journey into strange and unfamiliar worlds. He’s using painting not to just re-present what we see and understand about the “real” world. The canvas becomes a window into infinite possibilities, and dimensions can collapse, fold, and bend in ways that inspire an imaginative experience.
It’s a complicated, and nuanced subject to represent in painting. But maybe that explains some of the visual breakthrough of the works.
In Untitled, 2018, Jackson references elements of progress and the abstraction of scientific classification. The middle of the painting represents a textured face foregrounding a topographic map. The face is painted with varying levels of glazing to add specific details such as shadows and light cast within the boundaries of the canvas. The figure’s nose resembles one of the metallic, reflective elements also included within the same composition. Surrounding the map are gridded tables of densely colored natural resources, which are also present throughout the show’s other paintings. This juxtaposition of imagery leads me to believe, somewhere in this fictitious universe in which Jackson paints, there exists a vague reference to colonialism. It could be read as a possible allusion to the classification of a nation and its natural resources. Topiary are visibly grown out of a wild forest in a small section of the painting as well.
Another painting which represents the entanglement of science and colonial history is Resultant Force (Cutlass), 2018. Two figures, wielding cutlass swords and wearing a daster, associated with Sikhism, walk with an erect posture carrying a topiary branch. Under the bridge, in the distant background of the painting, appears to be a naval ship turned on its side. The tiniest of details in this painting are considered. The gloves of the sword yielding figures have a texture which represents the lighting in the landscape, as well as the firmness of the grip with which they hold the topiary branch. The center of the painting features a monumental topiary structure which connotes the hierarchical proportions of ancient religious painting and sculpture, alluding to a consistent, yet fundamental element throughout the exhibition. As the title possibly suggests, a “resultant force” is a system of forces and torque acting on a rigid body. Maybe the two men are members of an imperial military, extracting the wild topiary for its cultural significance?
There’s a range in these series of paintings and drawings that span both the color and visual spectrum of modernism and representation. Kerry James Marshall speaks of understanding the structures of images as a foundation for making the paintings. Jackson responds with a collapsing of perception and an introduction of vision — an experience in which a person, thing, or event appears vividly to the mind, although not actually present, often under the influence of an unknowable element. In The Den of E, 2018, Jackson foregrounds formal elements of art in order to set up conditions where subject — object function between perception and reality. Metallic figures emerge from perspectival shifts, literally and figuratively reflecting the conditions of their existence off the surface of their skin. The composition becomes more entangled between what appears to be trees, or teeth, engulfing the surrounding top and bottom regions of the painting.
The overall strangeness of the paintings and drawings are possibly situated in transitioning and placelessness. Figures are transitioning in between states, both physical and metaphysical (another reference to science). However, it works to Jackson’s advantage. The entire show proposes a breakdown in perception as a preface to discovery. I walked away from the exhibition with questions that were not dismissive of the work, but inviting to other possibilities of seeing. Can something visually unusual be a place to explore new perspectives of our current history? Can the creation of something strange and unfamiliar be a method of discovery?
If we are to survive through the understanding of the paintings in Wild Topiary, we have to follow the journey of the artist by way of his set of terms.