There are so many different elements that make Suzanne Jackson’s exhibition, holding on to a sound, aptly named. Regardless of the medium, her work has a kind of musical component to it, a lyricism that seems to radiate from the wall where they are hung, like a kind of cosmic tuning fork was at work. They are also hauntingly lovely images, and if you study them long enough, they evoke ideas of memory and mortality. There is a soft of netherworld quality to these works, vividly alive, yet floating in an ether between a dream-like state and waking, and between this world and the next.
Then there is the reverberating history of the location of the gallery holding this exhibition, a space recently opened in July 2018. O-Town House is in Lafayette Park, where Jackson herself began her career opening her own Gallery 32 in 1968. It was then one of only two black-owned galleries in Los Angeles, and located in the Granada building. Now fifty years later, this exhibition of Jackson’s work has been mounted in the same building, through March 23rd.
The gallery describes the exhibition as both lyrical and surreal, and it is certainly both. But it is also rooted in and of Los Angeles, that sound the viewer feels in their bones upon viewing it is also the hum of the city night, the LA freeways, the amusement park screams and waves crashing along the Santa Monica pier, and the multitude of voices and languages coursing through apartment buildings and sidewalks and streets. One supposes that lyrical and surreal could describe LA itself, as well as this artist’s work.
As to Jackson, her five decades in the arts have included a focus on images of nature and the meaning of her heritage. And whether working on paper in water colors or with acrylic paint, her work is always richly, densely layered, in terms of both meaning as well as with material and technique. She’s said “The imagery that everybody has sort of become familiar with, with the really strong white background and the sort of washy layers and layers of paint — that basically is kind of an old masters’ technique of layering the color for translucency. It’s like the layers and layers of color build a depth in the painting. And some of the paintings, as thin as the color looks, therecould be a hundred and fifty layers of color on each of my paintings.” Her 3-dimensional mixed media wall sculptures include a different sort of layering, including fabrics, papers, and netting.
She’s also said that she’s following the “tradition of the ancestors” as she works, responding to her own curiosity about African American heritage and culture. “The paintings synthesize selected cultural memory, integrating drawn, implied or painted line. Pinching, crimping and pleating become linear reconstructions of the painted surface…”
Each individual work here is a rewarding experience as much as it is a work of art. Take the 2006 watercolor on hard board panel “Marilyn and Maya Watch Fog,” in which the colors seem to wash together yet remain separate, like light shining through stained glass. A thick fog, predominantly greyish white but also with an under pinning of yellow, green, and black swirls across the top section of the painting. Amorphous images of a woman with flowing hair and a dog look into it, as if reflecting its colors. The woman is clad in a purple garment, the dog has purple shadows on its skin; both conjure the image of royalty in this color and their positioning, as if commanding the fog, not just watching it. The bottom portion of the panel includes a fence-like grid, which may be anchoring them, or preventing them for drifting into the dream of this fog more easily.
A more recent work, the 3-D 2016 “finding joy in the mirror” is a kaleidoscopic work that includes loquat seeds, bogus paper, acrylic and wood veneer. The mirror is that unto the soul, with its vibrant yellow, its richly black and brown and layered unfeatured face, strands of hair hanging down onto the “forehead.” The colors of what appear to be a garment are again rich and royal, lapis lazuli and turquoise and dark yellow, bits of red and aquamarine. It dances with both joy and a weighted introspection. It is a dare, a promise, and an actualization of the title all in one.
Also from 2016, “Good News Baby!” acrylic and graphite on unstretched canvas, is again electric with a vibrancy of color. Two very haunted eyes peer out from these colors, a merging of two faces in profile with very different skin tones; the male figure appears to have a russet beard. Whatever the news being imparted – is it good? Was it heard in life or in a dream? What are those eyes seeing or watching? Yet the colors are so positive, so brilliant around them – a deep velvety blue, a glowing yellow. It feels like a moment of cognition.
“Moons in Double Copper Sea,” the artist’s work from 2017, is another mixed media work, this piece featuring acrylic, wood veneers, and acrylic detritus on cradles Arches papers. The nature of the medium here creates depth and a rough and pocked surface that looks like both the surface of the moon and a raw shore line. But it is the deep, below the surface layers of color that transfix, what lies beneath the bubbling, mysterious surfaces. They are earth toned and jeweled, distressed and ecstatic. Their darkness is compelling, while the glow that seems to both circle them and emanate from them struggles to break the darkness and the almost tidal pull of the work, in a strange and quite wonderful visual dichotomy. The positioning of this work next to the circular window in the gallery space adds its own kind of extra dimensional magic and invocation of light.
“Toucan Negotiating Two Crows” is an older work, created in mono-print, graphite, acrylic, and cotton. Rimmed in gold, the work resembles a depiction of a sacred text, unreadable yet seemingly knowable. Gold, blue, purple, and dark green, it presents a pattern that resembles a slice of a raw gemstone, the inside of a geode, a code of color and swirling line. But as one watches the work, its features present itself out of the non-verbal text. There’s the orange featured toucan poised to move forward on the left; on the right, two more amorphous blue crows are watching and waiting; what could be a female figure, the outline of a dancer bending forward, curves in front of them. It’s an allegory that means – anything at all that you want, if it comes from deep inside.
That deepness revolves in a stunning circle in the mixed-media, shield-like “sedaka fancy,” and again in the titular mixed media work “bird music – holding on to a sound.” Quite a sound here, singing with glittery gold and silver, that royal blue, strings dangling. It is feathers that imagine flight, it is visual thickness that resembles the embodiment of a single sound captured and repeated and caught. Hanging in a stair well, it invites us into the exhibition, into the idea of image that visualizes sound, and one is struck by the idea that what Jackson is most representing here is not just identity, not just human nature, but the nature of the soul – if the soul was a sound of the city, and sound could be seen with the eye.
It is certainly felt with the heart in this graceful exhibition, which also includes a small selection from the Gallery 32 archives. Visit and “see” what you hear.
Genie Davis is Los Angeles Art Critic at Riot Material Magazine. Ms. Davis is a multi-published novelist, journalist, and produced screen and television writer based in Los Angeles. Publisher and writer of www.diversionsLA.com, she also writes for a wide range of magazines and newspapers.