Oliver Lee Jackson’s Indeterminate Abstraction

The artist’s exhibition at Blum, Los Angeles, traces four decades of gestural painting that’s neither purely abstract nor figurative

BY Jonathan Griffin in Exhibition Reviews | 16 APR 24

Oliver Lee Jackson would probably tell you that there is no need for reviews of his exhibitions. No need, in fact, for words at all. He might well argue that his paintings, which live primarily in a zone of non-objective abstraction, but which often approach – and sometimes even entirely breach – its borders, exist outside of language.

As Jackson said in a 2018 video interview with the National Gallery of Art in Washington: ‘There is no storyline to follow.’ Maybe he underestimates the persistence of narrative as a route into meaning-making. Jacksons story begins in 1935 in St. Louis. In the 1960s, he became involved with community cultural projects as well as with the Black Artists Group, a cross-disciplinary collective of musicians, actors, dancers, poets and artists. He later moved to Oakland, but his painting style – which draws from abstract expressionism as well as various classical and West African motifs – has sat uneasily with dominant trends in the Bay Area since the 1980s.

Oliver Lee Jackson, ‘Machines for the Spirit’, 2024
Oliver Lee Jackson, Untitled (12.4.23), 2023, artist oil paints, oil enamel, applied paper, graphite on plywood panel

246.4 × 188 × 5.1 cm. Courtesy: the artist and BLUM Los Angeles, Tokyo, New York; photograph: Hannah Mjølsnes

Machines for the Spirit, Jacksons first solo exhibition at Blum, Los Angeles, constitutes a powerful body of paintings, made between 1983 and 2023, that track the artists sometimes-fraught negotiation in his work of identification, of feeling and, indeed, of narrative significance. Take, for example, Painting (12.12.00) (2000), an economically titled drawing in paint. Calligraphic oil-stick gestures on gesso mingle with scuffed and scumbled areas of colour. The pictures more open lower portion ascends into a black cloud of heavy, overlaid forms, including shapes that resemble hunched human figures. A clue to the works arduous gestation lies in its bottom corner: the painting is prominently signed and dated twice, once in 1985 and again in 2000.

That earlier signature is appended by a copyright symbol, just as Jean-Michel Basquiat used to do around the same time. Basquiat’s paintings are full of legible notations – he started out as a graffiti writer, after all – and invite us to read them. How to read Jackson’s paintings, though? They are not transparently legible (are those really figures? maybe not) but they are also not abstract or open enough to welcome any and all interpretative projections. Figuration, which Jackson has consistently used as a jumping-off point for his improvisational, largely abstract compositions, muddies the waters.

Oliver Lee Jackson, Painting (1.6.23), 2023
Oliver Lee Jackson, Painting (1.6.23), 2023, oil-based paints on panel, 114.3 × 88.9 × 5.1 cm. Courtesy: the artist and BLUM Los Angeles, Tokyo, New York; photograph: Hannah Mjølsnes

What gets in the way, for me, is not so much the presence of figuration but the sense that one should look for it. Confronted with Painting (1.6.23) (2023), an elegantly spare arrangement of textural scrapes of colour on a perfectly smooth grey ground, I am distracted deciphering skittering orange lines that have hints of muscular bodies about them. In a major recent work, Painting (12.4.23) (2023), violent black and red dashes have hidden amongst them two figures attacking each other with swords. In the lower foreground, weirdly, Jackson has pasted on a rather sentimental pencil sketch, on paper, of four babies’ booties. Above that are gestural forms that might be babies’ arms and legs. Piles of them. What the hell is going on here? And how can Jackson claim there is no story?

Jackson has said that his art is ‘for anybodys eyes. Any eyes will do.’ I salute the sentiment – its generosity, its sincerity, its democracy. (It is worth noting that none of Jacksons figures are racially specific, Black or otherwise.) He has compared his art to music – specifically, to jazz – but music is abstract by default, and is not deciphered by a listener the way that a painting is read by a viewer. Painting has to work hard to resist all verbal identification; Jacksons paintings work hard, for sure, but I am not always certain what they are working hard at.

Oliver Lee Jackson, ‘Machines for the Spirit’, is on view at Blum, Los Angeles, until 4 May

Main Image: Oliver Lee Jackson, Painting No. 5 (10.23.13), 2013, artist oil paints, acrylic gesso on wood panel, 171.5 × 98.1 × 5.1 cm. Courtesy: the artist and BLUM Los Angeles, Tokyo, New York; photograph: Hannah Mjølsnes

Jonathan Griffin is a writer based in Los Angeles, USA, and a contributing editor of frieze.