Life's Pall on Separate Panels 

Memphis painter Jed Jackson uses visual references and cartoon formats to cast a mournful eye on modern life

Memphis painter Jed Jackson uses visual references and cartoon formats to cast a mournful eye on modern life

"C.E.O.," Paintings by Jed Jackson

Through Dec. 2 at Sarratt Gallery

There was a time when paintings served as aids to memory. People carried miniature portraits of loved ones departed or still living, painted by artists like Tennessean John Wood Dodge. Full-scale portraits provided a more public reminder for generations to come, and canvases with historical themes fixed important national events in people's imaginations. Photography and now video have supplanted painting in this role, leaving painting more cleanly as a mode of expression: its primary purpose is to create new images, ideas and experience rather than commit something to memory.

Then again, Jed Jackson, chair of the art department at the University of Memphis, turns around and titles one of the paintings currently showing at Sarratt Gallery "Aides Mémoires." His painting style uses techniques from cartoons—multiple panels, thought balloons, secondary images inserted within the main one, and a stylized realism—to combine images heavy with references to art and film. Certain uses of cartoon style can have a nostalgic feel, like Chris Ware's "Jimmy Corrigan" series; in Jackson's case, the techniques, color schemes and image references all seem to reside in memory.

In "Aides Mémoires," the artist stands in front of a mirror in the bathroom of a Dutch museum. Five circles float over him, each containing another image. A detail from Bellini's St. Francis in New York's Frick Collection is surrounded by Napoleon's tomb, a seated woman drinking coffee, a scene of several people in an outdoor crowd, and a bed strewn with clothes and packages. In the language of comic books, the images in each of the circles would show what's happening elsewhere, what happened earlier, or what the protagonist is thinking about, imagining or remembering. Outside of the context of a comic book story, any and all of these spatial, temporal and mental perspectives are at work.

Discussions of Jackson's work frequently note cartoons as a source, but these techniques have deeper roots in art history. Medieval works presented the lives of saints in multiple panels or fresco cycles, and several incidents might be shown within a single frame. Jackson's figuration has a cartoon feel in its level of detailing and reliance on strong line drawing, but the dark skin tones and simplified modeling recall icons and early Renaissance painting when Byzantine influence still made itself felt.

Like an icon painter, who uses images from a well-established canon, Jackson draws his imagery from art history and movie scenes. In "New World Order," a man and woman sit in a room filled with art, drinking, smoking and looking over travel brochures. The artworks are based on specific Roman statues and Greek vases. In conversation, Jackson revealed that the couple's pose had a source in an Erich von Stroheim movie, Walking Down Broadway—an obscure reference that Jackson doesn't expect people to pick up on. The referentiality is pervasive. The artist says that when his work has been reviewed in New York, critics get stuck in a game of "find the reference." I can understand how that would happen—even with limited ability, I have trouble turning down this sort of challenge.

The density of references puts Jackson at some risk of producing sterile "art historian" art, in which the erudition of the painter takes precedence over imagining and feeling, but he avoids this with his openness to indirect associations. "Fragments of Greece" places a trio of classical sculptures, two female figures flanking a male, in front of the Acropolis, but he puts them in a modern setting with a Hilton Hotel sign and the Greek flag visible in the background. Over this, Jackson lays two circular images taken from billboards or ads. The one showing a man and several women is for a place called Club Stoa, presumably a nightclub or strip club. In the other circle, a man poses between two women in bikinis, in the same order as the classical statues in the main image. This juxtaposition pokes fun at classical culture, but also lends it vitality. The painting shows that modern Greeks refer back to their culture, if in a degraded form like naming nightclubs after the porch where the philosopher Zeno taught. It also shows that they continue their forebears' love of the human form, particularly the female form, expressing it more garishly. The picture also points out that classical Greek art was not detached and "platonic," but in fact traded in an earthy form of desire.

Art can articulate psychological and emotional undercurrents that are difficult to name outright, and this seems to be Jackson's purpose much of the time. "CEO," a painting that appeared in the "Art of Tennessee" show last fall at the Frist, is a good example. It consists of four panels, each showing a scene in which one or more of the figures has a thought balloon containing another image. A woman tries to resuscitate a man at a black-tie event by waving a cigar under his nose; the passed-out man and another man standing by both have thought balloons of a woman wearing sheer black panties. Even in the midst of this crisis, even when unconscious, basic lust plays as a steady undercurrent. In another panel, a man counts money in a bank vault, and a thought balloon shows a stereotypical desert scene with saguaro cactus. Surrounded by wealth, desolation colors his consciousness. Free-floating lust, despair and anger run beneath each setting.

The overall tone of Jackson's paintings contains a strong note of despair. The world he depicts is somewhat sick; his use of opalescent pinks and greens to model flesh gives his characters an unhealthy cast. He often catches people with their mouths open in a partial grimace, and rumpled folds of skin seem to fall off their faces. Some of the paintings come across as more desolate than others, but often they seem wise, accepting decay and entropy as part of living.

When Jackson puts multiple pictures into one frame and packs paintings with visual quotations, the apposition of images and references creates a conceptual zone between images in which inchoate associations can flourish. The resulting efflorescence of sensations produces a vitality that balances the mournful tone of the pictures: decay makes way for the promise of future feelings and experience.

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