Power and structure

PSU’s Masters in Fine Arts Monday night lecture series featured local artist Jo Jackson, whose work, much like her lecture on Monday, is a study in contradictions. Jackson’s work dwells on power and structure, exploring the way both are asserted and maintained, as well as their eventual dissolution. From her earliest work, a one-inch piece featuring two tiny faces and the word “alive,” to her most recent, a show at the Jack Hanley Gallery in San Francisco, Jackson leads the full theater through more than a decade’s worth of work infused with a repeating personal iconography full of what the artist called her “secret language.” What better way to create work that centers around global issues ��- so clouded and encrypted – than to do so by creating a language all her own.

Jackson, alongside partner and regular contributor (and last week’s lecturer) Chris Johanson, was a major part of the San Francisco scene for much of the last decade, a movement that blurred the lines between high and low art, illustration, gallery work and street art. She and Johanson moved to Portland two-and-a-half years ago, escaping the rising costs of Bay Area living and infusing major contemporary clout to Portland.

The survey of Jackson’s work Monday, in the form of ‘zines, paintings, flash videos and installations, revealed an artist direct in her iconography, repeating images inspired and borrowed from a bold range of sources and adapted to have multiple meanings. Jackson creates a new iconography, images closely resemble the everyday, but speak in a new language, one Jackson explains using contradictions like “violently calmly” and “not really connecting but connecting.” The initial commonplace of Jackson’s icons and their calm, balanced palette draw the viewer in, creating a sense of the ordinary, but as the images duplicate in their meaning, introducing a secret language, it leaves one feeling lost – betrayed by their apparent banality.

Jackson’s early works include drawings and handmade ‘zines showing purposeless illustrations made to resemble the universal symbolic instructions found alongside every product from Ikea to atom bombs – hands doing nothing overt, but with the underlying promise violence. Flash videos capitalize on their limited technology, looping images, from simple movements to epic processes and repeating them endlessly, meditating on subjects and icons ranging from such natural subjects as sex and death to intricate power structure and politics. One of Jackson’s more complete video works featured six monitors, chords intertwined, each monitor showing a different power phrase and identical faces, and while Jackson had a difficult time relaying each video on the single screen, the power of the work was clear, showing each position wears the same face.

Slides from her most recent show at the Jack Hanley Gallery show Jackson’s concepts have made the jump to the overtly physical. Statues of what Jackson referred to as power structures – everything from conceptualized Soviet monuments to Davidian classicism – are cast out of resin, beeswax and wood, reducing each self-edifying monument to the texture and color of a child’s birthday cake. The accompanying video – so grandiose in scope that we were only shown snippets – shows each self-declared state and country, each border drawn by man throughout history, spinning in space on its own globe, as time passes and states overthrow one another and multiply in time the screen becomes full of layers and layers of multi-hued globes spinning into oblivion, dropping as quickly as they are born. By the time Jackson’s work reaches the 20th century, countries are born and die so quickly the screen becomes manic with flashing globes, until eventually they all stop and die off in unison. The silent population and death of the piece was both meditative and disturbing.

What separates Jackson from other icon-heavy artists like Ryan McGuinness is her intensely personal attachment to each image. Where McGuinness creates and evolves slick icons, makes baroque and obvious social statements, Jackson’s work seems personal, handcrafted and obscure. It’s this attachment to ideas, to concepts and hopes, to her tiny dog Raisin (who chased my daughter out into the hallway at one point Monday) that gives Jackson’s work its weight. It’s hers to keep and ours to attempt to decipher.