The Figural Ghosts of Oliver Lee Jackson’s Expressive Abstraction

Oliver Lee Jackson (American, born 1935) “No. 1, 2020 (6.14.20)” (2020), oil-based paints, chalk, fixative on gessoed panel, 96 x 96 inches (courtesy the artist 2021.92; © Oliver Lee Jackson, photo by M. Lee Fatherree)

Two silver birds above a thick pink sunset, a quiet smile from a lone cloud, a woman’s eyelids, a glimpse of a sleeping boy’s foot, two hands interlocked on a walk through a vertiginous meadow, a saffron skyline exploding on the wall. 

To experience the work of artist Oliver Lee Jackson, born in 1935, is to pull at the seams of perception so as to see ourselves for the very first time. His two-dimensional surfaces lead us into a maze of shapes and visual gestures, yet tease us into recognizing the figures hidden within. Is that an azure ellipse or a man’s shoulder blade? An egg cracked into a void or a veil lifted by aged fingers? A beating heart or a crowded womb? Within each work emerge unbidden characters, the abstract haunted by the figural. 

Curated by Simon Kelly and Hannah Klemm, and on view at the Saint Louis Art Museum through February 20, Oliver Lee Jackson presents over a half century of the artist’s oeuvre on luminous display — as tender as it is imposing, as unabashedly splashy as it is often subdued. In these 12 paintings, drawings, and prints from 1966 to 2020, Jackson’s early career is juxtaposed with his output from the past 15 years, evidencing his evolving experiments with color, shape, and the tension between figuration and abstraction.

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