Unfinished Business
John Jackson at Zygote Press

More often than not dying is a lengthy process, allowing at least some time for letting go
– for bequests and estate sales, downsizing and divestiture. But John Jackson was shot
and killed at the age of fifty-one; there was no time for anything.

Jackson was an artist who lived where he worked, and he died there as well, shot and
killed at the entrance to the former bank building at West 65th and Detroit Avenue on
Cleveland’s West Side. It must have happened just minutes after fellow artist and tenant
Masumi Hayashi was also murdered that tragic August day. Both were in the middle of all
kinds of projects; they were in the middle of their lives.

The memorial exhibition of Jackson’s works titled Works and Processes currently on view
at Zygote Press is first of all an impressive look at the thinking and studio practice of a
deeply intelligent, highly accomplished artist. It’s also a delightful romp through a private
world of finished and half-finished works that often seem to have minds of their own.
Works and Processes is anything but sorrowful. In fact it’s something of a circus, or
maybe a zoo, as Jackson’s large and small sculptures crawl up the walls and hang from
the ceiling, or rest (at least until we look away) on the floor. Some are kinetic – one even
incorporates a motor and features whirring miniature fans. Others just look like they
might move, or should. Jackson had the ability to impart a twitchy, half-humorous life to
his conceptions, and many of the works on view seem ready to scurry or soar away on
unfinished business. They’re so full of life it’s hard to believe the man who made them isn’
t here to keep an eye on their antics.

Works and Processes is something like a studio visit. Zygote’s Liz Maugans and Bellamy
Prinz imported a wall full of sketches and drawings, plus a work table covered with studies
and notebooks, all under a big sheet of plexiglass. This intriguing selection of materials is
only a fraction of the seventy notebooks Jackson put together over the years, filled with
thoughts and designs.

In a way this show is better than a studio visit, because the inadvertence, the clutter and
distraction, of process is absent. What’s left is the work itself, large and small, Modernist,
Postmodernist, and something nameless that is Jackson’s alone. There’s just enough
order and emptiness to provide a bit of perspective for viewing works that need room to
exercise their fey individuality, and a little space to reach across, the better to interact
with one another.

Jackson’s art achieves its high sense of liveliness by careful feats of balance and small,
telling gestures of defiance. One tall, thin sculpture reaches toward the ceiling like a
ramshackle Brancusi; it’s poised unsteadily on a small stool and a tiny pyramid perches
just to one side, on a platform at the very top, like a sparrow. Often Jackson’s
constructions pick up where a classic modernist like Joan Miro or Paul Klee would have
left off, pushing some whimsical idea, fueled initially by surrealist techniques, back from
the realms of the uncanny into a casually self-aware and belated canniness: Jackson’s
inventions know where and when they are, peering from the jungles of the unconscious
into the clear, cold space of Cleveland’s post-industrial landscape. His totems, like
another long, tall assemblage that greets visitors at the Zygote show, rising next to wall
text reproducing a recent statement by the artist, aren’t exactly totemic anymore, though
they derive from early modernist views of primitive cultures. In general they seem weary
of imposed mysteries of ritual or theory, commenting instead on the rust and weather that
transform human gadgetry, making every detail of effort and intention into landscape.
That Jackson can manage this with a smile and a shrug is a tribute to his character not
only as an artist, but as a human being. In a statement prepared for the Zygote show, art
professor Richard Zakin of SUNY writes, “[Jackson] never sought to overpower the
observer, but…to amuse, enlighten and persuade…He was wary of grand
pronouncements and theories of everything.”

Jackson grew up in Chagrin Falls and attended the Cleveland Institute of Art, graduating
in 1977. Later that year he moved to Philadelphia, where he spent roughly half of his
artistic life. It was there that he helped to found an experimental group called Crust,
exhibiting also at the Painted Bride Art Center, Portico Gallery, Lawrence Oliver Gallery
and others throughout the 1980’s. In 1991 he returned to Cleveland and was included in
significant shows at Lake Erie College and the Dead Horse Gallery, finally exhibiting a
painting titled Green Goddess at last year’s NEO Show at the Cleveland Museum of Art.
At various times he worked in the construction trades, and as studio assistant to
Cleveland artist Ed Mieczkowski (he also participated with Bea Mitchell and Mieczkowski
in the extraordinary experimental drawing/painting group Newcell).

Jackson was always building or repairing, surrounded with odds and ends of building
supplies. It was probably inevitable and certainly appropriate that his art work should be
enlarged and infused with leftover paint and plywood, electrical wire, and all the other
byproducts of his day jobs. And nowhere could serve as a more appropriate venue for a
show of this work than the gallery at Zygote. Jackson not only produced prints on the
presses that Zygote makes available, but helped with the recent move from their old digs
at 79th and St. Clair, assisting in the rehab of the new space.

It’s of some comfort to reflect that John would no doubt be pleased with this informal,
dynamic installation. The relative seriousness of his painting comes into focus here and
there, flanked by hulking quasi-geometric forms, like pages of illuminated manuscript
peeking from behind flying buttresses. The range and complexity of the artist’s lifelong
struggle to discover meaning among quotidian scraps and incidents can be glimpsed, at
least – and that’s as much or more than any show is likely to deliver.
But of course the show, as well as other aspects of our world, would be better if John
Jackson were alive, and one wonders why it is often so hard to give the living their due.

[Free Times 11/8/06]