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Q and A with Herb Jackson

by Ty Shaffer

April 9,2010

Herb Jackson is an artist and the Douglas C. Houchens Professor of Fine Arts at Davidson College. In 2007, a retrospective of his “Veronica’s Veils” series — a collection of textured, abstract pieces that Jackson began in 1980 — was on display at the McColl Center for Visual Art. The series now includes 194 canvases. Jackson, whose work can be found in over 100 museum collections, also serves on the Board of Directors of Bechtler Museum of Modern Art. Herb Jackson is represented by Claire Oliver Gallery, 513 W. 26th St. in New York. Work may be viewed at www.herbjackson.com.

When you were a student at Davidson, it wasn’t possible to major in Art. Do you take a certain satisfaction in now being part of a robust fine arts department at your alma mater?

Yes, I would say I take a lot of satisfaction, because I essentially wrote the major and got it through the faculty senate. If I was going to be here, I wanted to set up a different kind of circumstance for someone similar to myself, if they came along. 

As a field of study, the arts are unique in that "success" requires a certain amount of natural ability.

Why do you make that assumption? The a priori decision that one must have natural ability is a little suspect to me.

Had I been a student in one of your classes, we would have tested that.

I’m always interested in those kinds of tests.

What do you think draws an artist to a particular style or movement?

You start with a limited palette of experience. You broaden that and start to take more risks, and something pulls you in a certain direction. In my case, when I started, I followed the traditional path of doing still-life and portraits. But pretty soon I kept feeling that the real adventure for me was the observation inward rather than the observation outward, and my path became non-narrative.

Is the process the same for non-artists — those of us who view and appreciate art?

What people respond to visually is heavily conditioned by words, and I would say particularly by the preposition "of." When you’re presented with visual things from the time you’re in the cradle, you’re told, "this is a picture of a house, this is a picture of a cat." Your whole experience is mediated by that preposition. And I would say that the way we come to visual art is hampered by that for a long time, so that people tend to see the narrative before they see the image. And you witness that in museums, where people read the label first, before they look at the painting.

Do you think this conditioning is why so many people are uncomfortable with abstract art?

Sure, absolutely. Because those same people will say they love classical music, but what’s more abstract? No one leaves a Mozart concert saying, "what was that of?"

When you begin a piece, do you have an idea of what you want to create?

No. You expected a bigger answer than that, I’ll bet.

How then do you judge whether a piece is a "success" or "failure"?

Well, there I would put my years in the studio as my touchstone for what makes a painting "work." When you’re a young artist, you’re not sure of yourself, and that’s why you have critical response from other people (teachers or other artists) who say "that’s not working." But at a certain point you become your own critic, you know whether something isn’t working and then you keep working on it.

So you think that there is a knowable, objective standard for whether piece or collection "succeeds"?

Well, yes, I do. I think postmodernism tended to muddy the issue with the idea that quality and craft weren’t important. What we got out of postmodernism was a liberalization of what was going to be considered “interesting” — culturally and gender-wise — and that was positive. What we got out of it negatively was any ability to make connoisseurship decisions, because if bad painting is good, what are you going to do?

What do you hope the Bechtler Museum can accomplish, whether for modernism, or more generally for the arts in Charlotte?

The thing that’s unique about the Bechtler is its focus on modernism, a specific sensibility that was not really represented in Charlotte. Now there is a place to go and get a real sense of that, particularly the European modernists. The second thing is the personal element of it — it relates to one family’s passion. I think it’s important for people to understand the Bechtler in that context, and not just as an assemblage of pieces. It’s intimate in that way, and I think that gives Charlotte another kind of artistic experience.

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