26th October - 11th November 2006

Short Circuit Since '79:
Paintings by Vanessa Jackson


paintings 1979 - 1984

paintings 1985 - present


Short Circuit Since '79: Paintings by Vanessa Jackson

Vanessa Jackson: The Private Persistence of Public Art

What is it we see before the work? Is it possible to say?

A certain intensity of blue. A motif formed by the intersecting segments of incomplete circles. The outline of a lozenge, warped from the true and producing an effect of perspective. One plane optically behind another. One surface visibly laid upon another. And colour, in constantly modulating relations.

But, already, as we know, we have gone too far, because we understand from the beginning that this is a field of reference and not just a field of sensation. We understand that we have always been in a space of semiosis, from the very start, without ever having the obligation to give an exhaustive account or speak systematically about patches of colour and lines before moving on to the whole world view of a people. Such systemizing does not rule the desire and the drive to speak. Nor does it describe how these elusive painted signs and these excessive and inadequate verbal interpretants are marked by their historicity.

Ah yes, history. What are we to say about that? What would it mean, on the occasion of this retrospective, to peel away from exhausted narratives of Modernism and avant-gardism to think of these paintings in relation to a certain time? And what if this time took us back to the 1970s––“the missing decade” in British Art, as it has been called; that grey night when, apparently, not even an owl was flying?

I remember something different, but who wants to rehash those inconclusive upheavals now? Still, there are moments when the parameters of public discourse shift and, while the change may seem, at the time, to take place around polemics for a particular kind of practice, what turns out to matter is not this practice at all, but rather the terms in which all practices seem to demand to be staged. The mid 1930s in the United States marked such a moment, when that most politically astute of painters, Stuart Davis, put up a defence of abstract painting as a radically democratic art that called for a new economy––of perception, of organization, of public finance and support––entirely at odds with the structures of what he called cultural monopoly. It is a deeply unfamiliar argument, just as it severs the terms of democratization from their more usual association with social realism and documentary, which Davis’s contemporaries saw as the core of a certain project of citizen formation. In fact, Davis’s case for abstract art rests on a politics of visual engagement in radical conflict with the rhetoric of recruitment at the heart of documentary’s civic purpose. The real significance of the shift in the discursive frame proved, then, to lie elsewhere––as it did in the 1970s, though this was not well understood at the time, as it still is not now.

For Davis, the question of democratic abstraction turned on a new relation of elements and on the relation of the viewer to them, as well as on questions of distribution, access and control that challenged the embedded hierarchies of monopoly culture. Similar debates animated the 1970s. But to all that Davis advocated was added the question of a feminist politics of space––a question not at all reducible to the notion of feminine space or even the space of the feminine. For Jackson, who arrived in London in 1971, it  has been this dimension of feminist critical practice that has always been important, in addition to the more widely pressed issues of equity, access, representation, employment and authority. At a fundamental level, the issue of Jackson’s now unfashionable commitment to feminism has been one of address to space: Is there a geometry that does not rule out, command and control the space it describes? Is there a mark that does not strike or bruise the surface that it touches? Is there a way of registering and occupying space that does not subdue it, own it, seize and possess it? Is there a visual field that is not built on projection and domination; a design not founded on disciplinarity; a resonance of colour that is neither subordinated to the subjective and decorative, nor pumped up by the claims of some dubious system? Is there, indeed, an ornamentation of the surface that is not purely ornamental: the ghetto of the feminine?

We are in a gallery, in front of two of Jackson’s works, listening to a Fine Art Consultant. “What’s good, what’s bad?” she says, “It’s a minefield. But we can help you there.” She offers to save us excess expenditure and yet promises generous returns. We need only to put ourselves in her hands. This way, the cycle of Capital can proceed, as best, unhindered.

The commodity, as Marx remarked, is congealed time: the time that rightly belongs to bodies and their vital expenditure. Capital is the hoarding of time against these bodies, just as it drives them to conform to that constantly accelerating speed through which Capital strives to close its circle of accumulation with minimal loss and delay to itself. Perhaps, then, at root, the fundamentally anti-Capitalist service of painting, like thought, is the refusal to save time.

The consultant gestures across the paintings that hang on the wall–-paintings that Jackson has come to think of as “slow.” That is why, despite the sales pitch, her paintings remain resistant to the new economy, rooted in the discursive rupture of another time, divorced from an era in which the public function of art has come to be equated with entertainment and the decoration of Capital. Her paintings turn on a different conception of the public domain and public purpose: an engagement of public space that is deeply at odds with this moment of Fine Art Consultants, but that, nonetheless, is hard to describe.

What is this public function of art and how can it be separated from the didacticism and emotive recruitment of viewers as citizens that defined art with a public purpose in Stuart Davis’s day? The 1970s were also clamorous with talk of public art and “Art with a social purpose.” Such arguments, though wrongly forgotten now, invariably missed the mark, though the alternative advocacy of “the politics of representation” also too hastily narrowed its view to photographic media and even to an obligatory doctrine of vision, leaving painting to the always reactionary defence of quality and the equally reactionary demand for a new art of human realism.

In a central sense, the question of public function is a constitutive moment of the medium of painting itself, as now understood, since the creation of the public was the condition for the emergence of modern art. The museum and the public exhibition were disciplinary machineries that constituted this public and ordered its encountered with what was newly framed as Art. Yet, the public always threatened to become again a crowd that pushed and shoved, surging with resentment and the assertion of its right to pleasure. The museum, however, like the blockbuster show, proved adaptable and well able to accommodate this clamouring crowd behind its gaudy banners. But not so another imagining of the public world, for which the museum was, in itself, only an edifice to be pierced and turned against itself to other use. The inventiveness of the Commune was, however, defeated, again and again; just as the Crisis of Capitalism of the 1970s turned out to be an adjustment crisis, a grinding of the gears between one modality and another, and not the rattle in the throat that was wished for. So the question of the possible public function of art was left to languish again––though not by all.

Geometry is a public language, axiomatic and exhaustively demonstrable, at least within its propositional frame. Colour, too, however private its vibrations, oscillates around a surface of communicability, even if its taking on of meaning is always in excess or falling short. As the support for shared recognitions, colour hovers on the threshold of a common ground that is, nonetheless, never marked out or bounded in advance. This flickering space is the possibility of a public sphere not premised on communication, community or final clarity. It is the beginning of the possibility of an argument or agreement––here, in front of this painting, to whose surface and to whose always incompleted effects the argument and the agreement contract to return.

What is it, then, that we see before the work? Is it possible to say? Perhaps we only see on condition and to the extent that the painting becomes a work. The public function of the painting would then be to define the conditions of that possibility, without regard to efficiency, communication or saving time; to create the conditions and the demand for looking aloud and, in this active sense, to conjure up its own space, a public space, as a space of articulation and endless dispute … no space for Capital, but also no space for instrumental Utopias, whether of the Left or the Right. It is thus a difficult space that the paintings open, and only if we go to meet it: this public space that cannot be decreed but that exists in its coming.

John Tagg
London, July 2006