The Still-Life Paintings of Philip R. Jackson
Peruse a gallery of Philip R. Jackson’s still-life paintings, and you will note that all the traditional themes of this genre are operating. There is the presentation of everyday objects: posed, lighted, contrasted, and related in such a way as to emphasize the beauty of the commonplace. There is the hint of vanitas, of the brevity of life and the fleeting nature of the material, conveying a subtle caution against too much fondness for such things. There is also the feeling that certain objects contain spiritual significance, particularly in the way they are posed.
Still-life painting began to be a popular form as commissions from churches for strictly religious themes dried up in the 16th and 17th centuries. This freed artists to explore interests more in line with their own preferences and sense of beauty, as well as the tastes of a clientele with more “everyday” interests on their minds. Philip R. Jackson’s still-life paintings observe the pattern and protocols of this consistently popular form.
A ‘MOMENT OF TRUTH’
But you do not have to look very long at these lovely paintings to realize that they are not your baroque Hausfrau’s still-lifes. When did still-life painting ever feature such curious subjects, so strangely posed and related? At what period of the history of this form did the fruit, dead rabbits and fowl, dried flowers, bowls, bottles of wine, slices of cheese and so forth not sit on some table or cabinet, rather than hover in the air, perch on the prow of a make-believe boat, or stand up to be launched from the end of a spoon?
A still-life painting in the traditional mode typically evokes a mood of pensiveness, or even loss. Philip R. Jackson’s themes may incline us to scratch our heads in bemusement, or even to chuckle. There is a note of whimsy in these precise, simple, and colorful works, where goldfish crackers and pewter kettles cavort with clusters of grapes, radishes and origami birds take to the air, cracked eggs perch on glasses or ooze their contents onto reflective surfaces, and spoons, tacks, rubber snakes, and a host of other everyday objects invite our curiosity.
“Finding amusement and focusing on the good through the challenges we face and obstacles we overcome have always been a source of release,” Jackson explains. “Laughter is also a moment of truth where you allow yourself to open up and experience a genuine connection with God.” But as we penetrate the whimsical surface of these lovely works and begin to consider their deeper significance, we realize that we are being drawn into profound truths about everyday life and the reality of unseen things.
Philip R. Jackson is the head of the department of painting at the University of Mississippi in Oxford. His works are represented in galleries in North Carolina, California, Texas, Ohio, and on Martha’s Vineyard. From August 24 to October 19, 2008, he will present a one-man exhibit, featuring the first catalog of his works, at the Evansville Museum of Art in Evansville, Indiana. He will be the youngest artist ever to be offered a show at this venue.
I came across his work in the July/August 2007 issue of American Artist. The article and interview led me to believe that here is an artist of great depth—spiritual depth, Christian depth. As I followed up with e-mail questions, comments on his work, and queries, my thoughts were confirmed.
Philip R. Jackson is a brilliant still-life painter. His work possesses the characteristic attention to detail, careful placement, and emphasis on the beauty of the commonplace that has always characterized this form. But his subjects and themes witness not only to the beauty in everyday things but the reality and mystery of another world where an altogether different kind of beauty waits.
BEAUTY IN THE COMMONPLACE
Jackson’s work celebrates the beauty to be found all around us every day, beauty that we take for granted, so that we may fail to note the exquisite loveliness of even the most common object. Jackson does not crowd his canvases with objects, as is the case in many still-lifes. Instead, he focuses on one or two, lighting and positioning them to enable us to observe their beauty, perhaps for the first time. These may be everyday things, but Jackson knows there is beauty in even the most ordinary object. His task is to make us slow down, focus our gaze, and discover the wonder all around us.
In order to appreciate the beauty all around us, we need to see it in a different light. Jackson takes everyday objects and assembles them into story lines—a cluster of grapes engaged in a courtly dance with a pewter kettle, a radish suspended above a small bread pan, an origami bird preparing to launch off the prow of a makeshift make-believe boat. These are not just objects touting the brevity of life and the vanity of material possessions. Something is going on here. Exquisite beauty is on display, to be sure; but more is suggested by the subjects and titles of Jackson’s works: “The Mighty Goldfish Cracker,” “Delectable Imposition Act,” “A Prideful Act of Balance.” Clearly we are not supposed to stop at the beautiful subjects, nor to be content with their whimsical poses. The paintings want us to look deeper, to look with the mind, and perhaps even the spirit, to the more beautiful and eternal truths suggested.
Many of Jackson’s subjects are presented in a kind of tension. Something is about to happen, or has just happened, or seems likely to happen. He even has a series called, “Tension Series,” in which he explores this theme from a number of perspectives. The paintings suggest a kind of “now-but-not-yet” sensation.
In “Goodbye Goldfish” a goldfish cracker is poised on the end of a spoon, which is seriously bent over a sugar-cube fulcrum by a large, red tomato in the bowl of the spoon. The angle of the sugar cube, the slope of the tomato, and the movement of the background lighting all suggest this little hero is about to launch out into a big adventure, somewhere to the far left of the canvas. In the painting “A Retro Cultural, Natural From Dichotomy of a Radish,” a gloriously lush radish hovers above a small bread pan—its leaf still attached and billowing, uplifted as if by some invisible wind. The origami bird in “Party’s Over” is poised to forsake the fun times of the whimsical yacht, which is composed of a conical party-hat-sail set on a straw over a soap dish. We see him just as he is about to lift off into other realms, the weight of his gathering thrust bending the straw ever so slightly.
What deeper beauty does Jackson want us to see in these lovely, humorous scenes?
By creating a kind of alternative reality—Narnia-like, almost—Jackson invites us to consider another world, where things exist that we do not normally see, and things happen that are surprising, surreal, and surpassingly glorious. “I feel that the images within the paintings somehow transcend themselves,” he told me, “and bring light to something that bears truth, referencing a heaven that is alive and well.”
We live in the tension between the here and now and the not-yet. The kingdom of God has been brought near by our Lord Jesus Christ, but it is not yet realized in its fullness. That glorious event awaits the Lord’s return. Life in the kingdom is one of glorious resurrection (“A Retro Cultural . . . ”), forsaking folly for flights of glory (“Party’s Over”), and being available to the weight of glory for whatever and wherever it might send us (“Goodbye Goldfish”).
Certainly there are many unknowns to entering the kingdom of God. But if we allow the humble things of life to testify of the glory that awaits us, we may be willing to venture beyond things familiar and secure into the unseen and holy, even though that entails risk, uncertainty, and change. For Jackson, this is the essence of worship.
THE PROMISE OF REDEMPTION
Jackson’s still-lifes invite us to consider the drama of redemption, where promise and brokenness overcome tragedy and death to lift us into the hope of new life. “Broken Yolk” declares that there is beauty in brokenness, and redemption in the cross of Christ. An egg lies on its side on a reflective surface, broken completely open, its yolk spilled out and flowing away. We are like this “Humpty Dumpty” egg, broken and dying, without hope of anyone being able to put us back together again. But from within the broken shell of the egg, a red glow emerges, un(super?)naturally, flowing out and assuming the shape of a cross. In the midst of our brokenness the blood of Jesus meets us, as He offers His own brokenness to cover ours, an anointing of hope (suggested by the aura in which this entire drama is engulfed).
More to the point is my favorite of the Philip R. Jackson still-life paintings that I have been able to consider: It is titled “Snake Trap.” A small glass bird is perched half-way up a lamp stand, a red light glowing above its head. On the surface below a lush toy snake, the devilish colors of black and red, slithers between three upright tacks. The drama of temptation and the promise of redemption unfold in this simple scene. If the bird gives in to his desire to eat the snake, he will likely be impaled on the tacks.
The light above his head functions in three ways (thanks to my wife, Susie, for helping me see this). First, it suggests the idea of temptation: Temptation always happens in our minds before it plays out in sin, as God reminds us (Genesis 4:7). Second, because it is a red light, it seems to recall the divine “Thou shalt not...” Stop what you are considering! the light seems to call out. Finally, because the light is a Christmas tree light, it points to the promise of the Incarnation and the redemptive work of God’s Son. Even now the glow of that promised redemption settles on the bird’s head, as if to assure us that this frail creature will rise above his temptation and live. Yet the bird looks out at us, the viewers, as if to ask, “What about you?” All this takes place upon and before a lampstand of gold, in the shape of a chalice, set on three visible feet. The references to the divine economy and participation in God and His good plan are hard to miss.
Jackson’s website presents many of his works, and a perusal of these could afford fruitful meditation on the grace of God, the beauty of the commonplace, and the mystery of unseen things. Visit there with friends, and you may enjoy many hours of delightful, fruitful conversation over the wonders of creation and the kingdom of God. But by all means, find your way to the still-life paintings of Philip R. Jackson. They may be only whimsical still-lifes, but they witness to a greater life, still to come, that we may observe all around us, profoundly, every day.
T.M. Moore is dean of the Centurions Program of the Wilberforce Forum and principal of The Fellowship of Ailbe, a spiritual fellowship in the Celtic Christian tradition (www.myparuchia.com). He is the author or editor of 20 books and has contributed chapters to four others. His essays, reviews, articles, papers, and poetry have appeared in dozens of national and international journals, and on a wide range of websites. His most recent books are Culture Matters (Brazos) and The Hidden Life, a handbook of poems, songs, and spiritual exercises (Waxed Tablet, www.myparuchia.com). Sign up at his website to receive his daily e-mail devotional Crosfigell, reflections on Scripture and the Celtic Christian tradition.
T. M. and his wife and editor, Susie, make their home in Concord, Tenn.
|For Further Reading and Information
BreakPoint Commentary No. 080131, “Made for Beauty: Art, Worship, and the Bible.”
BreakPoint Commentary No. 080408, “Color, Form, Balance—and Worldview: How to Judge a Work of Art.”
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