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Darkly Humorous Paintings Critique Society’s Relationship with Technology

The work of Nashville-based artist John Jackson brims with frustration at technology’s disruption of human connection.

DJ Pangburn

DJ Pangburn

This article originally appeared on Creators.

After resisting technology's pull for a long time, artist John Jackson gave in to buffering, dwindling memory, and social media, which inspired a series of nude figurative paintings that, in turn, interrogate society's obsession with all things tech. The Nashville-based artist produced this Technology Series, and it features things like Apple's spinning wheel painted onto a landscape, Vermeer's Girl With a Pearl Earring holding a pearly cell phone instead, and, in Facebook Sunset , a couple on a beach who may be thinking about their News Feed, or instead actually on Facebook thinking about the beach.

Jackson, who began working as an artist in New York City in the 80s, counts Lucian Freud, Gerhard Richter, Jean-Michel Basquiat, and Michelangelo as influences. It's not that they are all simultaneously inspiring him, but that they have influenced the evolution of his art over time. In looking at the Technology Series, one does see a collision of Freud and Michelangelo in the way the nudes are simultaneously modern and classical.

Girl with a Pearl Cell Phone Case (2014), 18" x 16" oil on canvas.

Jackson tells Creators that he is of a generation that knew adult life without devices like laptops, tablets, and smartphones. When these technologies became ubiquitous, he felt the need to process their impact on his life. "When I finally gave in, I was frustrated at spending so much of my time dealing with passwords, user names, downloading, uploading, updates, GBs, RAM, memory, hard drives, external hard drives, buffering, blah blah blah, etc.," says Jackson. "I was searching for a direction with my work, so I channeled and expressed my frustrations with technology into my art by merging the two."

"[The series] addresses how our culture is being funneled through technology," he adds. "The paintings explore the potential irony, distraction, seduction, and alienation that technology renders and how it affects the way we relate and communicate with each other."

Four Nudes (2014), 72"x58", oil on canvas.

The paintings also explore how our culture is simultaneously connected and disconnected. Nudity, meanwhile, is used in some of these paintings to emphasize what he calls "the void of intimacy and the powerful distraction of our tech devices."

Like many of his concepts for figurative painting, they evolved from real life moments. Jackson kept a door open in his mind so that when moments of irony relating to life, love, and technology appeared and intersected, he captured them. "I wrote them down as ideas or made sketches for paintings," he says. "The execution usually started with a photo shoot for references, then I'd work from different photographs and my imagination to render the painting. Mostly in oil, but some have elements of acrylic and spray paint."

Nature Part 1 (2010), 100"x64", oil on canvas.

But, after working on the Technology Series for about five years, Jackson began to feel anxious and "trapped." Troubled by fulfilling expectations and working at a snail's pace with this formal style and technique, Jackson sought to break free of constraints.

After his second solo show in 2015, Jackson gave himself permission to play and paint whatever and however he wanted. This move broke open the creative dam. The resulting work is more abstract, producing experimental pop art like the mixed-media piece Bullshit, in which the phrase looks like colorful flowers planted in a garden. Another notable work in this "Fuck it" period is You Can Skip to Painting in 5, in which an abstracted canvas is emblazoned with the title phrase in a drippy, graffiti-esque tag.

Bullshit (2016), 72"x48", mixed media on birch panel.

Whereas he had always worked with somewhat traditional media like drawing and painting, the most recent abstract work, which he began earlier this year, finds Jackson now experimenting with media like charcoal, hairspray, and lipstick. "I've given myself permission to make my most primal, instinctual marks, filtered through decades of artistic and life experience," Jackson says. "I think this year I'll create the best work I ever have. My goal is for it to be original, authentic, interesting and beautiful."

You Can Skip to Painting in 5 (2015), 48"x72", acrylic house paint and oil stick on birch panel


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The artist will be showing some new work in October at The Rymer Gallery in Nashville, while 10 commissioned paintings in a New York hotel will be on view come June. Click here to see more of John Jackson's work.

All year, we're highlighting 50 States of Art projects around the United States. This month, we're covering Oregon, Washington, Colorado, Tennessee, and Delaware. To learn more, click here.

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