‘Refinery #23’ 8 by 10 inches, watercolor, acrylic, pastel with collaged paper on wood, 2013.
Memory may be notoriously spotty with the facts, but it’s a lot more reliable summoning a long-forgotten feeling. That’s its main task at Zero Station, in an inspired and grimly nostalgic painting show by Derek Jackson titled “What Were the Skies Like When You Were Young?”
Over 55 canvases variably sized and shaped, Jackson uses enamel, spray paint, watercolor, and acrylics to depict — or rather conjure — the resplendent landscapes of oil refineries dotting the gulf of Texas, a region where the artist lived through his adolescence.
If that subject matter lends the show a sociopolitical edge, these paintings don’t betray it. Each of the canvases situates the staccato architecture of a refinery along a painting’s distant horizon line, placing the viewer no closer than several miles away. This ensures a critical distance, from which one can safely see the tensions between the dramatic conceit of the polluted air and the gloriously prismatic experimentalism it affords Jackson as a painter. They’re certainly haunting, yet Jackson’s playful, romantic eye ensures that these toxic subjects don’t immediately appear sinister. They’re surely too moody to be mounted in an Exxon corporate lobby, but most of them are beautiful nonetheless, their darker qualities recalling the gestural violence of abstract expressionism rather than some staunch critique of the ills of the oil industry.
In formal terms, Jackson’s paintings show an impressive balance of texture and contrast. Most of them find the jetty of refinery lights in a horizon line near the bottom of the canvas, allowing his skies maximum playing space. He treats these as color fields, allowing the various methods of experimentation and paint application to guide a full spectrum of rich, dense colors. In many, particularly the larger canvases, they convey ineffable conditions one imagines aren’t far from Jackson’s childhood memory: fuzzy and unreliable; moody, grim, and dazzling.
Spanning the nine months since he’s begun this project, the paintings in this exhibit have seemed to evolve from careful studies to works of profound painterly expression. They are untitled, and though their numbers don’t equate to a chronology of production, it’s not difficult to chart the project’s growth, as more recent paintings dissolve the refineries’ staid literalist depictions for more expressive gestures of mood. “1,” perhaps a mid-period piece, fills a night sky with mists of rusting amber painted over tightly bunched tissue paper lining the canvas, while by comparison, the surely early works of “2” through “7” seem like austere postcard-sized studies. By the most mature of the series, like the stormy panoramic view of the transfixing large canvas “54,” the paintings seem to more accurately reflect Jackson’s interior disposition than any landscape on earth.