Topiary — plants sculpted into geometric or whimsical shapes — is a way of controlling and circumscribing nature, bending it into pre-defined, delimited forms. The title of Alex Jackson’s exhibition of paintings at Zevitas Marcus, “Wild Topiary,” seems a bit oxymoronic, but also suggests a resistance to such training.
Images of topiary appear throughout the show, but it is Jackson’s use of art school staples — the color wheel and the grid — that make the strongest impression. One large work, whose title is itself a color chart in letters, depicts a silhouetted figure trapped in a rainbow-hued box. The walls of this prison (or prism?) are defined by the primary and complementary colors on the color wheel, gridded out in neat perspective.
Yet the figure is filled with a riot of multicolored dots, reminiscent of a Benday pattern. His or her presence is not a matter of selecting just one color, but of holding many different tones together in tension. The rainbow is a spectrum upon which we’ve imposed artificial divisions. It’s not hard to see how this idea might extend to racial, gender and sexual categories.
Jackson takes the idea of the grid further in the painting “Untitled,” which resembles a periodic table of objects, most of which appear to be rocks. Embedded in this grid is a face, likely of African derivation, superimposed on a map of an unspecified territory. The face has been gridded as if incised, rendering its contours like a topographic map. The painting reflects on how organic forms — rocks, land, or people — are classified, divided and apportioned.
Gridded skin also appears more pointedly in the pencil drawing “Flesh Suit,” in which a man’s upper body is encased in a painful-looking wire cage. The image is disturbing, evoking torture devices and the horrors of slavery. It drives home the ways in which abstraction is also dehumanization.
This is, in a sense, the underpinning of art education. We are taught to “see,” to break the world down into manageable units: colors, shapes, lines. Jackson gestures toward the scientific roots of this enterprise in “Basic Tools for Transmutation.” It depicts an artist’s studio-cum-laboratory, replete with paint-splattered overalls, scientific equipment, a color wheel and a tracksuit-wearing test subject.
Yet the scene also suggests other realities: A man wearing a turban bears witness from one corner; silhouettes of prone bodies appear submerged beneath the floor. In reckoning with things that don’t fit into neat categories, Jackson proffers the building blocks of a different way of seeing.