Thursday, 11 May 2017

An Englishman in New York

Director of the British Institute of Florence Julia Race & Artist Bill Jacklin 

This week's Culture Talk saw British Artist Bill Jacklin take to the floor with an immersive and intimate survey of his works from New York. Jacklin left London in 1985, after studying Graphics at Walthamstow and painting at the Royal College of Art and moved permanently to the Big Apple, whose energy attracted him. Here he discovered Manhattan had not really been painted after WWII, and many of his first subjects came from scenes he witnessed on a daily basis that remained common but neglected by the artistic community. 

As a draughtsman Jacklin responds directly to stimuli, to images he encounters in real life, many sketches (often as many as 40/50 studies) form the basis for a painting and the final composition that piece will take. He began by looking from the windows of his apartment on 6th Avenue, and his second floor studio in the famous Meat Market, finding renaissance crucifixion scenes in the hanging produce brought in and out by the butchers each day. 

Light is a fascination for Jacklin: ‘light and the effect of light on surfaces’. It’s an interest that enlivens what would normally be mundane scenes; even in ‘Sandwich Eaters’ he finds beauty, a strange geometry and light that frames ordinary figures in vividly new perspectives. Double images are also a feature of his work, a trait developed from his love of film and his continuous drafts, where occasionally he will simply paint a scene, only to look again a moment later and paint the same subject again as it has changed. By paralleling the camera Jacklin emphasizes the mystical qualities of paint, his subjects capture the essence of things, the refracting light of fireworks in the sky, the subtle reflections of raindrops as they fall. His skill as a speedy draughtsman also allowed him unprecedented access to the city; his photographic eye permitted entry to Police station waiting rooms and other contested spaces where cameras were unable to enter. 

Despite wandering the entire city Jacklin found himself drawn back to certain places again and again. He went up to 87th avenue to replicate the crowds walking down by the Rockefeller centre, 42nd Street ‘when it wasn’t Disneyland’, Grand Central Station – looking back he laughs realising he’s only really painted a few streets of New York. One of these recurring subjects is skaters, but also the chess players in Washington Square which in Jacklin’s eyes becomes a triptych, figures represented in double as they move from one frame to another. A ‘sister painting’ depicts the same place at night with a woman invading the scene as she runs after her stolen bag. 

Turner is a clear influence, as is Whistler, the crowds of the city become something mystical in Jacklin’s eyes, a surging force where ‘the movement of the crowds are forming my music, my muse’. The rhythms of a scene replicate themselves in paint, Washington square and the skaters are portrayed as ‘swirling and whirling’, ‘I'm a sucker for that subject’ he confesses, the motion of bodies a means of portraying the intimate relationships between people as they’re played out upon the ice. 

'I never paint anything if I haven't been there. I have to have a relationship. I paint about Relationships.' After all 'making a drawing is making a mark'. For Jacklin the process of creation is practically primal: 'I'm creating my own language, the painting comes out of the making of a mark'.  Listening to him talk about his process is captivating: ‘The paint informs the subject it’s not the other way around’. 

He works large but often starts out small, showing us the pastel studies for a painting that only measures 12 inches but turned into 12 feet by its completion, almost it seems by accident: ‘you do it and then you've done it’. Moving through different sizes, moving through different modes of interpretation and presentation, these transformations of the work become a means of articulation, enabling Jacklin to ‘work through who I am’. 

Jacklin is quick to note at the start of his talk the strangeness of having an Englishman talk about his New York art in a city as culturally rich as Florence. The last few slides he shows us are the few pieces he has completed in the past of Florence with the rich reflections and colours of the dying sun shifting in a mirage of the Arno. Talking about the crowds milling in Piazza del Republica it’s hard not to wish that perhaps Jacklin might make Florence the next city he encounters in paint. ‘I guess that’s the difference between Florence and New York’ he ponders when looking back at his New York work, ‘things change much faster, a building comes up and comes down.’ ‘I paint about change’.

When asked how he knows his work is finished he notes that there’s a running joke that it’s only ‘when the truck comes up’ to collect it. His best work so far? ‘What I’m going to do next’. Let's hope Florence might see some more of Jacklin in the years to come.