It’s no secret to the art community in Peoria that Preston Jackson is an artist of boundless productivity. He’s recognized nationally as an artist and teacher of tremendous influence having been on the faculty at the School of the Art Institute for 25 years. He has deep roots in the state, not only as a sculptor and painter, but as a consummate jazz musician performing regularly at the Contemporary Art Center and other venues. Preston travels constantly, mostly to Chicago where he also has a residence, but to cities across the country where he has installed numerous commissioned public sculptures. If there is any single thing that keeps him energized and connected soundly to the larger art community, it’s his presence in Chicago with its historically rancorous, spirited, unconventional arts community. Because of his connection to the city’s cultural venues, its art market, academic histories and significant artists, he contributes to a generation of men and women who have made Midwestern art production independent and visionary.
Rather than constructing works according to a hypothetical set of principles, the art of Chicago has been predisposed to linking place to identity. Despite its international reputation as the birthplace of the “Hairy Who” and “the Monster School,” the city is also recognized for its role in interpreting and developing large scale steel sculpture. This axis of formal/industrial and the domestic/surreal is one that has anchored and electrified the city’s art discourse, influenced its students and perpetually deflected the cultural authority of New York City for 50 years.
An urban dialectic and an epic account of the African American Migration have provided an inestimable subject for Preston Jackson. This is mostly born out in a project that the artist started almost 15 years ago titled Julienne’s Garden. Jackson intended to accomplish not only a complex visual document of expressionistic figurative sculpture, he wanted to dig deeper into the legacy of slavery. Apart from imagining spectacular bronze forms of human oppression, redemption, sexuality and spirituality, he embedded his own family narrative, handed down from his father and his grandmother who was a slave.
Preston’s artwork has been compared to Kara Walker who improvises with full-scale shadow puppetry and engages the same history. The difference between Walker and Jackson’s brilliantly poised bronze figures that retell stories handed down parent to son and daughters is critical. Walker critiques the engulfing societal trauma of white supremacy with theatrical power. She implicates our voyeurism with the core of racial oppression and shakes the foundations of any concept of a post-racial society. Preston makes the subject immediate. He personalizes it and poeticizes it. He makes it palpable, consuming and unforgettable.
“Julienne’s Garden” is unflinching, but more than that it’s uncanny. Freud claimed the uncanny as inexplicably and at once alien and wholly familiar. It’s the stuff of nightmares, forbidden subjects, secrets and obsessions. Jackson moves from the spectacle of slavery to the internal dialogue of oppression and the hope of rebirth with tales of an astonishing community of bronze characters. He deals with fact as well as myth that’s as genuine as any empirical data. When one looks at the inexplicable plight of people of color in America, you would have to invent something as horrible as slavery as a cause, even if it didn’t exist. So Preston adds more to what we know to actually make the narrative more compelling, more surreal, more deeply emotional and simultaneously flesh and blood — something only an artist with tragedy and passion could perform.
It’s not only Jackson’s sculpture that fills in gaps in the nation’s parallel racial histories, it’s his remarkable annotative notes for each sculpture. Jackson is as skilled with language as he is with clay and bronze casting, although that’s rarely noted. Below is a description of an African woman first arriving in America as a slave that accompanies the work “Musings.”
“She was beaten and led to shore in a procession of pitiful humanity. The scars on her body were a mixture of tribal identification and slave-driver lashings that blended together and formed cross patterns on her smooth bluish-gray flesh. Her knowledge of who she was and where she came from was still intact. The only thing that shook her foundation was the realization that human beings could be so cruel toward one another and that the maltreatment of their captives was unwarranted. Though she was forced into the hold or the belly of this gigantic blood-soaked vessel, she held the memories of Africa within every cell of her being. When she closed her eyes, she imagined the sweet-smelling vegetation that seemed to grow from within and around herself. It was as if she had experienced leaves and vines silently attaching themselves to her skin as she walked through the jungle growth of her homeland.”
His texts not only reflect the painful, expressive prose of a Toni Morrison or James Baldwin, they are inexplicably complex, relating not only hatred of their captors but even sympathy for those who were losing their ability to resist change. In a disturbing and sorrowful reminiscence titled “Southern Secrets” Preston writes about a young woman caught in a dilemma relatable to many abused people.
“I’ve known him all my life — in fact, when I was a slave he owned me — heart, body and soul. I admired his gallant looks — how he rode up high on his brown bay mare. I was aware that I caught his eye when I was only 15. Right away I knew I was special to him because of the nature of my chores. Then the war came. I knew I could count on his protection, because of his ability to see we slaves through the great floods and the plagues of illness. But the war was different. I think his spirit was totally broken. The treatment by occupying forces plus the destruction of his property was devastating — even we slaves felt sorrow in our hearts. Being of a forgiving nature, along with my natural affection and respect for all people, this created within me a sense of responsibility for him.”
Preston not only conveys tragedy, but gripping impressions of courage and hope. His prose is more fragmentary than the sculpture. The language floats sensually on the page making the reader conscious of the musical profiles of colloquial speech. They provide a non-linear scattershot of memories and tales that encircle the figures – Joycean in their capacity to reconfigure time and acknowledge the Faulkner observation “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”