Where has the polar bear gone? Where is the camel? My first thoughts on entering the new Kurt Jackson exhibition at the Horniman Museum were not of art work but amazement at how different the gallery space looked. ‘Extremes’, the previous family friendly exhibition had gone, here in its place was an oasis of cool calm walls and stunning pictures.
Initially I was surprised the Horniman was putting on an exhibition of Kurt Jackson’s work. I am used to seeing musical instruments, taxidermy and over stuffed walruses not beautiful paintings. But as I walked round the exhibition, looked at the walls and listened to the introduction from the director of the Horniman, Janet Vitmayer, my opinion changed. Janet spoke of a universal museum, not only embracing natural history, different cultures and objects but also forms of expression. Most enlightening of all was listening to the artist himself. As Jackson spoke I began to see the strong synergies between his work and the Horniman’s collections and ethos.
The River exhibition is a retrospective covering 30 years worth of artistic endeavour focussing on the artist’s exploration of rivers. From the Thames in London, to the Dordogne in France and the Tamar in Cornwall. The paintings vary in size and style from large canvases of calming greens and blues to striking reds and greens, to small almost photographic images of St Paul’s, viewed from the Tate Modern.
Jackson told of his passion for natural history, his concern for the environment and the dynamics of fragile ecosystems. It is this fragile beauty that is evident in many of his works, in particular his picture of the Avon, where a lone tree stands like an oil stain spreading through the natural landscape. A stark warning about pollution and how easily we damage our environment. He also talked of the great divide between art and science often resulting in a limited engagement with either topic. For him, his work has fused that love of natural history with the passion for his art. The picture of the dragonfly a perfect example, the beautiful detail portrayed by an artist’s hand with a scientist’s eye.
What I found most intriguing was seeing how the artist worked. This is not 30 years spent in a studio but 30 years of immersion in the physical setting. In the picture below you can see Jackson at work, nestled in the ecosystem he loves so well, as much a part of the painting as the trees and rivers around him.
I find there is often a stillness to many of the rivers that are so central to the paintings in this exhibition. The normal movement and flow characterised by a river is actually to be found in the trees, the horizon, the bushes and in the landscape framing the watery heart of each picture. There is a real vibrancy and movement across the canvas and you can almost imagine him sitting and working as the trees swayed in the breeze and the clouds raced overhead.
I love the watery texture of the sky in one painting, there is no detail without this feeling of movement and life. Jackson went on to tell us of these intimate moments of creation, he spoke of the process as like an affair that he has with the natural world around him, an affair with the mind and with the physical space. So often the pictures have this lasting resonance of emotional connection.
There are wonderful personal thoughts, sometimes laid across the work, at times hard to distinguish; are they personal love letters left to the landscape, unguarded thoughts, a description of a moment in time, like poetry capturing a feeling or purely a stream of consciousness. It makes you peer in to the canvases and when you do, you really get a feeling for the abstract nature of the work at its heart. It is like discovering a whole new picture and when you see it in this way you understand the artist’s passion for art, up close the vista becomes mark making, abstract and textured.
This exhibition is not on for long, but I urge you to go, look up close and create your own intimacy with the work, stand back and admire the rivers that swirl and flow at the heart. It felt a wonderful refreshing change to the previous family friendly exhibition, but I actually can’t wait to take my kids. To let them experience the cool calm colours, the heat of the yellows and reds, the swirling skies and enticing detail. I will ask them what they think it would be like to spread out a canvas out in the open and try to capture the living breathing world as Kurt Jackson has done so vibrantly in this exhibition.
River – Kurt Jackson is on from 29 November – 25 January at the Horniman Museum
For more information on the artist please visit his website – Kurt Jackson