Jacobson Paintings By Ann Landi, Artnews 2007
October 17, 2019
Diego Jacobson Paintings
By Ann Landi
While generally constructed as a series of upheavals and innovations—one generation teaching the next, and the next outpacing the last or breaking all the rules—art history is nevertheless filled with talented “outsiders” who find their way in spite of a lack of training or adherence to a dominant style. They range from the self-taught child prodigy Thomas Lawrence, best known as a portraitist of the British aristocracy, to Jean Dubuffet, inventor of art brut, who did not discover his strengths as an artist until he was in his forties. Neither had much by way of academic training but persisted until finding a voice that fulfilled both mysterious inner dictates and acceptance by the culture at large.
Similarly, Diego Jacobson doesn’t fit easily into any mold. He can’t even be called an Outsider artist because much of his work shows an evolved sophistication that brings it more in line with so-called advanced art of the last 60 years rather than with folk or insular traditions. Like most children, he began drawing at a young age, but Jacobson stopped, as he puts it, “When I started to judge myself.” A successful businessman by his mid-thirties, he nonetheless experienced a profound lack of fulfillment that spurred him to turn to studies in spiritualism in 1993, eventually earning a master’s degree from the Peace Theological Seminary in 1999. It was in the classroom that he started drawing again, producing spontaneous sketches with a childlike immediacy.
Drawing quite naturally led to painting, and his first images were also endearingly straightforward—like Condado (1999), a simple landscape with boxy buildings and crude expanses of sky and water, or Oranges (1999), a still life of flowers and fruit realized in simple shapes and vibrant colors. Fab Four in Paradise (1999), a quirky portrait of The Beatles in Mod 1960s get-ups, is one of Jacobson’s homages to a favorite musical group (Paul McCartney is an artist he admires for both his music and painting, and their abilities to fuse humor and immediacy merit comparison).
But very quickly Jacobson became seduced by the larger possibilities of paint and color and developed a language—or, rather, a range of vocabularies—that would serve him well for the next 13 years. There seems no easy explanation as to how this came about. The work recalls the best efforts of many expressionist painters—Hans Hoffmann, Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning—but the artist has not spent a lot of time studying these masters and has never set out consciously to imitate or learn from them. His predilection for bright, hot colors might be said to derive from years of living in Puerto Rico (his home, on and off, since the age of 14), but then how do you explain the subtle autumnal hues of works like A Spiritual Path (2006) or Future Patriot (2008)?
Rather Jacobson seems to be an artist finding himself and his subject in the act of painting. And that above all recalls the approach of the founding fathers of Abstract Expressionism. As the critic Harold Rosenberg wrote in 1952, “At a certain moment the canvas began to appear to one American painter after another as an arena in which to act. … What was to go on canvas was not a picture but an event.” There is probably an autobiographical strain running through these works, as there was to a certain extent in de Kooning’s “Woman” series, and this is evidenced by titles as in Alpaca (2002), a painting of a lone animal lifted aloft by a balloon, the daydreaming kid wins out.
Picasso once said, “Every child is an artist. The problem is to remain a a child once we grow up.” From the moment he decided to stop judging himself, as he had as a budding draftsman a few decades earlier, Jacobson released a stream of creative energies that shows no signs of stopping. It’s wonderful for a critic to see how his knowledge of the formal elements of painting—line, color, shape—has grown ever more broad and accomplished. But the grown-up connoisseur is also delighted when Jacobson’s little-boy impulses break through. May the two sides of his artistic persona continue to provoke, encourage, and nourish each other.
Spiritual Evolution, Brutal Truth, and Ancestors. But I don’t believe Jacobson is inviting us to participate in his emotional or personal development (any more than de Kooning intended his women to reflect his attitudes toward the opposite sex). Rather he wants us to experience the explosive joy he feels in making the work and growing from his discoveries. To cite just one example: He first begins to experiment with dribbled paint à la Pollock around 2005 in works like Boquete and Sprouts. About a year later he incorporates that technique into more complex compositions (Training Wheels and Summer Love).
A similar phenomenon happens with subject matter: the schematic face in The Great Pretender (2001) evolves later into the eerily sinister Looking Through You (2002) and the radically simplified and chromatically intense Ceremonial Head (2007). Throughout his work to date, there are any number of themes and strategies the artist could have worked to exhaustion; but one gets rather the sense of a painter who’s eager to move on to something new, to explore every possibility at his disposal.
Looking over the substantial trove of canvases Jacobson has produced in the last 13 years, the viewer notices that certain iconographic impulses keep reappearing: there are heads, faces, flowers, animals, and leaping and standing figures that Jacobson claims appear almost of their own volition. To this critic, they seem almost Jungian in origin and tie in with his practice of drawing. This is the childish impulse inside all of us—the urge to make sense of visual randomness, to impose order on chaos. Occasionally the two sides of his painterly personality, the impish cartoonist and the sophisticated abstract artist, seem to be in a not-entirely-friendly dialogue with each other, as in Negotiation (2005).
If Diego Jacobson’s abstract paintings filled with light and color and movement seem plumbed from his subconscious, his drawings of quirky characters and vignettes are more representative of the artist’s conscious experience of the everyday. His creative process in the two mediums is inherently different, too. He begins a drawing with more intention, making an initial decision about what imagery to put down on paper, while he approaches a canvas without premeditation and only a selection of colors. Yet in his whimsical, naively rendered drawings that often convey a humorous take on life, Jacobson is attentive to following the accidents, just as in his paintings, and lets each move inform his next.
In the drawing “Signal” (2002), for instance, Jacobson began as he often does with the face—a quick, simple depiction in a few abbreviated strokes. Feeling it needed some framing, he boxed it in a square, and then added perpendicular lines above and a triangle below. Only at that point did he realize that what he had drawn looked like a face poking through a computer or television screen and named it “Signal” (Jacobson always lets a completed image dictate the title). This communicator in a box, echoing the nebulous hints of faces that often coalesce in the energetic brushwork of his canvases, light-handedly suggests the world may be sending us messages from other dimensions when we least expect them.
Jacobson’s awakening to his artistic impulses coincided with his study of spiritualism. While finishing his masters in Practical Spiritualism in 1999 at age 35, he found himself doodling on note paper in class—making the kinds of wide-eyed animated faces he drew as a kid but hadn’t consider “good” because they weren’t realistic looking. Seeing these drawings with new eyes, he affixed the first one he did—with two men talking and a third staring out soulfully, next to a snippet of text about awareness—to the middle of a canvas and framed it with a brushy field of reds and pinks festooned with yellow dots. Titled “Enlightenment” (2000), it loosely evokes a stage with lights and curtains being drawn back on a little window of clarity.
This hybrid work was pivotal in Jacobson’s commitment to following his own path artistically. In his drawings, that has meant embracing his buoyantly cartoonish style, as in “Donkey” (DATE). The animal is pictured in a slapstick freefall from a ladder towards a dark pool—the kind of image that reminded Jacobson of animated circus scenes he had seen as a kid and also humorously brings to mind the moments when life takes a precipitous detour. In “Dust” (2002), he plays with simple shapes— two wagon wheels, a half circle, a leaf— to make the features of a face that seem carried on the wind, without boundaries, in a manner reminiscent of Joan Miro’s abstracted faces of Catalan peasants superimposed on the sky. “Cocktail”(2001) is a tight cluster of four faces—not dissimilar to the ghoulish and clownlike characters in James Ensor’s famous carnival paintings—that conveys the banality and alienation one can feel in the midst of party chatter. While the self-taught artist was not intentionally referencing such modern masters, in his drawings as in his paintings Jacobson has tapped into the spirit of improvisation and expressive means untethered to realistic representation that is at the heart of modernism.
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