People and Places

by Jill Lloyd

April 2007

“The shape of a city changes more quickly, alas, than the human heart.” (Charles Baudelaire, Les Fleurs du Mal, 1861)

Bill Jacklin is known as the painter par excellence of modern-day New York. His work has tapped the wild, conflicting pulse of the city, which struck him with transforming force on his arrival in America some twenty years ago. His depictions of the city’s streets, its parks and bars, meat market and train stations, make up a vivid urban portrait. Like a person, the city has changing moods and faces, responding to the dramas enacted on its streets. Thus the tightly drawn grid of a traffic intersection in downtown Manhattan quickly gives way in Jacklin’s paintings to the surging crowd at a demonstration in Central Park. On Fifth Avenue and Broadway the passers-by he depicts cast shifting patterns of light and shadow on the sidewalk. At times the artist assumes a bird’s-eye view, looking down on the geometry of the city from one of its high-rise towers. On other occasions he zooms in to capture a particular group of buskers, people chatting at a bar, or a couple with their dog, drifting under an umbrella through opalescent streets. Often the artist celebrates New York’s poignant, offbeat beauty; but there is also a sense of foreboding, as if the order and structure of the city could break apart at any moment, dissolving into chaos.

Like all New Yorkers, Jacklin has become acutely aware of the dark side of existence in the city since the events of 9/11, when he was living just a few blocks away from the Twin Towers. But his sense of the unpredictability of New York, its capacity to “turn on a dime,” as he puts it, has always been integral to his vision. From the outset the city played a metaphorical role for the artist, vividly embodying the alternating states that underlie his view of human life. Essentially this involves a creative cycle of order and chaos, darkness and light. Each day when the artist begins work in his studio he is uncertain as to which of these contrary directions his paintings will take. The shadows that overcast Jacklin’s troubled childhood in England – blighted by a sick, alcoholic father– and his acute sense of mortality, often loom up and take over his day. But in this persisting darkness there is no doubt in the artist’s mind that his paintings strive towards harmony and light.

Jacklin is always intent on building a relationship with the people and places he portrays. His imagination is sparked by an encounter, often recorded with direct immediacy in the observational drawings and pastels he makes while moving around the streets. In the artist’s own words, drawing is “like turning on a light – something suddenly happens and the space between you and your subject is electrified as you begin to see.” But when it comes to painting, Jacklin forges a more complex, durable relationship with time and space. His paintings are a synthesis of experience: out of scores of drawings and photographs of a particular scene, the artist distils a series of paintings that aspire towards “something more universal.” The dreamy, generalized flow of the figures, the interplay of light and shadow, colour and form, lifts the paintings beyond topography into a realm essentially ruled by the artist’s imagination. The challenge he faces each day is to keep the intensity and freshness of the original encounter alive; yet also to give himself scope to dream and muse on his changing relationships with the people and places he portrays.

When the artist speaks about the developments that have taken place in his work over the past five years, they relate to his changing relationship with the city, which he has long since regarded as his muse. Although he maintains his studio in Manhattan, Jacklin has travelled widely in recent years and is also spending time in Newport Rhode Island. On his return to New York, he is still struck by its throb of raw energy. But he has also drawn inspiration from other places, perhaps most importantly his native city of London – in his recent paintings of Battersea Bridge, for example. On a deeper level, Jacklin feels that the emotions that overwhelmed New Yorkers in the wake of 9/11 have prompted him to question his attitudes and give rein to more personal impulses and feelings. In many of his recent figure paintings he does indeed move into closer, more intimate contact with his subjects. The scenes he depicts – dancers, swimmers, skaters, yoga classes – all relate to states of transformation and passage, which liberate the participants and allow them to become aware of a flowing, rhythmic life force. These scenes are often illuminated by sunlight streaming through windows onto the city, a light that transforms and lifts the figures into a visionary realm.

In his paintings of Grand Central Station – the crowning glory of the present exhibition– Jacklin achieves a symphony of light and movement in the cathedral-like space that can only be interpreted as an affirmation of life and hope. When he spoke several years ago about the genesis of this series, Jacklin remarked: “The feeling that I have is quite full… the kind of feeling that you have when you look up at the night sky about the fullness of time and life passing.” At this point he believed he had reached a stage in life when he no longer needed to be bound by constraints and rules: “So you get your brush out and paint [a head] out and you flow the feeling through again. And the light comes rushing in.” When the artist speaks today about how he conceives his most recent work, he explains that in order to flood his paintings with light he is obliged to push his sensations of darkness to an extreme. Only then – sometimes at the very last moment in a painting– does the transforming light rush in.

-Jill Lloyd, 2007