New York City art critic John Goodrich wrote an essay underscoring Sally Jacobs’ ability to extract form; not just from the embedded grounds of a canvas, but from something conceptual as well. Through her abstract and clay-like strokes, “Excavations” explores Jacobs’ real-life interactions with family, friends and her 5-year-old son, George. Her work chips away at the psychological and emotional layers surrounding a burgeoning mother-son relationship.
While earning her BFA from the University of Cincinnati, Jacobs travelled abroad to Italy to learn from the master painters. She was immediately intrigued by the Italian family dynamic—something she had never experienced in America.
Noting how the culture flowed directly into the arts, she drew comparisons between the traditional Italian mother-son relationship, or “mammoné,” and the Madonna-and-child paintings. After graduating, Jacobs moved to Florence where she continued to paint and study Italy’s treasured works.
“I spent many years looking at those master paintings, not knowing how they affected me,” she says, “but it all came back when I had my son.”
Giving birth at 40 loosened Jacobs’ grip, and allowed her intuition and innate mark-making to flow without academic restraint. Her struggle to create a grand narrative through form shifted as she settled into a voyeuristic role, using her husband, Scott, and George as muses. At first glance, her tondo, “Babbo and G,” quakes with terrestrial flourishes of ochre, cold gray and rose. But moving the eye to the right and hovering for a moment, extracts the image of a baby perched happily atop a man’s knee.
It makes sense that Jacobs would create tondos: Her favorite Renaissance artists, Pontormo and Tiepolo rarely painted in squares. Instead, they adorned ceilings, domes and pediments with their circular masterpieces.
Eternally inspired from her time in Italy, she decided to apply her enigmatic markings to a round composition. “I wanted to take on something that could be potentially disastrous,” she says, “and start with a shape that defies convention.”
A direct homage to her 16th century mentor, “Tiepolo’s Red” is like looking up and witnessing a celestial event. Towering gods streak across a vertiginous sky, while cherubs tumble in and out of the painting from every direction. Spatially, Jacobs’ tondos evoke a unique type of gravity. They draw viewers into a complete embrace, then force them back. It creates a portal-like openness. Mirroring the push-and-pull of motherhood, the in-between is the hardest place to arrive. “There’s an intimate feeling where you are a part of the whole,” Jacobs explains, “but there’s also a limitation.”
Opposite the mammoné, Jacobs consciously strives to place a healthy distance between child and womb. “It’s a delicate balance of how much they need and how much you give them,” she says. Looking at her collection, her son isn’t going without; but every once in a while, she lets the “him” in the work dissolve away, so she can paint freely.
A third tondo, “The Birthday Party,” is a moment George brought Jacobs to, but she faded from it quickly. He could be any one of the black dots smattering the length of the canvas. Or, he could be in the tree to the right, piercing an azure sky. One thing’s for certain, he’s not the figure that materializes to the left—a little girl in a fancy pink party dress who drifts in a sea of camouflage-clad boys.
Now, painting is a mining expedition. Jacobs is constantly sanding down and painting over canvases—some for over 10 years. The perpetual bury-and-resurrect process leads to what she calls her “state of grace,” wherein poignant emotions are unearthed to create a seductive surface.
“You can’t make those kinds of good abstract arts until you experience the whole,” she tells. And to Jacobs, wholeness comes from a place of abstraction: where being a painter, an academic, a wife and a mother are all layers of developmental strata, carefully deposited so that she has a place to dig.
Paintings by Sally Jacobs
Hangs Jun. 30th – Aug. 8th
Wed. – Thurs., 12 p.m. – 5 pm.
Wilma W. Daniels Gallery
200 N. Hanover St.