Fourteen paintings line the walls of UNCW’s CAB Gallery, and dominate the otherwise empty white space with onslaughts of monumental hue and texture. Fields of color, alternately subdued and blazing, are slashed by deliberate gashes of discontinuous shades. Some leave behind deep grooves, while others form raised plateaus of pastel and searing flame. Bundles of paint cling together to wrinkle the surface of some paintings, while others seem delicately pebbled—like painted pumice, exuding from what should be a canvas yet seems more like a captured slice of a long, lost fantastical desert. The only common feature among them are their seemingly enigmatic titles, all of them “Veronica’s Veil,” followed by lengthy Roman numerals.
SPLASH OF COLOR: Herb Jackson’s paintings exude just as much texture as color, tempting viewers to run their hands across the surface of them. Courtesy photo
But who is Veronica, and what’s so special about her veil? I intended to pick the brain of the artist responsible for 14 vivid monuments on display at UNCW’s Cultural Arts Building. His name is Herb Jackson, and he first ventured into the world of art when he picked up paintbrushes at age 12.
“In the beginning I did like all artists,” he recalls. “I did landscapes, still-lives and portraits, but pretty soon I felt like it was not as challenging as I wanted it to be. So I started going inside instead of depending on what I was seeing outside.”
His newfound curiosity led him to abandon the more classical approach to painting in favor of pure abstraction—he’s never looked back since. During the late 1960s, Jackson’s desire to paint propelled him through a college educational system that initially lacked the faculties for fine arts. His urge to continue painting superseded any potential barriers, and as a result, he majored in German at Davidson University outside of Charlotte, before continuing his creative studies at Phillips University’s painting program in Marburg, Germany. He received his MFA in fine arts from Chapel Hill after returning to North Carolina in 1970. From then, he taught painting at Davidson, eventually reaching the status of professor emeritus after a lengthy career that included myriad national and international exhibitions. He also received a bevy of awards for his artistic contributions across the Tar Heel State. All of his success was the result of pre-teen Jackson’s desire to look inward, and use painting as a catalyst for introspection.
“Ultimately, it’s an exploration of the subconscious, but of course I didn’t think about it that way when I was 12 or 13,” he clarifies. “It’s a way of exploring mystery and wonder rather than just exploring what you see.”
His expressive titles reinforce the sense of mystery. In naming his paintings, Jackson favors the evocative rather than the formalist, and the results are unusually poetic descriptions of otherwise non-representational fields of color and texture. Although a painting such as “Falling Into Night”—itself a cascade of pale pastel tones scattered across a bright orange field—depicts nothing even resembling nightfall, it’s intended to imply something ephemeral in the viewer rather than depict a specific moment.
“You won’t see me saying something like ‘Sunrise/Sunset Beach’ because otherwise that’s all people would see,” he explains. “On the other hand, I reference natural things like sunrise and sunset because of the fact I like to go walking early in the morning. What I want to do is give another layer of association to the painting, but I don’t want to direct how you should look at it.”
Every painting on current display is one of a sequence of “Veronica’s Veils.” Jackson hearkens to a seemingly unlikely inspiration in the form of Saint Veronica, a Christian saint noted for wiping the sweat from Christ’s brow as he dragged his cross to Golgotha. Her veil that touched Christ’s forehead bore an exact replica of his face.
“You know Veronica means ‘true image’ in Latin?” Jackson asks. It is key to his work. While his decidedly abstract approach may not seem like devotional art, it’s the “true image” he’s after. When Jackson steps to the canvas, he becomes fixated on the aspect of creative expression where the artist feels as though creativity itself is an otherworldly aftereffect coming from a decidedly intangible “elsewhere.” Ultimately, Jackson believes the concept of the creative muse is a manifestation of life experience.
“What I’m fascinated by is the mysticism involved in an image being produced without the artist having to do anything,” he elaborates. “People talk about this with things like running, when they’re ‘in the zone.’ It seems to come from somewhere else. I’m not suggesting anything about the divine there, but it’s like tapping into the creative power of the universe. You get a feeling that it’s coming from somewhere, but of course where it’s really coming from is a lifetime of experience. But the feeling that it’s magical and coming from an outside source is the human equivalent to this myth of Veronica who simply wiped her veil across Jesus’ brow and there was his image. I wish I could wipe my canvas across the wall and have the painting appear overnight, but in fact it takes three or four weeks.”
As stated, Jackson’s paintings are anything but automatic. He spends eight to 10 hours a day focused on a small section of any given painting that may ultimately be four to five feet long and wide. His acrylic pigments are often mixed with various materials, ranging from volcanic ash to mica, as well as an occasional handful of beach sand. The fast-drying nature of acrylic paint paired with the textures added by the pumice provides a surface for Jackson to quickly build upon and scrape away multiple times throughout his daily work. The process seems just as much of an archaeological dig as a painting, and the end result is a sculptural expression of color that appears almost like a captured landscape weathered by time. Jackson believes that his careful, meticulous approach separates him from painters working in the vein of abstract-expressionism.
“I don’t throw or drip paint,” he claims. “I’m very deliberate in what I do. I work about 2 square inches at a time, and I build up about 100 or more layers. It’s really a somewhat different approach than the original abstract-expressionists, but they were my ‘parents,’ really. They were my roots.”
The paintings in the exhibition span the course of 28 years, beginning with “Veronica’s Veil C” from 1990 and culminating in the most recent, “Veronica’s Veil CCXXXVII” from 2017. His work will be on display until March 28.