Bill Jacklin Urban Romantic

by John Russell Taylor

Catalogue for Urban Portraits: Hong Kong 1993-95


When English painters take to landscape, they nearly always, even today, seem to refer to a prelapsarian countryside, where they can plug into some sort o~ pantheistic vision of unity with nature before the towns came to spoil it all. In that respect Bill Jacklin is very exceptional. He is fascinated by the urban scene; he is interested in people, but for the most part in large groups rather than as individuals. When he transferred his activities to New York in 1985, the move to the archetypal modern city of course changed his vision somewhat, but it did not basically transform it into something it was not before. The formal preoccupations which had directed his eye in London remained exactly the same. Just as Kokoschka had an ideal of bird's-eye-view landscape in his mind, and found it so consistently that you have to look carefuIly to work out whether the painting you are seeing is of London or Salzburg or Istanbul, so Jacklin had his archetypal images, patterns which had fascinated him ever since his beginnings as an abstract minimalist, and which underlie everything he does, however much the local incidentals may vary.

He is fascinated, for instance, by the way light falls slantwise across a field of vision. In his abstract days it might take the form of diamonds in carefully graded shades of black and grey arranged to create a pattern of gradual lightening or darkening from the upper left hand corner to the lower right. In America precisely the same effect could be evoked from the movement of fans at a rock concert, or skaters on an ice-rink, or bathers on a sloping beach. Another preoccupation has been with strong verticals, sometimes making a pattern by themselves (an almost inescapable subject in New York), sometimes set against curving or serpentine shapes as in his evocations of London's Regent Street on a rainy day or Hong Kong's Queens Way. A third kind of composition which recurs is the intricate, rather formal figure composition in which the rhythmic dispositions of Poussin are found again in a crowd of New York demonstrators or the dubious denizens of 42nd Street or the groups that gather round openair chess-players in New York or Hong Kong, fortune-tellers or meat packers on a lunch-break.

Of course one might ask: lf the underlying patterns are always the same, why does the artist need to move around at all? Monet had an answer for that, in the form of a self-question. He admitted once, writing home during a seemingly endless search for painting-sites which "spoke" to him, that he had not the faintest notion why he could pass by twenty solitary trees silhouetted against the summer sea, and be moved to paint only the twenty-first, while to any outside eye, and even to his own consciousness, they were virtually indistinguishable. He did not know why, but he knew very well when the spark was struck and when it was not. Jacklin, I think, must work in the same way.

But while it is important to emphasize the formal consistency of his work, one should not thereby downgrade too much the human side. It seems probable that when, at a crucial stage in his career, Jacklin foresook geometrical abstraction and returned to figurative work, a vital reason was that he felt a need to come back in a more obvious way to the contemplation of humanity. In some of his later work the humans are present, admittedly, mainly as elements in a pattern, ants far away beneath the spectator's feet. Against this, it has to be said also that some of his most intense inventions before his move to New York were variations on a human theme that might have come from some claustrophobic drama by Harold Pinter: the mysterious, uncomfortable, sometimes menacing relations of two people or a person and an object within the shadowy limits of a room.

On his first arrival in New York he responded immediately to the varied and sometimes bizarre types who worked in the meat-packers below his studio, clustered around Washington Square, or advertised their wares on 42nd Street. The patterns are there, but are given extra urgency and intensity by the human situations, of confrontation or sensuous repose, in which they are clothed. The repose is less frequent than the confrontation, since that is the way of the modern city but it does still exist. When he decided to spend time in Hong Kong in 1993, it was inevitable that he should be drawn to the sheer masses of people who crowd the streets and public buildings, swarm along the raised walkways or ride the Mass Transit. But it is not surprising either that he should be drawn as well to the peace and harmony of the little urban temples where one or two worshippers find comfort in the candle-lit glow of tradition.

The choice of Hong Kong for his latest painting-site was, if not inevitable, at least very consistent with his earlier transplanting to New York. Hong Kong resembles New York in its clustering high-rises, the bustle, colour and variety of its street life. No place for an old-fashioned English pantheist, evidently, but ideal for anyone whose adrenalin is set racing by the urban scene in all its hurly-burly and complexity. What Jacklin has found in Hong Kong is, at the very least, New York with added local colour. But if that were all that interested him as a painter, he could have found much of it in New York's Chinatown without ever setting foot outside Manhattan. Local colour as such is not to be despised, but if it is really to mean anything it has to arise naturally from a different life-style, a different ethnic mix, and it is those rather than the superficially picturesque which attract the true artist.

Sure enough, in these Hong Kong-inspired works, Jacklin goes directly to the roots of the Hong Kong experience. They are at once incredibly cosmopolitan and intensely specific. From the start, Jacklin has been struck by both the similarities and the dissimilarities of what he sees in Hong Kong to what he has seen elsewhere.

At a glance, the chasms of cement glimpsed from the balcony of the China Club are not so different from, say, Manhattan seen from the World Trade Center; the highrises of Central seen from Kowloon are like enough to the highrises of New York illuminated by the evening sun from across the Hudson River. And yet there is a difference. The light is different. The boats in the harbour are different. And the patterns of people are different. When the artist moves closer in, this is even more apparent. Naturally the artist who found such fascination in the chess players of Central Park would be drawn to the chess players of Victoria Park also. But whereas the New York paintings are studies in monumental immobility, the Hong Kong paintings are full of restless movement: bystanders in Hong Kong do not stop and stare, they swarm and seethe.

What Jacklin has plugged into above all in Hong Kong is the burgeoning energy of the place. The grander architectural designs of his pictures remain, but within them everything is in a state of flux. Life vibrates in them, tensions crackle, people and buildings blur into one another, eddy, and re-form. It is the familiar world of Jacklin galvanised by some unpredictable new
force. As T.S.Eliot says in The Four Quartets:

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

-John Russell Taylor (1995)

Photo by Linda Sole