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‘UpTownDancing’ with Vanessa Jackson

Vanessa Jackson RA

Street art is not a label ordinarily associated with the practice of painter Vanessa Jackson, but her arresting compositions have already found their way off-canvas and onto a variety of public surfaces. For the first time, however, they become part of the urban vernacular of London itself, and for negotiation beyond the wall and under foot. It’s an odd idea for the viewer, treading on what appears to be a painting, especially ones that already belong in the British abstract painting canon.

Jackson has been commissioned as one of five artists associated with the Royal Academy, under the auspices of ‘The Piccadilly Art Takeover’, to produce a series of designs that now currently cover a number of zebra crossings in the West End. And she’s in great company, with Michael Armitage, Isaac Julien CBE RA, Farshid Moussavi OBE RA and Yinka Shonibare CBE RA also having created works for the project. Part of a wider programme of art commissions and events to welcome back public life into the centre of the capital and the cultural sector, the initiative is a partnership between the Royal Academy of Arts and Art of London, supported by Sky Arts, Piccadilly Lights, Westminster City Council and the Mayor of London.

Michael Armitage; Vanessa Jackson RA; Isaac Julien CBE RA

Given that movement, whether relating to musicality, the inherent lyricism of intellectual observations beautifully articulated, the passage of light through the built environment, or the chromatic shifts of opposing colour fields, it is perhaps entirely fitting we are now able to experience these works as part of the ritual of daily performance; be given the freedom to walk, hop, lope and dance over them, at will. The series is in fact called ‘UpTownDancing’, ushering in all manner of connections with the area as a past and present site of unscheduled, possibly quite fancy, fun.

On canvas, Jackson plays with colour and form to create an extraordinary sense of space on the flat. Not that we are ever allowed entirely in to any given composition. Her lexicon of motifs, in a variety of colour-rich guises, lead us largely around small and large-scale image conundrums. Over the years she had developed a library of signifiers that when used in combination can spark recollections far beyond the art-historical referential territory they remain loosely indebted to.

In her studio, just a few weeks ago, I was thinking about this. The large leaps – whether of connection or disconnection – that allow for a mental ramble around gloriously disparate influences and ideas. This might be Roman architecture, Modernist Soviet design or the mathematical machinations of Middle-Eastern ornament: as witnessed at source, or in the museum, and via the inevitable proliferation of formal design approaches through visual culture. For every moment of tracing back involves myriad personal memories. On that particular visit I was able to marinate in European light, the tile work of Olympic-project swimming pools and an ill-advised neo-geo fashion moment all of my own, to name a few visual footholds on the path to working them out.

And while Jackson’s paintings, drawings and prints may appear serial in construction, their journey of reinvention never stops. Having invited the artist some years ago to produce a wall-based work for the Cafe Gallery in Southwark Park (now SPG), as part of an investigation of abstract painting in London, I’ve witnessed first-hand the different kind of authority and referential capacity they offer as straight-to-building-surface installations. It was an epic transformation of an institutional box into a living abstract painting in the round. Though Jackson’s masterwork in this ilk has to be the scaling up of her painterly concerns to fit the long and imposing surfaces of Sadler’s Wells. It was an insightful commission by Sacha Craddock, which couldn’t be missed as you moved between floors, Jackson’s visual vocabulary articulating in a bold and joyful hand the significance of this structure/place as a house of performance.

And now, here, in a hot and tricky summer of political and everyday pandemic problematics we find ourselves, again quite fittingly, at a series of thresholds – real-world thoroughfares – faced with large stretches of vinyl in colour combinations that bear no recognition to those we usually find and can easily inter, on asphalt. Stretched across the road much like a canvas (or a dancefloor), if adhered to and revealing a sense of the surface in relief, they situate is us between very different material qualities, uses and sites for experiencing imagery: as multi-planar pictures charged with sculptural potential; instructions devised for municipal directives; or ‘skins’ associated with celebratory events – the festival drum, tent and banner.

As paintings that play with the rules, formally speaking, they also provoke curiosity by their very existence in this new context as, if not random exactly, then unusually placed markers in the field. They certainly encourage a different view of the city in our day-to-day negotiation of it, one that speaks of the dérive and being alive to the realities of its urban furniture; looking down for reasons beyond checking a phone screen and ensuring safe perambulation. But the presiding vibe of ‘UpTownDancing’ is distinctly rock and roll, reminiscent of tripping across town with no cares in the world, freedom of movement.

As news grows of these works in place so they will become an accepted, sought-out and likely loved part of the pedestrian procession, in reality and on TikTok. The wear and tear they suffer will be the essential scars – the scuffs and smears of shoes and tyres – of a summer in action, life underway once more. I look forward to my own Abbey Road moments, and witnessing others’ performative negotiation of how to deal with painting on unexpected surfaces.

The Piccadilly Art Takeover, in partnership with the Royal Academy of Arts and Art of London, runs from the 21 July - 31 August 2021. Visit for further details on their season of public art.

PHOTO CREDIT: Heart of London Business Alliance.


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