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Robert C. Jackson at the Mattatuck Museum

“Full of wit and character Robert Jackson’s paintings celebrate contemporary life while consistently drawing from his rich knowledge and love for art history.” More information from the Museum found here.

“You know the feeling. Your mother has given you a quarter for the gumball machine and you stand athwart its pedestal, salivating on tip-toe, unable to reach it. It looms above you like a sweet oasis of ecstasy, and the quarter sits in your sweaty palm, enervated and impotent.

How easy to see yourself as one of Robert C. Jackson’s charming figures, balloon-shaped dogs painted in confectionary colors of delicious wit and technicolor precision.

“Unleashed: The Art of Robert C. Jackson,” at the Mattatuck Museum through April 18, is a joyous, vibrant display of virtuosity and mirth that makes you wonder why such elements are so rarely mingled in the art world. The work, which is part still life and part trompe l’oeil, features vividly colored dogs shaped in balloons that one might see twisted together at a ballgame.

Art connoisseurs will think immediately of Jeff Koons’ work, but Jackson’s is something different altogether. These works are empty of Koons’ post-modern irony, his arch sense of pulling a fast one on the art world. 

There’s nothing kitschy or cynical about Jackson’s works, clever and delightful, all of them – like many of us- full of hot air, but jubilant and amusing just the same. Because the works are so cartoonishly adorable, it may be easy to dismiss them as fun but facile, yummy but shallow, like the fist-full of jellybeans they resemble.

Resist the urge. Look closely. Jackson is mining deep into the crevices of American art history and popular culture. Much of his work, like the self-portrait “Putting on a Happy Face,” draws from their trompe l’oeil tradition of John Haberle, John F. Peto or William Harnett. All the tropes are there – the masking tape, thumb tacks, even the coins. Jackson also draws on the still-life tradition of Wayne Thiebaud.

To that, Jackson has added his own pop cultural iconography. The balloon dogs feast on an all-American diet – hot dogs, burgers, corn on the cob, watermelon, crabs, pizza.

“Pizza Fest” features more than a dozen of Jackson’s multicolored dogs in casual, celebratory merriment – discarded pizza crusts, spilled soda. This could be a ball game or a birthday party, decidedly American in character, as is “Socializing.”

Socializing is a key feature in Jackson’s art. The desire to be together, feed off one another, be curious about one another are all features that run through his work. The only single figure in this exhibit is Jackson himself, seen through a mirror, a smiley face taped over his head, a sketch of his face thumb-tacked to the mirror’s edge and another sketch of an alarmed-looking apple, with thumb tacks for eyes and toothpicks for hair, pinned to the opposite side of the mirror.

The use of dogs, too, is intentional. They, like humans, are social animals. They gather in packs. They feed off one another’s energy. They’re inquisitive about each other, and in “Peril,” they seem to look out for one another.

Here, an orange balloon dog, holding a blue parasol, balances on a string tethered between two stacks of soda crates. Beneath the figure are five cacti and two dogs on their hind legs, noses in the air, watching the risky gymnastics.

The crates Jackson uses are telling. Most are old wooden soda crates in bold colors – Creamsicle orange, aqua sblue, pickle green, lemony yellow, mint green. Jackson edges all of them with gray metallic straps. The lettering, familiar to many, suggests vivacity and effervescence: “Yoo-Hoo,” “Enjoy Life,” “There’s Nothing Like Coke.”

Look deeply at these paintings and you will see backgrounds of dreamy, Rothko-like abstractions. The paintings themselves are exquisitely realistic. Look at the crab who snaps the tail off an emerald-green dog in “Dog Eat Dog.” Its olive-green shell, mottled with daubs of white and gray, is photorealistic in precision, and yet its action – snapping the tail off a dog whose mates are crushing his fellow crustaceans with wooden mallets – is prankish or vengeful, take your pick.

All of it is a merry antidote to an otherwise bleak period in American life.” -Tracey O’Shaughnessy, April 11, 2021