Dick Jemison recounts his first encounter with Abstract-Expressionist Paintings. On a school holiday in the late 1950’s, at the time when “action painting” as it was also called was first bursting on the art scene, Jemison visited the Museum of Modern Art in New York. He still remembers walking up a stairway where a huge, freely spattered, color-saturated canvas by Sam Francis confronted him. At that moment Jemison made up his mind to become an artist.
The Abstract-Expressionist aesthetic, which challenged and excited the young artist was being shaped at the time by the major painters of the New York School: Willem De Kooning, Mark Rothko and Jackson Pollock. Jemison came to understand that in these paintings the picture plane was conceived as a flat canvas wall. The canvas became an “arena”, a “field of action”, where smudged or dripping paint floated; where the intuitive or spontaneous gesture of the paint-loaded brush interacted with all the other surface marks. Picasso, a generation earlier, had been the root of all this muscular painting.
The New York school rejected representation and illusionism. What excited these artists was the possibility of unpremeditated gesture and intuitive placement of shape painted with the maximum of intensity and psychological tension.
Dick Jemison found a way to pursue his ambition to be an artist. Encouraged by understanding parents, he encountered two or three compatible teachers in university art departments and art schools. He entered the experience of the art world, making friends with other art students; the all night sessions arguing about what art is about; meeting, observing the professional artists around him.
Most important, he traveled. His journeys took him to Africa, India and Australia. In these special places he was powerfully struck and influenced by the intricate formal and intense colors of African and Australian Aboriginal designs. In his art he would undertake to integrate “Action Painting” and “Master Painting” techniques inspired by the New York School with the rich heritage of traditional indigenous design.
Jemison’s earliest work focused on working the surface. Sand and earth were mixed with medium. The paintings became as textured and subdued in color as the surface of the earth or upright, clay walls. From these thick, almost neutral surfaces, marks emerged, scratches or gouged by the artist’s hand, often suggesting a kind of calligraphy being uncovered from the background. The marks suggest a graphic script like a rudimentary, fragmented voice seeking to be understood, like primitive scrapings of lines or figures on cave walls.
In DREAMWORKS, Dick Jemison’s most recent series, the same graphic elements, now more articulate, appear and disappear. The format of the paintings is like rising walls, blocks of painting flat against the untitled expanse of canvas. Each “hieroglyph” carries its own weight, not particularly related to those that surround it. The metaphor of the painting resides in the complex relationship each “hieroglyph” presents to its surrounding neighbors and to the composition as a whole.
The final arbiter and unifying force of Dick Jemison’s paintings is color. Jemison’s palette bonds all these painterly impulses through the dominance of a rich, earth-orange tone that warms and makes luminous the shapes within the structure. It is that burnt-orange/sienna range of color that, at once, localized the paintings; that informs them with the hues of the New Mexico landscape and adobe architecture, and at the same time realized them as universal potentials of the earth. These are the same rich tones of the orange plains of Equatorial Africa or the ochre hills and deserts of the Australian Bushmen.
In his sculptures, Dick Jemison has surrendered to his Australian Aboriginal muse. The vertical totem, the form enclosed completely within the volume of a standing tree trunk, is carved and hand-smoothed into free-invented ANCESTOR forms. Their outer surfaces are then polychromed with a dazzling array of patterned divisions in primary and complementary hues. Thick with constellation-like dots, ribbed stripings and cross-hatchings, they sing of the indigenous cultures the artist has studied. The painted surfaces of these sculptures are not so much ‘Aboriginal” as they are an homage to the aboriginal spirit, a design inspired by and interpreted through the eye of a sophisticated modern artist.
An “African”, an “Australian Aboriginal” eye in Santa Fe? Why not? The threads of art that are woven into the history of this small New Mexican town have come to share many things. A nearness to the earth, a shared focus on life and nature, the necessity of art and music in our daily life, a communal celebration of all human spirit and spirituality.
SELECTED PUBLIC AND CORPORATE COLLECTIONS:
American Television Communications, Denver, Colorado Anderson Industries, Inc., Rockford, Illinois AT&T, Denver, Colorado Baptist Hospital Conference Center, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma Birmingham Museum of Art, Birmingham, Alabama Blount Collection, Blount, Inc., Montgomery, Alabama The Charter, Beaver Creek, Vail, Colorado Consolidated Capital Companies, San Francisco, California Denver National Bank, Denver, Colorado E.F. Hutton, New York, New York Eldorado Hotel, Santa Fe, NM Execter Drilling Northern, Inc., Denver, Colorado Goldman, Sachs, New York, New York Head Corporation, Baltimore, Maryland IBM, Birmingham, Alabama Jemison Investment Company, Birmingham, Alabama Montgomery Museum of Art, Montgomery, Alabama Prudential-Bache, New York, New York Phoenician Hotel and Resort, Phoenix, Arizona Robert Tobin Collection, San Antonio, Texas Steven Chase Collection, Palm Springs, California University of Alabama Contemporary Art Collection, Birminghem, Alabama Vulcan Materials, Birmingham, Alabama Westin Hotel, Denver, Colorado