Art Imitates Life in Bob Jackson's Kennett Square Studio

A typical still-life artist he’s not. Still, Jackson’s making a name for himself in the Main Line art scene, one balloon animal at a time.

Prop Artist: Bob Jackson and his signature soda crates. (Photo by Jared Castaldi)It would be easy to have some preconceived notions about Robert “Bob” C. Jackson, considering his recent successes. One might expect that any artist who’s had solo shows in major galleries in New York and Boston, museum acquisitions of his work, and scholarly appraisals of his relatively short career might’ve outgrown a studio the size of a one-car garage.

Located in the heart of Kennett Square, a short commute from his home where he lives with his wife and three kids, the place is easy to miss. Here, he works entirely from the still life, creating increasingly larger Pop Art paintings. Sometimes, Jackson can be seen through the frosted glass of the studio’s single window.

The 47-year-old painter works intently and meticulously in oil—one canvas or panel at a time. His still-life “props” are hardly typical. They range from bits of Americana Andy Warhol might’ve coveted (vintage soda crates, cocktail swords) to items Jackson builds himself—like balsawood airplanes, twisted “dog” balloons, and plywood tables used as platforms.

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Apples typically serve as stand-ins for the human figure. They’re placed, as one critic observed, in playful arrangements that “remind viewers of the days of Norman Rockwell, coming-of-age stories, and rites-of-passage adventures.”

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Jackson is also known for his fool-the-eye paintings, which generally have no depth of field or receding background—like his series of American-flag paintings. Varied objects that continually crop up in his work include stacks of Oreo cookies, vintage toy rockets, goldfish bowls, eggs, chocolate cupcakes, Hershey Kisses and plastic dinosaurs owned by his youngest son.

Early in his career, Jackson focused on still life, mainly because it seemed to be the easiest genre for a self-taught artist to do. Still life, he jokes, is often seen as the “low man on the totem pole,” compared to landscape painting or figurative work. Still, he wondered if he could change the parameters of a genre. “I started searching for other things that could replace the tabletop. Once I saw the soda crates, I knew that’s where I wanted to go,” says Jackson, who’s since found many old-time beverage companies to suit his needs.

In his increasingly complex works, Jackson uses the lettering on the crates to spell out certain messages. That’s where obscure brand names like Dr. Nut, Pleasure Time or K.C. Love come into play. Jackson singles out the words by obscuring letters with objects, as he does for “Battle of the Sexes.”

He based that painting’s concept on how husbands and wives get consumed with the minor stuff in their daily lives. “Little do you know that you’re actually the target of life’s bigger problems,” Jackson says. “You might not realize that you’re probably better off joining forces than fighting about petty problems.”

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In his post-college years, Bob Jackson worked for a time as a pastor in a small community church. So it’s a good guess that he’s now using art as a vehicle for examining life’s problems.

The complexity of the artist and his work is delineated by no fewer than three writers in the new book, Robert C. Jackson Paintings. “What’s startling about his work is the sense of mix: of sophisticated and naïve, of high modernist art and 19th- century trompe l’oeil and folk art, of witty philosophical mind games and silly popular jokes,” notes art historian Henry Adams in the book’s foreword. “This is also the sort of strange mix of sensibilities one finds in the best American novelists.”

Jackson pokes fun at his artistic temperament in “The Apple Guy,” which mimics Rockwell’s self-portraits in its depiction of a sparse but inviting studio complete with an early-American mirror. Jackson can be seenin the reflection, his face obscured by an apple dangling from a string. Other art references and historic self-portraits surround him, along with a red mailing label that reads, “Fragile Handle with Care.”

In tracing his own history as an American realist who pushes the proverbial envelope, Jackson cites two exhibits, each illustrating the current popularity of the open-air, trompe l’oeil style. The first was at the Somerville Manning Gallery, Jackson’s longtime creative hub in Greenville, Del. That was followed by the even larger Reality Check at Brandywine River Museum in Chadds Ford. The much-talked-about exhibit was not only the first in the museum’s history to highlight a significant number of contemporary artists (Jackson and 22 others), it also underscored trompe l’oeil’s Brandywine Valley origins.

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Back in the 19th century, local trompe l’oeil practitioners might be described as the nation’s first Pop artists—though, as Jackson points out, their subjects were typically confined to masculine things like dead hares or “envelopes tacked to barn doors.” Simply put, the idea of this so-called “tavern art” was to wow patrons and keep them at the bar longer.

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For Reality Check, many of the exhibiting artists used their favorite cultural icons or personal collections—much like Jackson and his 1960s-era artifacts—to create illusions and commentaries. “It’s taking the old-style trompe l’oeil and adding a personal expression,” Jackson says.

Perhaps most significant to Jackson: After the exhibit, his 2009 painting, “Target the Artist,” became part of the Brandywine River Museum’s permanent collection. It can be found in a gallery devoted to still lifes and trompe l’oeil, its distinct coloring standing out in the spotlights, drawing viewers to a target-practice sheet with a dog-shaped balloon taped to its center.

The painting is a tribute to the late Andrew Wyeth, whose work was dismissed by early critics as being too stark or illustrative. “After he passed away, there were a few obituaries that puzzled me,” Jackson recalls. “There was even a little tongue-in-cheek aspect to them, saying that he was good, if you liked that kind of art.”

Jim Duff, former executive director of Brandywine River Museum, places Jackson among a “new generation of innovative artists” who’ve taken the tradition of realism in new directions, bringing “intrigue” and “colorful drama” to their work.

For his part, Jackson is honored to be part of any realism revival, but he worries that artists can easily become consumed with craft over concept. “If it’s just about craft, it becomes a kind of muscle-flexing contest, in that people try to prove who can render something the best,” he says.

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For Jackson, the tendency to fuss over perfecting the shiny gleam of an apple may spring from his former career. A native of Kinston, N.C., he studied electrical engineering at the University of Delaware and worked for a time as a systems engineer, designing radio systems for Motorola.

These days, Jackson’s sketchbooks are filled with diagrams that resemble engineering projects—which, in a way, they are. Recently, he constructed various tipping platforms and a plywood Trojan horse for his latest “food fight” painting.

The sketchbooks are crucial to what Jackson describes as a “marriage” of craftsmanship and concept. Ultimately, he thoroughly enjoys the moment when concept becomes art—when viewers bring their experiences to a work. That happened in spades when he painted a birthday cake with a dozen forks sticking out from the top. He saw it as great way to express the idea of sharing. But the collector who bought it saw it as indicative of his life in the Hollywood production mill, where scripts require a whole team of writers.

“I used to say, ‘What can I paint next?’” admits Jackson. “But once my work became more about narrative, I was less interested in looking for a scene. I’ve reached the point where I’m always thinking conceptually, asking myself ‘What idea do I want to express, and how do I render it?’”

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