Kay Jackson Tackles Issues of Overpopulation with Paint

For her sixth solo exhibition at Addison/Ripley Fine Art, contemporary painter Kay Jackson continues her exploration of an issue that she has been grappling with for more than 25 years: overpopulation. To manage its anxiety-provoking effects, she makes art—and we would do well to take notice of her warning.

The exhibition takes its title—“Kay Jackson: Malthusian Paintings, Twenty-five Years and Counting”—from Malthusian Theory. Formulated in the late 18th and early 19th centuries by the English economist and demographer Thomas Robert Malthus, it holds that unchecked population growth will inevitably outstrip the natural and manmade resources required to sustain us. Such a nightmarish scenario ended up giving the artist actual nightmares. As she describes it: “In 1988, I had a series of vivid dreams where throngs of people replaced cars on roads and endless crowds moved as a human herd. To deal with the anxiety, I started photographing people during rush hour to use as a reference for my first ‘Malthusian Paintings.’ These canvases are crowded with moving figures, often faceless but somehow connected in their shared kaleidoscopic patterns of light and shadow.”

Artists have long been transforming catastrophe and pain into compelling works of art. With her “Malthusian Paintings,” Jackson takes her place among them. Working layer-by-layer, in the style of the Old Masters, she builds her images with thin glazes of oil paint. Nestled between these layers are delicate bits of gold and copper leaf that lend the surfaces of her compositions richness and depth, and causes them to appear as if they are glowing from within. 

Rendered with a combination of abstraction and representation, the people and settings in the paintings blend, merging into a barely differentiated whole. Such a visual massing of individuals reflects the artist’s keen sense of our interdependency. In her words: “The ‘Malthusian Paintings’ […] provide an outlet for my concern about pollution, food supply and how everything is interdependent and relative to the number of people on earth.” After bearing witness to her lovely-frightening visions, viewers might, indeed, feel more connected to their fellow human beings, or, perhaps, crowded out by them.

—Karen Kedmey

Kay Jackson: Malthusian Paintings, Twenty-five Years and Counting” is on view at Addison/Ripley Fine Art, Washington, D.C., Mar. 21–May 2, 2015.

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