On a hot, cloudless afternoon of last week, a small group gathered together to install Oliver Lee Jackson’s largest sculpture, Untitled [Recumbent Figure], at di Rosa Center for Contemporary Art in Napa.
Executive director Kate Eilertsen, watching the startlingly small forklift and expert install crew—including Erik Rosin, Diane Roby, Kirk Allen and Manuel Gomez—navigate the three-ton sculpture into its final position, said she couldn’t be more thrilled with the installation.
“We’re so happy to have the piece here. And this placement is perfect—and it’s so viewable,” said Eilertsen.
Recumbent Figure sits in the very front of di Rosa’s main galleries and 217 acres, and is delightfully impossible to miss from the road. It has been signed on for a three-year stint at the center, with the option to renew at the end of the contract. The hope, says Eilertsen, is that it will remain indefinitely.
Artist Jackson, who looked relaxed and cool in a tight gray cap, checkered flannel and a sweet-smelling pipe he was perpetually re-lighting, also seems happy with the placement. It suits, he shared with me, the nature of the figure.
Recumbent, for those who don’t know, means simply, “lying down.” Synonyms include “spreadeagled,” “sprawled” and “lounging.” It’s a state of relaxation, and total surrender to, among other things, gravity.
This surrendering, releasing sense was Jackson’s inspiration for the piece—though he doesn’t want to tell his viewers what to think about his work. Complete work, according to Jackson, speaks for itself, and doesn’t need the artist alongside it telling the viewer what to perceive.
That said, for those who want to bring a pair of Oliver Lee Jackson 3D glasses to their viewing of the Recumbent, Jackson made this sculpture with the goal of conveying surrender, on a number of levels. He invited me to consider the experience of lying down, to think about how it felt, as a child: to lay down and imagine, to look at the stars, to feel held by the floor or grass or hammock below. The invitation was to, rather than fight the pull of gravity as we do in standing every day, release to it, feel that gravity is not pulling, but holding, supportive and connecting, allowing one to let go of the many pressures that can, and do, come with adult life.
Childhood, rest, nature and mother earth are all concepts Jackson invited me to play with while reflecting on the piece.
Though given the unofficially official name Recumbent, and inspired by the aforementioned concepts of repose and surrender, this piece, like much of Jackson’s work, is entirely visually abstract. It is engaging from all angles, and was as intriguing while loaded and strapped on the truck as when fully assembled and in place.
The whole piece features only three colors, white, red and black, and some gold leaf to catch and play with the sunlight. The black is painted in open circles, arcs, shapes and squiggles. The red is in squiggles and sweeps, and lining the sides of the steel, which is primarily white. It almost looks like paper, folded and drawn upon by the musing hand of an artist in thought. In its final form, I want to sit down next to it—even play on it, though something tells me that’s not allowed.
The construction was no small feat. Created together with a team that included Diane Roby—Jackson’s agent, assistant and all-around right hand—Erik Rosin and the crew at Capitol Iron Works in Sacramento, fabrication to installment was a month of work, resulting in a three-ton sculpture comprised of three one-inch tempered steel plates, notched together, painted with protective paints and measuring six feet tall by eight feet wide by 20 feet long.
“And that’s just fabrication time,” said Roby, who was also present at the install, and with whom I later spoke to over the phone. “He’s had this idea in his mind for years.”
Jackson, who is mostly known for his painting—in 2019 his work was exhibited at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC—has also been playing in sculpture since the 1980s. In 1988, he made a maquette, which is a small-scale version of a sculpture, much like a blueprint, of Recumbent, out of plywood.
A few years later, he made another in steel. This final production is an exciting realization of a dream, and Roby confirms Jackson intends to keep working at this scale, and already has several other ideas.
Meanwhile, Recumbent reclines restfully in its new home, ready to engage viewers at any hour—solar panels are being installed around the sculpture to illuminate it in the dark hours and to allow an unending opportunity for contemplation to visitors and passersby alike.