Essay by Thomas Karshan

(A discussion of some works exhibited in February 2014)


In A Self-Portrait of the Young Man as an Artist, an article published in Standpoint magazine (Jan-Feb 2014), Jacob Willer writes of coming to his ‘occupation’ as a painter, not through any precocity as a draughtsman, but through a developing ‘sense of duty’ to painters of the past – ‘that great concourse of the Dead’, as Ruskin puts it. Their example is an inspiration, but one that intimidates, for those like Jacob who take it on, and exerts a pressure.

This pressure makes for an eerie atmosphere in Jacob’s art. Struggling to find community with contemporary artists and their ideas, and seeking out the concourse of the dead, Jacob can hardly replicate the ease and grace of those past masters. Quoting Ruskin again: ‘to feel with them [the Dead], we must be like them; and none of us can become that without pains.’ The artistic culture which had made their craft so vigorous, driving them to heights of expression, has sunk away, and for Jacob there is no education to bring it back. If he tries to achieve their grace he risks falling into preciousness, deadening his art, and reminding himself again how alive their art remains. Jacob sees a chasm between himself and the dead masters – a gap he may be dangerously tempted to fill with the distractions of life outside art.

Jacob’s self-portraits illustrate his problems as much as his ideals, or rather, the problematic position imposed on him by the admired dead. One of the most striking is titled Als Ich Kan, the motto Van Eyck used on his own self-portrait in the National Gallery. It was begun as long ago as late 2006. Jacob sits dressed in a soft yellow shirt before a poster of Piero della Francesca’s Baptism of Christ, for him the most important painting to an aspirant artist growing up in London. Piero’s dove, becoming the spirit of art, hovers above Jacob’s head. To one side are emblems of distraction: a gin bottle, a set of keys that in an earlier version had been a mobile phone, a copy of a book (though we cannot read it on the spine, it was a volume of Pliny’s Natural History containing the accounts of the artists of antiquity). Such symbolism is inorganic, but then so is the world these objects come from, and the painting compensates by sending out tentative connections to the world of Piero, the foliage in Jacob’s room merging into that of the painting: everything should ‘grow’ out of the Piero. The face that meets our eye – or rather, does not meet our eye, for it is wholly absorbed and abstracted inwards – is full-square, frozen by the duty of the artistic problem, not quite alive in our world, blank with concentration, and presented as an icon, an aid perhaps for our own meditation on the pains of this solitary attempt at communion with the concourse of the dead.

These themes are taken up again in Painter, Practice (2012), a self-portrait in charcoal, in which we see Jacob as reflected in a mirror, while in the lower left-hand corner looms a laptop screen, another diversion – around the time of this painting he was organising an exhibition as well as writing art criticism. Propped against the mirror there are reproductions of Michelangelo and Rubens drawings, pictures about inspiration, which themselves inspire, and in doing so admonish. Jacob looks away from the easel at us, distracted and guilty, but also concentrated and confident. His left hand is clutched to his hip to recall Dontello’s marble version of David, while his right hand blurs as it vibrates at the blank canvas on which it is working, fumbling towards a subject. Insofar as there was a solution to the problem, it was, ultimately, to crop the image sharply, as Jacob did late in the making of the picture, narrowing it sufficiently for the body to hold its tension, and not be lost in the airiness of the original larger page. This principle of contraction and self-constraint also informs the Portrait of my Father, Dutch Palette (2013), in which Jacob has confined himself to the browns and blacks of a Frans Hals, as if deliberately to invite a comparison which will expose his every error. Ghost-like, Jacob is just visible, his reflection dissolving into the dark picture hanging above his father’s head.

The same principle is taken still further in a set of Jacob’s works which at first seem very different, the studiedly modest and tiny images of foliage and architectural detail that he began in 2008, when he was looking for a challenge to lift him out of his previous way of painting; Jacob is determined to resist evolving a trademark style, despite its importance in the modern art market. Still, he exerts the same steady concentration we see on his face in Als Ich Kan, again on foliage, and on other small objects of observation: chimney pots and figs, the shadow of a mop, a cherry tree in blossom, windows left ajar, a frozen bud which looks as if it is about to snap. The colouring is intense and precise, though reticent; the viewer has to fulfil his or her duty to the scene and concentrate just as steadily so as to catch the slight warming in what seemed to be flat patches of colour by the various hazes of sun-light – the colours should move off each other, vibrating back into space. The cropping is always extreme, so as to exclude context, subject, situation – all that in a conventional painting would contrive to entice the viewer in. Indeed, there is no way in to here but through the ambiguous colour; and these pictures will allow us no standpoint; rather, they make us absent – we lose our position, and forget ourselves, as we look in at their coolly impersonal surfaces, And the colours push back, serenely indifferent to our human interference. Still, it is spring, and the intensity of concentration on the nearly abstract planes and surfaces breaks through into a vitality that emerges symbolically in the buds and flowers of the paintings.

Life amid death is also a subject of In Obitu Pax (2013). Strangers sit around on Gibbet Hill at Hindhead, Surrey, a high point close to London from which one is afforded an idyllic view over into the ice-blue distances of the sort Claude painted; but it was also the site of a notorious murder in 1786, and the three men found guilty were strung up here – hence Gibbet Hill – for all to see from miles around. The challenge of that dead master’s style, the land melting softly away into the sky, is met on the other side of the painting by a scene of death cold in its literalism – three men’s legs dangle into the top right corner of the canvas (the legs are copied from Pisanello’s drawings of hanged men). On the left is the margin of a Victorian cross erected in an effort to exorcise these ghosts, though the persistence of the dangling legs suggests the impossibility of an exorcism. An empty bench invites us to sit down and contemplate the views, and wonder how we ourselves should relate to the dead, and to sacrifice – in life and in art – but it does so without exactly embodying us, or offering us any solution.

Two other pictures, A Modern Echo and En La Plaza (both 2013), also set ordinary life against the ghosts of the past. In the first, a listless young woman stands, encaged, at the edge of a lifeless suburban landscaped park, dreaming of an absent Narcissus, while behind her a dreary pool makes an image of her mind. The scene is dispirited and bewildered. ‘En La Plaza’ expresses a still sharper distaste for modernity, in a squalid square in Madrid in which East European prostitutes, drunken Peruvian day-labourers, and a Chinese child sit about lethargically, scattered across the picture plane. Distantly, behind them, is the opera house, already lit up but shut away from all this – the cultural past pressed back by ugly modern buildings – while a subterranean parking garage gashes ominously into the pavement on one side. And yet all this unpromising material has been gathered up for the painterly challenge of transforming the squalor into a Watteau-esque preciosity, and as in Watteau, a clown-figure centres the scene, sets the beat for it, and alone seems to register the desperate significance, and its potential for performance. That he comes across as isolated, manic, and primitive should be no surprise: that, for Jacob, is another portrait of the modern artist.