The Unsettling Abstracts of San Francisco Artist Henry Jackson



emember what it was like to first catch a glimpse of your own shadow? How eerily that featureless doppelgänger mimicked your every move? And more than that: how the strangely elongated form created an unnerving version of you that felt both deliciously thrilling but also slightly discomforting. It was you, but at the same time not you. The you you’d never known existed…


Henry Jackson

Henry Jackson



San Francisco, California ~


Deanna Phoenix Selene: I find it so compelling how successfully unsettling your paintings are, Henry. And I’m very intrigued about why this is so. One would think that the more an artwork resembles our own self-image, the more discomforting it would feel when the details are just slightly off. And yet your paintings bear only the crudest resemblance to the human form. Why then do they affect us so? What is it we are seeing in these pictures you create for us?


Henry Jackson

Henry Jackson


Henry Jackson: First off, thanks so much for acknowledging the work. It’s very gratifying to know that it resonates.

When I begin a piece, I usually have no preconceived idea or concept. I believe in allowing the work to dictate its own direction and conclusion, although I admit that that is almost impossible to do. But, just being mindful of that allows me to move the work toward a more engaging dialogue. While I do admit that there is, at the very least, some figurative element or suggestion, it is not my intention to start out that way. In fact, I do everything in my power to avoid it. I’ve learned that everything is a shape, whether familiar or otherwise. It’s the ‘other’ that intrigues me. [quote]This battle between figure and ground is what I find compelling. Every living thing on earth struggles for its existence. It’s this struggle that I try to capture, as honestly as possible.[/quote]


Henry Jackson

Henry Jackson


Deanna Phoenix Selene: Was it your intent to have an unnerving affect on your viewers, on the psyche? Or was your focus to experiment with form, and this is what presented itself? A message perhaps from your subconscious?


Henry J Genus89-14(700)

Henry Jackson


Henry Jackson: Although I approach all my work playfully, I do take the journey very seriously. I think the subconscious guides and affects you when working intuitively. [quote]Perhaps its some distant memory playing itself out. But in the end, I do want the vocabulary to be understood universally.[/quote] That is my hope.

Deanna Phoenix Selene: What are your favorite stories to read, either now or as a boy growing up? Themes you gravitated towards?

Henry Jackson:  [quote]I’ve always loved sensational stories. Stories that convey another reality. I was raised in a family that lived for storytelling. I guess that’s one of the main reasons I gravitated towards fine art. Painting this “other” world, versus writing, gives an immediacy that would otherwise take too long for me to express.[/quote]


Henry Jackson

Henry Jackson


Deanna Phoenix Selene: In your fine art book, Henry Jackson: New Work, you describe your figures as “soul-like” forms. Would you say that the state of the human soul today is in jeopardy? That we have become frayed at the edges, each day giving away more and more of what we most cherish about ourselves as we allow outside disturbances to eat away at our original purpose and passion? Or is disintegration actually the goal, an ultimate yielding of ego, as one gradually melds and merges with one’s natural surroundings?


Henry Jackson Henry Jackson book cover 600 not 700.jpg


Henry Jackson: I find your observations regarding the soul interesting. And while it is very important to me that my work, any work, have soul, it’s also about thinking that the subject at hand just might have existed, and not just because it sits before you, but more like a photograph of something that once was.


Henry Jackson

Henry Jackson


Henry Jackson: [quote]I’ve always been interested in archeology, the discovery of what was. Which is why my work has a primitive look and feel to it. That is intentional. I think the primitive is something we all relate to naturally. Whether or not the viewer realizes it. It is my hope that that rawness will be the catalyst to want to go into the work.[/quote]

Deanna Phoenix Selene: Is it the tension itself that also appeals to you? The push/pull between the living organism’s need to be fully formed, grounded, sturdy, impenetrable, complete…and the inevitable destiny of all living things to move towards entropy, disintegration, even self-destruction?

Henry Jackson: Tension is a constant thing. It’s about survival. While the majority of my work suggests some type of entity, originally I was looking for something with power to grab onto. A conduit. I found it in the human form and the elemental environment in which it exists. I like the idea that any given piece conveys this sense of urgency and uncertainty. [quote]Is the entity dominating or being consumed by its environment?[/quote]


Henry Jackson

Henry Jackson


Deanna Phoenix Selene: How does a piece typically take shape for you? Do you begin with an idea, a question, an emotion?

Henry Jackson: For the most part, I rely on my emotions while working on any piece. This intuitive process is dependent upon the media to help agitate and provoke the work along.

Deanna Phoenix Selene: Are you typically happy with the direction a piece takes? When you’re not satisfied with how a work is developing, what strategies do you then employ? Or do you let that dissatisfaction take the piece to its necessary conclusion ~ to a place you had not originally intended but which once there you find offers its own rewards?

Henry Jackson: The act of painting becomes more physical, less intellectual. Like some irrational discussion or argument. A thing to be resolved over time. Whenever a particular medium becomes challenging, for whatever reason, I’ll sometimes rely on the left brain to assist with more academic decisions, just to move the piece along. At least until I get my nerve back.

To minimize preciousness and over-frustration, I work on multiple pieces at the same time. This was primarily due to the mediums drying time. At first, I thought this was a disadvantage to the “moment,” but over time I realized that the waiting allowed me to see the visual lies that were sometimes present, but not recognizable at first. [quote]I always rotate the canvas while I work, never allowing myself to get comfortable. Especially when it gets closer to some sense of completion. The challenge to that is being aware of the process and just trusting it. Am a believer in pushing a work to its limit. That’s where its story begins.[/quote]

Deanna Phoenix Selene: How does using pigmented cold wax impact a piece? Is this a technique that takes quite a length of time to perfect?

Henry Jackson: For me, this medium, this technique took quite some time to get accustom to. And after all these years, I am still learning things about it, which I enjoy. I like that it keeps me thinking. Unlike the encaustic process, which is to “burn in,” cold wax is created by using solvent to break it down, which then converts it to paste. From that, I add oil paint and/or dry pigment powder, and apply it to the canvas surface using more awkward, less detail oriented tools, (i.e., spatulas, painting knives and trowels). I prefer these tools to brushes because I like the way they resist detail and preciousness. They heighten the physicality of the process which creates an interesting dynamic combined with intuitive thinking. These tools also allow me to control the wax’s translucency and opacity, allowing me (and the viewer) to feel and see the journey of any given work.

Deanna Phoenix Selene: Is there a medium you would still like to explore that you haven’t yet experimented with?

Henry Jackson: Sculpture and video. I was fortunate to be awarded a residency grant a couple of years ago at the San Francisco Zoo, and decided to do a large scale video and sound installation, which was exhibited there. It was great to incorporate my knowledge of painting into working with film and sound. I think it’s a natural progression for a painter, as is sculpture.

Deanna Phoenix Selene: Are there artists creating right now whose work you admire?

Henry Jackson: I like Jordi Alcaraz



Henry Jackson: Tara Donovan




Henry Jackson: Bill Viola



Henry Jackson: Sally Mann



Henry Jackson: and Ward Schumaker, among others.



Deanna Phoenix Selene: What to you is the definition of a successful work of art?

Henry Jackson: A work whose narrative is never specific and usually gives way to many readings. I’ve always liked the idea of paintings that convey an ever-changing dialogue. Something that reacts with mood or the feeling of a day.


HJackson Unt59-14(700)

Henry Jackson





Further Notes

Henry Jackson studied at San Francisco State University and California College of the Arts, Oakland, CA, and exhibits nationally and internationally.

Jackson is a recipient of many awards including: Four time Full Fellowship Award/Artist-in-residency at MACA, Monte Azul, Costa Rica; Artist-in-Residency Award (first recipient), San Francisco Zoological Society & The Bernard Osher Foundation, San Francisco, CA; Full Fellowship Award, Vermont Studio Center, Johnson VT; “Nathan Oliveira Fellowship Award”, presented by MMG Foundation, San Francisco, CA.
More of Mr. Jackson’s work can be viewed at his website.

The artist can also be reached at:


Henry     Jackson 262 not 700.jpg



Combustus Managing Editor | + posts

My dream: to create a unique vehicle for artists and visionaries from all genres and all over the globe to inspire and learn from one another.

Leave a Comment