All I need to say about Jay Fleming is that he has an abundance of talent and a geniunely whimsical way of looking at the world that you want to share. I have a few of his signed prints that I'm proud to own.
Jay Fleming is one of Jackson’s more unique artists. During the last several years, he has begun to cultivate a strong following among collectors who enjoy retro scenes of the 1950s and 1960s and his work tends to sell out quickly in the galleries and shops that carry his work.
“I really focus on that early era of technology; on the optimism, energy, and exuberance of the times,” he said. At first glace, Fleming’s work – pastel-hued, clever, and bright – is the definition of retro. Bathing beauties in swim caps dive into kidney-shaped pools. A three-wheeled car waits in front of salmon-colored shops for a female passenger. Huge motel signs jut into pastel-blue skies.
“All my paintings depict scenes from the 1950s and early 1960s,” Fleming said. “It was a time when man didn’t seem to have any limits, due to breakthroughs in science, medicine, and unlimited new products; there was so much energy, excitement, and optimism about the future and that was reflected in the architecture and design of the products of the era. There were products that seem a little wacky today, like the three-wheeled Messerschmitt cars.”
Fleming’s work might easily be categorized and filed away as only a bit of retro kitsch, but it’s not. Those bathing beauties dive into water that is just a bit too dark, under a blue sky filled with flying dirigibles. The female shopper standing in front of her Messerschmitt bears more than a striking resemblance to Jackie Onassis – complete with pillbox hat.
Unlike some artists who see “retro” as a destination, Fleming sees “retro” as a means to an end; a way to frame his ides in a visually lush and appealing manner. He says they mirror the unique mindset of the era.
“The paintings reflect the optimism and absurdities of the times,” he said. “They have a narrative feel and tend to be kind of humorous; they’re over the top.” In addition to the humor, Fleming’s work invariably hides a fragment of darkness – also a reflection of those years.
“We can’t forget, there was an undercurrent of fear and dread then, because it really was the dawn of the atomic age,” he said. But he also believes that the atomic age brought something necessary to society.
“I believe that technology has benefited us so much more than we know,” he said. “There’s been a benefit of an increased social awareness and increased originality, although many social theorists would have you believe something different. Their idea is that technology is alienating and it decreases originality and I’m not sure I believe that.”
Fleming was born in Greenwood and knew from an early age that he wanted to be an artist. In high school, he took as many art classes as he could and entered several competitions. He attended Southern Illinois University as an art student.
“I think taking art theory was partly my motive,” he said. “Theories about aesthetics seemed to fascinate me.” Fleming’s influences came to the fore at a young age; he cites artists of the Bauhaus school.
“I always had a fascination with the Bauhaus artists, like Lazlo Moholy-Nagy,” he said. “They just did everything; they painted, did photography, product design, and architecture. They were the only artists of any school that didn’t distinguish between high art and low art. Their influence is pervasive and profound. It continues to be reflected in architecture and product design of today. You see it in everything. There’s no way for it to wane; it’s too much into the fabric of everything.” Fleming’s influences are not limited to that particular school of thought.
“I also like the surrealists, like [Rene] Magritte,” he said. “I love the way his works tend to tell a story and tend to break with artistic conventions. There is a lot of humor and a subtle affront to established tastes.” He also cites James Rosenquist, Jim Dine, and Andy Warhol as artists he admires. On local artists he said:
“There are lots of people locally to enjoy. Charles Carraway – I really like his work. I have broad tastes in every way – in music, art, movies, reading material; I love it all.”
Fleming, a Jackson resident, is a full-time artist. Currently, Fondren Traders in Jackson carries some of his work, as does Stodgill & James Gallery in Ridgeland and The Attic Gallery in Vicksburg. Edward St. Pé is an avid collector, with eight different pieces.
“I’m interested in that period of time he gravitates toward, the whole Rat Pack/Las Vegas era,” said St. Pé. “He has an interesting take on it; he calls them dreamscapes. It’s almost surrealism focused on that era in time. I find it interesting and different; it’s a unique angle on it. Since the first time I saw anything by him, I’ve been a fan.”
Fleming has developed a following in Florida and on the Gulf Coast – possibly because of the sun-drenched pastel hues he utilizes. He recently received interest about representation from galleries in Sarasota and in Boston. About Sarasota, he said, “Things are going forward.” Fleming said he is highly motivated to work and he is adding to several series of paintings. One such series is Dixi Cola.
“That’s about how we revere and mythologize our past,” he said. “All cultures do that, but at times there’s humor it in.” Another is Alligator Girl. He describes her as “disregarding social expectations by riding an alligator instead of a pony.”
“One of my newest pieces is Rocket Motel,” Fleming said. “It has become a series of paintings. All the girls are wearing retro swim caps and the paintings all have slightly suggestive symbolism.” Fleming says he intends to continue to concentrate on that 50s and 60s era.
“All the galleries have been supporting and encouraging to me from the get-go, and I will continue with the retro themes. It’s fun and optimistic – it’s wacky absurdity. I want to have fun doing it and I want people to have fun looking at it. What more can you ask for?”