Workspace: Matthew Day Jackson: Paradise Now!
The Blanton Museum of Art, Austin, TX
“Set me free, give me something to give…Set Me Free!“ aches Matthew Day Jackson, channeling Patti Smith in Paradise Now! (all works 2007), a video within his Blanton Workspace exhibition of the same name. The pleas, however, aren’t so much Jackson’s as an increasingly disintegrating version of himself. Following each cut, an already ashen Jackson, fully bearded, with Terminator eyes under a campaign hat, gains disfiguring make-up to his face. His song rises louder to match. Eventually, his shoulders and head sink back into the rubble pile from which they emerged, revealing ultimate horror yet potential hope: a giant mushroom cloud and a flickering candle flame.
Here is the artist as zombie. More importantly, in the various sculptures, photographs, videos, and performances of Paradise Now! (The Salvage), here is summoned the artwork as zombie. Images of the risen dead abound, from the face-like rock formations the artist discovered scouring the lower 48 states to a series of captioned photographs titled Undead Landscapes. But more, Jackson literally reclaims American and Art History, raising each back from forgetfulness and fashion into fresh, hybrid forms. Black Power, Brancusi, Wounded Knee, and Joseph Beuys are leaned upon each other each to enact a weighty and material haunting; a very physical presence poised between an ideal in ruins and the re-constitution of vital parts.
Likewise, Lean-to, a haphazard open shelter, supports its roof, an excised wall from an Austin home, upon a column from the artist’s family’s Nebraska homestead, a fist carved in the style of a tobacco shop Indian, and a replica of Bird in Space. Or a “drawing” of Tommie Smith and John Carlos’s 1968 Olympic ceremony is insulated with felt, the same felt that hangs adjacent as a Jackson-sized imitation of Eleanor Roosevelt’s Red Cross uniform, and, then, lines the outer crust of Lean-to.
Paradise Now! (The Salvage) digs a deep referential well. The past opens up and walks amongst the present. But it also grabs at the future. Subsequently Paradise Now! begs the question, from whence to where? Or if Jackson’s cryptic sourcing can be read, the body identified, what is it after? The zombie raised to what effect?
An obvious answer is polemic statement. Jackson’s raw materials and images carry a trove of overtly political associations. These are typically humanitarian (Eleanor Roosevelt), democratic (Gordon Matta-Clark), and utopian (Buckminster Fuller). To incant each is to memorialize, to call for continuing relevance and, patched together, to suggest a continuity of meaning. To the point, “Those who do not remember the past are doomed to repeat it,” reads the Jonestown sign pinned beneath the carved fist in Lean-to. At its best, Jackson turns this reflection into potential action. The strongest work in Paradise Now! builds precisely such activist momentum.
Undead Landscapes arranges thirty-three photographs, mostly of the historicized American landscape, in grids in three black frames. Each image presents a site of contention, untreated injustice, or continuing struggle. Jackson marks each wound–Japanese “concentration” camps, Civil War battlegrounds, points of trespass against Native Americans–by placing his carved fist on its ground, his hand literally rising in protest out of the earth. Each picture also carries a caption, organized in the third panel. The assembled text is painstaking to read in its entirety, but well worth the effort, as it proclaims a manifesto of sorts by Jackson. Poetic, diaristic, and elucidatory, it is at most a call to arms, a to-do list for American society, and at minimum, an invitation for a like road-trip, a personal journey into our collective heart of darkness.
Unfortunately, the other objects of Paradise Now! offer lesser encouragement. Attractive, witty, and sculpturally potent, they oddly feel more distant and uncertain. Their history legible, their story, as political utterance, reads hushed and hazarded. Part of the problem, I suspect, is Jackson’s motivation to root these assemblages in self-generated, as well as popular myth.
All tales told, the Blanton exhibition represents the final chapter in an apocalyptic trilogy forecasted by Jackson. The first two installments (at the Portland Institute of Contemporary Art, OR, and Cubitt Galley, London, UK, respectively), presented the world’s nuclear destruction at the whims of greed and hate followed by a state of limbo, in which Earth develops an army of geo-anthropo-morphs to save itself from the surviving humans. As the story goes, a peace is brokered with arms laid down. The human race admits humility to all life forms, and subsequently salvages a future of reconciliation and reconstruction.
For the uninitiated, the key to this timeline is the above-mentioned video. A narrative capsule of the greater Paradise Now!, it provides a companion, albeit uneven, to the objects of The Salvage. Again, Jackson’s most engaging images directly and specifically address the landscape of contemporary affairs. Stampeding buffalo and seals, a littered Gatorade bottle, and the artist preaching in a charred forest play charged. By contrast, a final scene, actually “The Salvage,” in which B-movie survivors congregate and hug amongst Modernist architecture, trickles sterile and contrived.
Jackson incites best when his myth-making is action-mustering, when he dons his felt Red Cross suit, if Lean-to were out of its corner; when metonymy is not obscured by metaphor, nor potential by prescription. What, after all, exactly is the moral of a story in which the world is destroyed but we are the spiritually better for it? In which we are battered but able to gather at the Farnsworth house?
Against obvious cynicism, Jackson ventures hope and creativity. Note the reoccurring rainbows and an apostle-like attachment to Beuys. In the past year, Jackson has unleashed a creative avalanche, and, likewise, one would wish his faith to be equally overwhelming. Yet in a presentation accompanying the Workspace exhibition, Jackson hedged his sincerity. Fear of sounding “out there” or “hippy” trailed inspiring statements about his selected quotations away, into a knowing irony. A sharp contrast to Beuys’s Dialogue with Audience, played that same night, Jackson is still tempering the voice, and the form, for his convictions.
Typically, zombies are rendered mindless and mute. Jackson’s Barneysque bricolage–gender-bending, multi-media, and liner notes requiring–is far from dumb. It is an important project, crafted smartly, and, at times, screamed to perfect pitch. But he arouses dangerous ground: carrying radical lineages to sometimes ambivalent ends, History, as he writes in Undead Landscapes, very much remains “a zombie whose lifelessness is created by our inability to learn from the past.” To avoid mere rot and rote, Jackson should set his chosen zombies–powerful and necessary–actively, explicitly, and unapologetically free. A scary demand? Perhaps, but what more demanding moment, this twilight of an empire.