Matthew Day Jackson’s Roadside Attractions

“In the shadow of a big tree, another tree cannot grow.” — Constantin Brancusi’s reply to his mentor, Rodin, when Rodin suggested that Brancusi become his assistant

Throughout Paradise NOW! Matthew Day Jackson begs, borrows and steals from a variety of sources, among them Dorothy Iannone, Constantin Brancusi, Iron Eyes Cody, the Black Power movement, his mother, the Jackson family homestead in Malmo, Nebraska and, if my suspicions are founded, the Rebuilding Center right here in Portland. These disparate sources coalesce into an exhibition that unfolds like the whirlwind trips through history offered by “credible” institutions and tourist traps alike.
Jackson’s press release indicates that he “expunges the sins of the past while wrestling history’s demons to the ground.” Apparently, making his mom look silly is integral to this process. I made the decision to begin my tour of Paradise NOW! in the small annex off the main space which forms a sort of video art cave. I consider the bulk of video art to be an esoteric form of torture, so I ensconced myself in the video annex with a certain gritting of the teeth, determined to watch each video all the way through, regardless of length, editing or lack thereof, quality of image etc. It took 13 minutes for Jackson’s mother to sufficiently beseech some nebulous “powers” of the four cardinal directions to bless her son’s art, while outfitted in a purple batik wrap over classic mom wear–a pink t-shirt, sweatpants and sneakers. Jackson’s mom is perhaps the most archetypal American mother imaginable. She appears to be middle-class, middle-aged, middlebrow, of average length and width for a woman of her 50-odd years. She recites the lines of her incantation with a seriousness that makes you believe she means it, but with a lightness that suggests that her performance was motivated more by an accepting, slightly indulgent love for her artist son than personal compulsion. She brings to mind the phenomenon of empty-nest homemakers taking up New Age spirituality and the awkward way white Americans of Christianity-influenced cultural backgrounds interpret some of the more intuitive religions of foreign cultures, arranging an office cubicle according to the principles of Feng Shui and such. I had to assume that any artist who possesses the sophistication necessary to land a slot in the Whitney Biennial also has a finely tuned sense of irony in his conceptual toolbox, whether or not he chooses to create art using it, and is thus aware that his mother, an endearing but supremely unromantic figure, looks a little absurd self-consciously performing a sacred ritual in sneakers. Her role, however, is complicated and deepened by the video’s relationship to the rest of the female figures in the show.
Jackson begins the exhibition with his first art purchase, a print entitled Statue of Liberty, by renowned German artist Dorothy Ianonne, showing the titular sculpture reinterpreted as a naked goddess figure with undescended testicles and a rather phallic torch along with the words to the well-known, unrealistically idealistic poem engraved in the statue’s base–”give me your tired, your poor, etc…” Jackson has photocopied a fax from Iannone giving him her blessing to include the print in the show and praising his work in a upbeat maternal tone broken only by her admission of having recently caught a “dreadful flu.” Jackson also shows a large-scale photograph of a female figure in a wooded area clearly inspired by Ianonne’s print. This woman holds a crystal-topped staff in place of a torch and she has her eyes closed with open eyes painted on her eyelids. This metaphorical mask and magic wand indicate that the dumpy figure is a source of mysterious spiritual power, while her trendy blond twig keeps consumer culture in the picture.
The other video, also clocking in at 13 minutes, stars a man whom I assume to be Jackson himself. He plays both the careless litterer (read: colonialist) and the soulful Native litter victim in a surreal retelling of the classic public service announcement Keep America Beautiful, in which litter provokes a single tear from an otherwise stoic Native American. Or does it? My research revealed that this PSA stars the ironically named Iron Eyes Cody, a man who passed as Native American and acted in scores of Hollywood films before an investigative report by the New Orleans Times-Picayune revealed that his real name was Espera DeCorti, that he was the son of Sicilian immigrants, and that the background he’d invented for himself was a myth. Jackson manages to present a multilayered critique of the way both Native American people and Native American identity have been used by the white man for a wide range of purposes from the horrific to the banal. Throughout the installation, Jackson makes a point of implicating himself in the racial crimes of the past. He points a wooden cannon at a figure identified as a Native American Chief; the barrel is a rotting pillar from his family’s Nebraska homestead. I was inspired to consider the storied history of the name Jackson in America–Andrew Jackson, Stonewall Jackson, Michael Jackson, Samuel L. Jackson…..oh wait, those are slave names. Suddenly the Black Power fists scattered throughout the installation made a little more sense. Jackson is trying to cleanse his karma. He sees the angry ghosts of racial injustice murmuring just below the surface of our increasingly Rome-like empire. A photograph of a black fist attached to a multicolored wooden arm emerging from a pile of charred wood while a mushroom cloud explodes in the background illustrates this idea with a clarity that’s a little heavy-handed.
The whole installation is a little bit Kountry Kosy. There’s a lot of unstained wood–a wooden boardwalk, vaguely native woodcrafts, huge pieces of driftwood, a framed picture of a log-cabin fort in the woods. If you ignore the electric ghosts writhing in the foreground of that image, along with a few other sour notes, the installation feels like the kind of place you pull up to after hours on the freeway to stretch and pick up a cup of weak coffee. But what’s Brancusi’s Sleeping Muse doing here? With a spike through its head? Or his Bird in Space cleverly camouflaged as a multicolored piece of wood? To tell you the truth, I don’t know. It probably has something to do with appropriation. Here, as always, Brancusi’s forms look great and Jackson employs them to striking visual effect.
The PSA video ends with a scene in which Jackson lights some torches in an empty warehouse. As the space darkens, we watch them slowly flare and burn out into pairs of white dots…we are in a sweatlodge, we are being watched by the eyes of our ancestors and the ancestors of those whom our ancestors fought. It sets a meditative mood, and, had I entered the video room last, I would have spent it meditating on the way the different groups that comprise my genetic stock exploited and were exploited by one another. But, since I entered the video room first, I spent it wondering about Matthew Day Jackson’s relationship with his mother.
Paradise NOW! is open Wed. – Sat. 12-6 through October 7, along with The American War, several works of video art and a mysterious cross-cultural homage to the aesthetic of the shut-in that delivers yet another rebuttal to Clement Greenberg’s lofty ideals. All at the fabulous Corberry Press art compound at 18th and Northrup.

Jessica Bromer

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12 Responses to Matthew Day Jackson’s Roadside Attractions

  1. Matt Jackson says:

    There are very few instances in contemporary art where things like love or sincerity play into an art work that transcends an ironic reading. This is nearly impossible, but never-the-less entirely a place that art needs to go to talk about our humanness. It is often times the viewer who is unable to access the work as it represents something in thier own life that is lacking, or that exists outside the boundaries of style or comfort. Despite your feelings of middle-class moms trying to find a way to understand the world they live in and to stand up and record what they believe. It is important to recognize that it is difficult to stand and pledge your love, and faith. It is even more important to realize that it is easy to reside on abbreviations and assumptions and in writing criticism it is of the utmost importance to stray from isms and remain objective to address the work as it is addressing you.
    Hopefully it will always be hard and worth the possibility of being totally misunderstood. I want to be a person that takes the risk to further the larger conversation. As far as my karma is concerned, I don’t think art will clean it, but I do think that it is always important to see where I fit in the society I live in and to challenge myself at every point.
    I enjoyed your review, but it left me wondering about your relationship with your mother. I also REALLY disagree with your use of the word “dumpy” to talk about the woman in my photograph. Criticize Ideas, not body-types. What is “average” and what soes that entail? Also, please tell me what “vaguely native woodcrafts” are? Oh yeah, I will tell my mom to wear proper footwear when doing something “sacred” next time. One more problem, if you must grit your teeth to look at art, move along, you only have one set of teeth and you want them to last.

  2. First of all, thank you for replying and I sincerely apologize for my use of the word “dumpy.” In looking for an appropriate word to describe the figure, I chose something economical to communicate “short and squat” (see dictionary.com def. #2) without fully considering the obvious negative connotations of the word (see dictionary.com def. #1). I had noted your decision to stray from a “conventially attractive” body type approvingly, but somehow managed to express it in a way that indicated the exact opposite. #@%$. This was a greivous error on my part and implicates me in the unfortunate tendency to define women by their body types. The fact that I chose her body type as a defining detail in and of itself speaks to my own failure to move beyond societal bullshit. Noted, believe me.
    I’m sorry that you feel that I’ve insulted your mother, but I said what I said to make a point–that by including her in your artwork you open her up to a critical audience, both the casually dismissive passer-by and casually aggressive art critic, as well as the many sensitive souls who undoubtedly comprise the bulk of the art-viewing public. Of course you’re offended by my “going there,” to that deep, sensitive area surrounding the mother figure. To insult another’s mother is tantamount to declaring war–“your mom’s so (insert adjective) that (insert witticism)”, “I don’t know, ask your mom.” Ask your mom what? I don’t need to clarify…everyone knows when that’s used. So when you bring your mother into your art–especially in a repetitive video piece that allows the viewer plenty of time to consider what exactly might motivate an artist to include his mother in his work–you offer your mother up for examination. That’s what I was criticising, not your mother as a person. She seems great. “Silly” is not a real slap in the face in my world, nor is “absurd.” I think these adjectives describe everyone to a certain degree. I included my initial impressions, along with the fact that they were modified as I was able to draw connections between the works as a way of noting that, in this particular installation, the order in which I viewed the two distinct realms of video room and installation room affected the way I processed each of the installation’s two parts. This is not so much a criticism as an observation on the impact of a show’s layout–something that artists frequently have limited control over. As for my relationship with my mother–it’s not something I currently invite an audience to observe or participate in, so its a COMPLETELY different issue. Wasn’t your relationship with your mother central to this piece of video art in which she addresses spiritual powers on your behalf? I’m rubber, you’re glue.
    “It is of utmost importance to stray from ism and remain objective to address the work as it addresses you.” So I’m supposed to address the work as if I’m Matt Jackson? I can’t do that anymore than I can remain objective. I’ll tell you the truth Matt, I’ve only been an art critic for, like, three weeks, so I’m still refining my philosophy and approach. And your response is definitely the most useful criticism of my criticism I’ve received so far. I didn’t even realize how shallow and vague this review sounds until re-reading it in response to your criticism. This review kind of sucks, largely because it apparently reads far more negatively than I had intended. But come on, who evaluates art objectively? We bring our own selves to it, otherwise it’d no different from studying math and no more life-changing than that discipline is for the majority of us. And we bring ourselves as who we are on the day we bring ourselves. Hopefully we bring compassion and some art historical knowledge to give what we see a little context, but we also bring both the sweet and sour aspects of our humanity and I think when we, or at least some of us, engage with art using both of them, we experience it most fully.
    Chapter 4: Your mom’s sneakers. Ok, what I meant is–these were branded sneakers. I think they were New Balance. Branded sneakers are the most American thing since Diet Coke. “Performing a sacred ritual wearing sneakers” was my attempt at shorthand for saying that the wrap your mother was wearing over an archetypally American outfit seemed like a metaphor for an American’s half-assed attempt to take on the spiritual depth of say, a devout Buddhist, through quick and easy American “re-branding.” It was NOT a dismissive assumption that your mom is this person. Are we watching a home movie or a work of art? And, I don’t have to grit my teeth to look at all art, just boring self-indulgent, unnecessarily long video art (and I made this as a general statement, not as a criticism of your work specifically). There’s so much amazing, truly engaging art in the world, including good video art, that why should I waste my time on less interesting work? I think this is an important question for video or perfomance artists to ask themselves when creating time-based work. You can look at sculpture and painting for a long or short a time as you want, but video art makes the assumption that it deserves your attention for as long as it cares to hold it, and frankly, a lot of video art doesn’t measure up. Not to be too, you know, critical. As far as I know, and please correct me if I’m wrong, I’m the only person in Portland who has “published” more than a short paragraph on your show. So I’m a little confused by your casual dismissal of my validity as critic. Do you think I’m doing this for my health? I’m certainly not posting on the PICA Blog for the money. I’m doing it because I care.
    What confused me about the video was whether or not you were being critical or sincere. The inclusion of your mother seemed to indicate sincerity–who holds their mom up for criticism through video art?–but as I (mistakenly?) interpreted white American appropriation of oppressed minority cultures to be a theme of the show–and the ritual your mom performed appeared to be based on a spirtual ritual that originated in an oppressed minority culture–this left me confused. One thing I do when I’m confused about an artist’s intentions is to make open-ended provocative statements and see if they respond. Is that a good idea? I’m not sure. It got this conversation going. At this point I really can’t tell if you are critiquing the tendency of comfortable (and there’s nothing more comfortable than new Balance Sneakers–I know because I have some) cultures appropriating styles and mannerisms from less priveleged cultures and thus altering the way they are understood by both the haves and and the have-nots, as well as the self-evident horrors of genocide and enslavement? I thought that evoking the figure of Iron Eyes Cody and playing him yourself (I think) was a brilliant way to simultaneously implicate yourself in this lesser, but perhaps more provocative because less thouroughly explored, form of exploitation. Or is this what you meant when you mentioned “being totally misunderstood.” See, in my understanding the work was so multi-layered that saying you “beg, borrow and steal” was not an insult…it was a way of trying to translate your conceptual strategy. Is this show actually way simpler and less self-critical than I thought? Was there nothing tongue-in-cheek about your assertion that you “expunge the sins of the past while wrestling history’s demons to the ground?” Do you actually think this is something that one man can do with installation art? Or did someone else write that about you? Were they serious?
    A good example of a vaguely native woodcraft is a reinterpretation of Brancusi’s Bird In Space in multicolored wood. It has the harmonious simplicity and material presence I associate with the highly accomplished crafts of Native American cultures, but there’s something “off” and yet familiar about it and thus it reminded me of the sort of thing that whites or financially starved and thus desperate Native Americans would sell to tourists using its spiritual properties as selling points. Honestly, if you weren’t trying to address any of this, I’m totally disappointed. I was really impressed by what I assumed to be your multilayered critique of the very aesthetic you were employing to communicate and I naively assumed I could express that obliquely. Well, I bought some books by Wendy Steiner and Robert Hughes today in order to learn from the masters….I’ll try to do better next time.

  3. Matt Jackson says:

    The last paragraph is very good. I wish that you would have stated that before. Some of my sculptures are “remakes” of objects that have been in the very thick of the histories that I am interested in exploring through making art, thinking and writing. The “life-size” rule that I use while making these things is to suggest that these ideas are of today and can not be trivialized in the way that a souvenir trivializes often-times huge moments in history. History needs to be learned from, not placed on a mantle. I have a Vicksburg Battlefield tote-bag that I carry gum, and a bottle of water, a sketch-book, and sometimes tools. So, I guess i am trying to say is that you do not have to be disappointed, but that should have been stated rather than “vaguely native woodcrafts”. That would have ruled.
    As far as being a critic is concerned, I feel it is very important only to fully immerse yourself in your ideas, and to push hard always. You should be no other than your very best self.
    I see the work with my mother is my assault on irony and emptiness, and that real things can be addressed in making art and both my mother and I are pushing hard to see where we fit in the world. We are Co-patriots in finding meaning and ways to express meaningful things. With that said, I do also recognize that humor can be a way to talk about difficult things.
    I do not feel as though you have insulted my mother. I do think that you may have insulted every other mother and thier attempts to find ways to make sense of thier lives. I do not have a problem with being critical of the work, I put it out there and believe it can take it. I just have problems with some things you have said that I would immeditely take issue with regardless whether it was my work or not. There is an obvious heirarchy in the way you see people trying to understand thier spiritual selves. I see what my mom (and other mothers) is doing as equal to anyone else trying to understand that great unknown.
    I liked “beg, borrow and steal”, I thought it was a great way to open the piece. Also, I do not respond to those I am dismissing. Especially on a blog.

  4. Matt,
    I can’t let a statement like “you may have insulted every mother and their attempts to find ways to make sense of their lives” stand. Those are fighting words! I’m talking about a work of art. There is a difference between critiquing the visual language an artist uses to communicate spiritual depth and critiquing the idea that a certain demographic is capable of spiritual depth in the larger world. The statements I made which were not specifically about your mother boil down to: Some Americans, upon finding themselves in a position where they suddenly have more free time, start exploring their spirituality in ways that are awkward. And I stand behind that statement. Everyone is awkward in new situations, but, because Americans are notoriously grabby and self-centered, sometimes this awkwardness is mixed with a degree of self-importance that I find irritating. As I said, watching your mother for thirteen minutes gave me plenty of time to free-associate. The person in front of me was a mother, so that was my starting point for thinking about Americans in general. Your mom did not seem arrogant; she seemed sincere and humble. But yes, awkward. My language may have been unnecessarily barbed and detached. Noted. But I repeat, at no point do I say mothers are incapable of spiritual depth. If any demographic is more able than others to experience deep, trancendant love and an intuitive awareness of the sublime, its people who’ve grown another human being in their bodies and then kept them alive with milk from those same bodies. That’s amazing!
    The more important issue, in my opinion, is the fact that you have appropriated an incredibly culturally loaded symbol, the Black Power fist, and used it to your own mysterious ends. A friend of African heritage mentioned to me last night that she thought this was “bullshit.” What would you say to that?

  5. Matt Jackson says:

    My comment was out of line. Please excuse my insensitivity and innaccuracy. Saying that I want to further conversation should eliminate uses of lame statements like that. I apologize. really.
    As far as someone thinking the work is bullshit, that is a chance I am taking, and although I wish it were different it will probably happen again.
    The fists for me are about unity, and the right to assemble, and the right to fight for what you believe. The other thing that I am trying to say is that we are not seperate in societies struggle for real liberty. We all need to believe in and support everyones struggle for freedom, and justice. Also, the fists are inseperable from the civil rights movement and I am using this iconography to introduce ideas of the struggle for freedom and justice into the work.
    The way history is taught would lead us to believe that our leaders have been the vanguard of progress in society. The reality is that positive change always happens in the community first, and through unity pressure is created to enact change. I want to discuss the civil rights movement as if it never ended, and that right now is a time to be keeping this in our vision of what society should be.
    The fists are also about this idea; that as time passes history has given us the possibility of learning from our mistakes, but in many cases we have not. This makes history act as if it is in a purgatory of sorts, and that the only way to let it rest is to learn from our mistakes. The fists coming up from the ground are an attempt to suggest that history is not lying peacefully beneath our feet, but rather a restless corpse. Or, perhaps a body buried alive. These ideas in conjuction with all of the others hopefully tell a story that encompases a great many things but direct enough where it isn’t just clutter.

  6. Good answer, Jackson. My work here is done.

  7. jerseyjoe says:

    Carved wooden fists coated in black rubber meant to refer to the civil rights movement, unity, the right to assemble, and the right to fight for what one believes in is pretty funny. Kind of like the scene in Gleaming The Cube where Christian Slater’s character builds and rides a METAL skateboard for the final showdown.

  8. jerseyjoe says:

    Carved wooden fists coated in black rubber meant to refer to the civil rights movement, unity, the right to assemble, and the right to fight for what one believes in is pretty funny. Kind of like the scene in Gleaming The Cube where Christian Slater’s character builds and rides a METAL skateboard for the final showdown.

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