Matthew Day Jackson’s Something Ancient, Something New, Something Stolen, Something Blue presents, as its very title suggests, a confused medley of disconnected work. If in time the exhibition isn’t simply forgotten, it will surely serve to demonstrate the ills of over-production, and the hubris of New York’s cavernous mega galleries.
What happened here? Did Hauser & Wirth cajole and overstretch Jackson (all 25 works were produced this year) or could they simply not rein him in? The show is a Wikipedia binge writ large. Spectacular themes without substance. The lunar landings, atomic weapons, drag racing, death, anatomy, it’s all there, but none of it amounts to very much.
It’s painful because Jackson is a talented artist. His reappropriations of Life magazine covers are playful and spooky. In its heyday, Life offered a manageable digest of the world, delivered straight to your coffee table. It was a staple comfort for a generation of Americans. Playing off its promises, Jackson has produced a range of multi-media pieces that cleverly riff off Cold War anxieties.
In comparison, his latest offerings exhibit all the charisma of a knock-off Banksy. Everything is one note. At the center of the main space sits “Magnificent Desolation,” a reimagining of Rodin’s “The Burghers of Calais” (1889). In Jackson’s sculpture, the figures stand upon the crater-ridden surface of the moon and appear to be melting alive. It’s the sort of work that would look great as an amusing doodle, but not rendered at great expense in bronze. Is art history simply fodder for visual jokes and memes? Why not utilize the story of the Burghers in a more inventive way?
It’s a similar case with “Alone in Relationship to the Absurd,” a sculpture so literal in its figuration that Albert Camus would have eye rolled. A charred wooden figure crouches despondently in the bottom corner of a room, which itself has been cut out and hermetically displayed in a plexiglass cube. The work straddles two of the show’s spaces, so the back of it is visible in the next room that houses “Magnificent Desolation.” Why? Who knows, because you can’t see the wooden figure on the other side, only the wooden paneling against which it sits. Cutting out a small square portion of one of the exhibit’s walls serves only one conceivable purpose: to show off Hauser & Wirth’s space. Elsewhere, white walls have been substituted for T-111 siding and drywall in order to, as the press release puts it, “reinforce the artist’s interest in issues of civilization and themes of exploration, conquest, and consequences.”
The press release, which at over 1,750 words is twice the length of this review, encapsulates the apparent conceptual strategy of the work, to proffer a range of meaningless and disconnected signifiers. There are pieces based on anatomical studies, a cross section of an astronaut’s head, shelves displaying random body parts and wooden branches. The vacillation of subject matter is infuriating. Its obsequious dependence on spectacle is enraging.
For all the expense, the works feel cheap. Worst of all, they undermine themselves in unintended ways. “We, Us, Them” is a case in point. The work takes the form of a scrolling billboard, its panels rotating every five minutes, displaying three different scenes: a reflective surface, a monochrome relief of the moon, and a mountainous valley. In a show already full of disparate, detached signifiers and themes, why select an advertisement tool as your method of display? It only serves to affirm the lack of depth on show. Perhaps it’s intended to be ironic? Three idealized scenes for the price of one.
The most compelling work on display is “Nearside (rust),” a rueful, quiet piece amidst all the thumping declarations of macho bravura. It’s the only work in which a sense of disquiet is actually achieved. Jackson usually uses his materials aggressively, but here you wonder how the work was created. Did Jackson slowly and patiently rust the piece? Were the surfaces already rusted? How much work went into creating the crater like forms? It’s a far more compelling object than the works created through state of the art optical programming technologies. One such piece, Trophy, includes a recreation of Jackson’s head. Though the application of technology is compelling, the result isn’t. It’s designed to impress at a glance.
Hauser & Wirth have clearly set out to brand Jackson as a master of spectacle, an heir apparent to Koons and Hirst. Instead, they have crowned him the art world’s Icarus. The show is a damning indictment of the needless pressures to achieve spectacle and monumentality. Size isn’t synonymous with quality, and it raises a suspicion best expressed by critic Dave Hickey, that “if you look and see nothing, there is nothing there.”
Matthew Day Jackson’s Something Ancient, Something New, Something Stolen, Something Blue continues at Hauser & Wirth (511 West 18th Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) through October 19.