Jack Early has turned over a new leaf. Accused of racism in the early 1990s for an installation he created with then-partner Rob Pruitt (“Red, Black, Green, Red, White and Blue,” which was recently recreated at the Tate Modern for the “Pop Life” exhibition), Early fell from grace, spent many years underground, and now has reemerged with a striking exhibition at Williamsburg’s Southfirst gallery titled “Ear Candy.”
THROUGH THE LOOKING GLASS
You enter through the backroom, admiring the long rows of auction catalogues and issues of Artforum. Ahead you spot an illuminated prism suspended in a very dark room. You look down to find your footing in the space. The beginning of a rainbow painted on the floor catches your eye. You think, “Follow the yellow brick road…”
As you step into the black-box space, the rainbow races ahead of you and up the wall, vivid in day-glo colors under blacklights. The rainbow leaps off the wall and traverses the room crashing into that illuminated prism. You think Dark Side of the Moon. The prism focuses a light onto an all-white phonograph spinning an all-white record perched on an all-white stand. Inscribed on the front in a Nashville font: “Jack Early.”
“Oh let me turn it on for you! It’s better with the music.” It is the artist speaking. His cropped white hair and flashing eyes pass you through the dark and you watch his fingers nimbly set the record needle on the vinyl. “Did you build this record player?” you ask. It’s an old-fashioned Victrola tricked out with a speaker. “Yes,” he says, stepping back. You look up and around, tracing the perfectly proportioned installation around the space, liking that they left the big old wooden timber supporting the ceiling in the middle of the room unpainted.
The work seems simple, yet its effect is powerful. You gather a sense of vulnerability, of courage. You think of transformation.
In fact, this is the first exhibition (and I believe the first major work) Jack Early has done in over a decade. Known in the late 80s/early 90s as half of Pruitt/Early, the success he enjoyed during this dynamic period of the art market turned on him suddenly and dropped him into obscurity.
The installation creates both a safe space (dark, intimate, with comfortable places to sit) and a place of poignant vulnerability (direct, vivid, unadorned). You hardly notice the gallery director’s work space behind the couch — it’s like a pilot’s cabin, tucked efficiently to the side, where the owner quietly carries on his stewardship. The vibe of the space will resonate in you for days after.
The music that plays is my new favorite record. It is a mix of moody, appealing songs in different genres from Bowie-esque electric rock to child-like indie daydreams. Early wrote and recorded the songs with different bands. The effect in the context of the installation makes you feel cool and warm at the same time. It’s earnest, and it’s hip.
OVER THE RAINBOW
I found some of his songs on Myspace, although, perhaps like the Pink Floyd classic, it is more satisfying to listen to as a whole record than in individual cuts. (I wonder if it would also make as good an alternative score to the Wizard of Oz…) In any case, you can find “Turtle Song” there, which Early pointed out as the one he thinks most sums things up. Perhaps so. But there are other good songs on the record as well.
Early explains to me that the piece is in part an homage to the teenage boy, a theme that also influenced his last major work (the aforementioned and controversial show with Pruitt) for the Leo Castelli Gallery in 1992.
Early’s new installation is really a lyrical self-portrait, executed with patience and seasoned ability. In “Ear Candy,” with its aesthetic appeal as well as substance, Early has created a deep surface through which to re-enter the world.
As you walk out into the sun, you feel good about art and hope that Early makes another show soon.
Jack Early’s “Ear Candy” closes this Sunday, November 8 at Southfirst, 60 N 6th St., Brooklyn, Thursday-Sunday, 1-6 pm.
- An interview with Jack Early in Art in America;
- “Tate Modern Revisits Controversial Castelli Exhibition” on ArtsBeat; and
- “Portrait of the Artist as a Young Assistant: Priutt-Early, part 3” on theArtBlog.