Matthew Day Jackson
Terranaut

September 12 – November 8, 2008
at Peter Blum Chelsea

Matthew Day Jackson

Art In America
November 1, 2008

Given the barrage of references – historical, literary, scientific, cultural, artistic – in this pair of exhibitions, it is a surprise that the young, Brooklyn-based Matthew Day Jackson manages to put a personal stamp on such a broad constellation of interests. But that he does, and what emerges is a scattershot but absorbing meditation on how the course of human events and our common consciousness are both predicated on a phenomenon as precarious and pathetic as corporeal existence.

Bodies are everywhere in these shows. At Klagsbrun, “Drawings from Tlön” included 12 primarily two-dimensional works from 2008; all but one are at least 8 feet high or wide and, like the viewer, stand on the floor. In Community Hall (Aerial View), a shadowy news photo of the aftermath of the 1978 mass suicide at Jim Jones’s People’s Temple in Guyana is screened onto an expanse of rough plywood; Kool-Aid colors bathe the surface. On the wall opposite is Missing Link, a lightbox-mounted C-print. An X-ray hybrid of man, machine and woody roots cobbled together like Frankenstein’s monster crowds the frame. The source transparencies include the traumatized body of motorcycle daredevil Evel Knieval. A photo of the Trinity test site, cradle of the atomics age, serves as the backdrop.

The human body’s vulnerability is implied even when not depicted. In Sunrise (after Roger White), a photo of the sun breaking through a bank of clouds is printed onto a gold-foil, army-issue emergency blanket, grafting an image of sublime Nature onto a reminder of the human organism’s frailty. In a panel below is Buckminster Fuller’s Dymaxion Map drawing, labeled “Our Spaceship Earth.”

With of without the human figure, Jackson’s work is bracingly abstract. “Terranaut,” at Blum, featured a dozen commanding works of tremendous formal power. Another aerial shot of the Jonestown massacre appears in Here and Now, in which a tangle of dead cult members’ bodies are cut from brown Formica and pieced together like a dysfunctional jigsaw puzzle. The hall’s roof is represented by an overlay of wood veneer strips angled over the bodies. For this show, the 8-foot panel hung on a wall papered with a detail of Albert Bierstadt’s Donner Lake From the Summit in shades of brown and yellow. The view is of a site linked in the popular American imagination to cannibalism: group psychosis meets the imperative of survival at any cost.

The artist seems fixated on the late 1960s, referring in various works to the My Lai massacre, Neil Armstrong’s lunar bootprint and the 1968 American Olympic medalists’ black power salute. In Lonesome Soldier, Jackson retools a seminal work of Body Art, Charles Ray’s 1974 Plank Piece, propping a life-size space-suit made of military blankets high up the gallery wall with an enormous board.

Three 8-by-12-foot relief works based closely on plates from Goya’s Disasters of War are laboriously crafted from charred wood, Formica and inlaid yarn of many hues, with touches of abalone and mother-of-pearl. They are curiously marked by the “omnitriangulated” surface that characterizes Fuller’s geodesic dome. Goya’s brutal imagery – desecrated corpses, sadistic irregulars – is frequently appropriated by artists, but Jackson’s homage seems heartfelt, even fetishistic.

Recalling Missing Link is Dymaxion Skeleton, an underlit plywood display case housing a humanoid assemblage of wood, lead and gleaming hardware.(The title again alludes to Fuller.) One arm is a twisting root, the other a broken sledgehammer handle. The case is lined with mirrors, and the viewer regards the spectral figure through a two-way glass. Caught in its reflection’s reflection, innumerable pairs of these broken, tenacious bodies contemplate themselves as they fade into infinite space.

– Stephen Maine