Matthew Day Jackson

September 12 – November 8, 2008
at Peter Blum Chelsea

Matthew Day Jackson

Flash Art Online
October 31, 2008

Matthew Day Jackson’s new body of work, an installation at Peter Blum gallery entitled “Terranaut,” holds a dark mirror to utopian systems of thought. Jackson believes in the possibility of utopia, but a robust and powerful one, one which accepts rather than denies the reality of death. “Terranaut” as a whole is an attempt to reconcile utopia with its consequences, pulling the idea out of the hyperbolic and firmly rooting it to the ground.

Jackson turns first to the utopian scientist, Buckminster Fuller. Nearly every piece in the gallery incorporates Buckminster Fuller’s geodesic structures in some way. A progression of skulls trails away on the floor of the gallery. The first is an exact copy of Jackson’s skull (a model cast from a medical scan). Successive iterations of the model have a certain percentage of polygons removed from their resolution before the next model is generated. The artist’s skull gradually loses its geometry until it is reduced to the simplest possible three-dimensional polygonal form: the tetrahedron, the basic building block of the geodesic dome. This progression sets up the main thematic conflict of “Terranaut”: the confrontation of biological reality (specifically mortality) and the geometric reductivism of utopian thought. Inadvertently, on the quest to perfect the human experience, some of its richness must be lost.

A separate room contains three large reinterpretations of Goya’s series, “Disasters of War.” Just as we are living now in the failure of Fuller’s utopian vision of modernity, so Goya lived in the corruption of Napoleon’s utopian vision of Spain. Goya’s paintings represent another kind of geometric reduction of the human form: through dismemberment rather than computer imaging. Goya’s Grande Hazaña! Con Muertos! (Great Deeds Against the Dead) is a small etching from 1810, which documented the atrocities of the Peninsular War as Napoleon betrayed his alliance with Spain. In Jackson’s hands the image takes on epic proportions, engulfing the viewer. The image is rendered in collaged bits of recycled, charred wood. The process seems as destructive as it is creative. Missing organs in the dismembered figures are simply holes in the artwork. Fuller’s geometry is present in these figures too. The bodies are inscribed with Fuller’s lattice shell structures, the networks of equilateral triangles that form the surface of geodesic domes. This geometry fragments and reorganizes the trees on which the bodies hang, and connects the stars in the night sky together into their constellation forms (the night sky is Jackson’s invention, the original print has a blank background). Jackson renders the stars with tiny abalone disks. These disks appear throughout “Terranaut.” They seem to be inlaid on the surface of every piece in the show including the progression of skulls, as though the constellations had suddenly collapsed and fallen to earth.

In the main gallery, two images both mirror and negate one another. Fixed to the wall is a large reproduction of one of Albert Bierstadt’s magnificent landscapes of the American West. Bierstadt’s painting has a nearly infinite depth; the lush, rolling hills give way to horizon after horizon, each flushed with a brighter glow of the western sunset. This is one of the images that motivated pioneers to follow the trail of Lewis and Clark to the Pacific. Bierstadt’s paintings, on display back east, seduced many settlers into heading west and magnificently illustrated the text of “Manifest Destiny,” an American utopian vision.

Jackson obscures Bierstadt’s glorious image of a new kind of American life with a dark reflection of the same promise. Time Magazine, December 4, 1978, reproduces the cover of that issue of Time in massive scale, one rivaling that of Bierstadt’s paintings. In that particular issue of Time the story of the Jim Jones suicide cult broke. Jones had had a dark dream of American utopia. He led his followers to a town he had founded in Guyana in pursuit of a new way of living. He dreamed of creating a religious, socialist paradise. Fearing both nuclear war and an FBI crackdown, he convinced his followers to drink cyanide-laced Flavor Aid brewed in large buckets. The cover shows a bucket of the Flavor Aid left near a bridge. Jackson renders the image in burnt wood except for the Flavor Aid, which is rendered in poured lead.

Overall, a mysticism of materials becomes apparent in “Terranaut.” Lead stands for poison because of its mystical identity as base matter, or as a symbol of the weight of sin. Buckminster Fuller’s tetrahedrons are always painted gold when they appear in the work, as if they represented an alchemical transformation of the base, poisonous lead. A dark square inscribed with bright shapes blocks or cuts a doorway through the Bierstadt reproduction. On closer inspection the shapes consolidate into outlines of bodies: an aerial photograph of the Jones compound after the event. The frisson between the two images corrupts their communicative power. One suddenly senses the perilous credulity of image consumption: the Bierstadt still seduces, the Time photo still repels, but these images remain inextricably unified: both daring visions of American utopia, one exhilarating, the other nihilistic. Finally, their connection becomes unavoidable: this particular Bierstadt is a painting of Donner Pass, where an 1844 emigrant party survived the winter through cannibalism.

The keystone piece is in an antechamber off the main gallery. From the entrance, it looks like nothing more than a square, wooden pillar washed in dramatic lighting. Ready for anything at this enigmatic show, many people walk away satisfied with that image. But the inquisitive viewer enters the gallery and walks all the way around the pillar to look at the side facing away from the entrance. There they find that the object is something more like a sarcophagus, a display case for Dymaxion Skeleton (2008). The word “dymaxion” is one of Fuller’s portmanteaus (Fuller also invented the word “synergy”). It is constructed from parts of three words which give its meaning: dynamic maximum tension. Essentially it describes positioning the components of any system so that they provide the most energy possible to the other components, thereby increasing the efficiency of the system as a whole. Jackson’s Dymaxion Skeleton is modeled after his own skeleton: the replica of his skull appears again as its initial component. Its polygons are partially reduced and this time it is cast in lead. The rib cage and pelvis are composed of Fuller’s gold tetrahedrons, forming regular geodesic structures. The spine is wood and the right arm of the skeleton is a broken shovel handle. The hands of the skeleton are casts of the artist’s hands, the right clenched aggressively and the left open. The legs are two tree trunks with their intact roots serving for feet. The joints of the legs are meticulously hand manufactured in steel.

The Dymaxion Skeleton represents a final synthesis of the ideas of death and Utopia. Though the skeleton is dead, it is strong and walks upright. Its hands seem capable of movement, gesture and construction. The skull, though made of poisonous lead, surmounts the golden geodesic rib cage. Though poisoned or weighed down by the reductivism of intellect, it is held upright by the dymaxion system of the body. This figure has experienced death and yet still moves over the earth. It suggests a Utopian view that includes and celebrates death as a necessary event which connects us to the natural world. The human body is the ultimate “Dymaxion Vehicle” — self-contained, capable of movement, creation and regeneration. In both Bierstadt’s paintings and the story of the Jim Jones Cult, the utopia is elsewhere, forever receding to a further horizon. The Dymaxion Skeleton presents a utopia of being: the utopia of the body as a vehicle for consciousness. It is always present, moving with us. It perfectly contains us. Its dymaxion process of equilibrium creates the arc of an individual human life.

- Isaac Peterson