by David M. Roth
Painting is dead, long live painting! That may not be Richard Jackson’s rallying cry, but it well could be. For the past 45 years, the Sacramento-born LA artist has waged a one-man battle to restore to painting the status it lost when Pop Art, Minimalism and Conceptualism overtook Abstract Expressionism as America’s dominant art form in the 1960s and 1970s.
Jackson, who studied art and engineering at Sac State before relocating in 1968 to LA, understood that painting needed more than just a cosmetic overhaul to remain relevant. Building on the Dada-inspired innovations of Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg, and the skills he acquired working on his family’s 2,000-acre Colusa County ranch, Jackson developed new tools and methods. He constructed “Minimalist” sculptures from hundreds (and sometimes thousands) of stacked canvases; crafted architectural interventions made by smearing painted canvases against walls; replicated a well-known Impressionist masterpiece with a pellet gun; and fashioned room-sized installations in which pumps, compressors and other devices attached to the orifices of human and animal figures spew paint onto walls, floors and ceilings – doing at an industrial scale what Jackson Pollock did on canvases with stir sticks and carefully controlled paint pours.
Inspired by Hans Namuth’s 1950 film of Pollock doing exactly that, Jackson, from the start, positioned himself as a disruptor by crafting materially inventive tributes to artists and artworks he admires and by taking potshots at those whose ideas he considers facile or played-out. Those efforts have earned him a level of recognition equivalent to that of his closest cohorts: Ed Keinholz, Bruce Nauman and Paul McCarthy. Big Ideas: Richard Jackson’s Alleged Paintings, a compact exhibition of works representing the various phases of his career, shines much-needed light on an innovator who for too long has labored in the shadows, appreciated more in Europe than here for reasons that have less to do with the quality of his output than with the continent’s long history of honoring revolutionaries (e.g. Yves Kline, Lucio Fontana, Alberto Burri and the Gutai artists) who earlier approached art making with a sensibility similar to Jackson’s.
The conceptual brio fueling Jackson’s enterprise hits you the moment you step off the elevator and into the anteroom of the museum’s third-floor gallery. There you’ll find one of his site-specific wall works, which he began making in 1970. These he creates by loading canvases with paint and rotating them circularly against walls, yielding multi-colored target shapes. Once the painting part of the work is completed, Jackson affixes the canvases to the wall with the versos facing outward, bucking centuries-old conventions. Still, the raw beauty of the imprinted shapes, guided by detailed sketches that served as a choreographic roadmap for the artists's bodily gestures, is incontestable; it demonstrates Jackson’s consummate skill as a hands-on
manipulator of materials, as well as his reverence for Jasper Johns, whose target paintings spring to mind as touchstone. This work, like those that have preceded it, will be destroyed at end of the exhibition, affirming Jackson’s desire to leave a minimal material legacy. His reasoning: Museums are already overflowing with stuff most people won’t ever see, so why add to the glut?
Jackson’s version of Georges Seurat’s A Sunday on La Grande Jatte (1884) is another highlight. He replicated the Pointillist masterpiece by accurately shooting (with a pellet gun) colored paintballs at a pencil sketch, executed on a 132 x 198-inch canvas. Jackson, a deer hunter, estimates that he’s fired 90,000 shots at the canvas; yet it remains only 10 percent complete after 18 years (1992-2010) of intermittent work. The rifle, equipped with a high-powered scope, leans against the wall on which the painting is propped.
If there’s one thing Big Ideas makes clear, it’s that Jackson’s reverence for the process of painting far exceeds any affection he has for finished art objects and for art history, which he terms “bullshit” even though he makes persistent use of it. The best examples are his “stacked paintings.” The one displayed here, 1000 Pictures from 5050 Stacked Paintings (1980-2012), features 1,000 painted canvases stacked in an semicircle, showing only drips and loose threads, the result of being piled one atop the other to form an imposing monolith. Jackson points out that he built, stretched, painted and stacked each canvas himself, and that such labor sets his practice apart from the many artist-run factories that now feed the global art market. Rebukes to that model don’t come any better or bolder than this.
The other piece in the exhibition that stands in memory is Ain’t Painting a Pain (2012). This neon-and-paint tribute to his friend and former roommate, Bruce Nauman, served as the title piece for Jackson’s 2013 retrospective at the Orange County Museum of Art, and it’s easy to see why. The neon tubing spells out the word “painting” four times, and that is exactly what you see when you view it up close. At a distance only the title is visible. The deal? Jackson forced paint into the tubing to occlude select characters, thereby creating an anagram worthy of William T. Wiley. It suggests that there is no space into which he can’t insert (and assert) his vision of where paint (and painting) should go. Another apparent Nauman tribute, Confusing Ideas (2018) stands nearby. It’s a walk-through corridor made of vertical steel bars flanked on either side by striped paintings. The painting-as-prison metaphor rings loud, but the real takeaway is the optical confusion produced by the clash of patterns, reaffirming Duchamp’s old dictum about how the viewer completes a work of art.
Big Ideas also takes a couple noteworthy autobiographical detours. Self Portrait as the Queen of England (2018-19) shows Jackson’s visage staring out coldly from an enormous fiberglass body that appears lifeless save for a hand that swivels at the wrist: the universal gesture of royal beneficence. Jackson made the piece after attending the Highland Games in Scotland where Queen Elizabeth II appeared to the delight of those in attendance. The exhibition also includes an immense bronze bust set upside down on a paint-splattered pedestal, the whole thing topped by a yellow box. The artist’s grimacing face, presumably intended to convey the “pain of painting,” eerily echoes the tortured self-portraits Robert Arneson made at the end of his life.
The biggest, most sensational of Jackson’s “big ideas” are his mechanically painted environments. One of them, Little Girl’s Room (2011), forms the centerpiece of the exhibition. It features the bent-over figure of a girl clutching an upside down pink unicorn; both are rendered in fiberglass and situated on a revolving mirrored platform. They appear in a room cordoned off from the rest of the gallery by high walls made of conjoined canvases onto which the artist painted perfect replicas of the rainbow-shapes Frank Stella used in his Protractor series. The floor is littered with two big dolls, giant baby bottles, paint buckets and a hobbyhorse, all of which are splattered with red, blue and yellow paint: a sly reference to Barnett Newman’s series, Who’s Afraid of Red, Yellow and Blue (1966-70), and to Jackson’s longstanding practice of using primary colors for such installations.
This one takes aim at Stella (whose art he calls “decorative”) and, by extension, the vacant materialism of the art world. It may also, judging by the mayhem involved, say something about sullied childhood innocence. If so, it’s undermined by prurient voyeurism. That bent-over girl seen from below with her undies showing? It might have elicited a knowing chuckle in the 1950s or 1960s, back when such things were the norm. (Think of the old Coppertone ad where a dog tears the swimsuit off a toddler, and how it ran successfully for decades.) Today it’s hard to view it as anything but sexist.
Similar difficulties beset Pump, Pee Doo (2004-05), the other major set piece in Big Ideas. The installation is a multi-faceted riff on the legacy of Marcel Duchamp, whose appropriation and display, in 1917, of a urinal set the stage for the widely accepted notion that art can be anything an artist claims it to be. The title is both a play on the Centre Georges Pompidou, where the installation first appeared, and on Duchamp and his urinals, several of which form the heads of eight fiberglass bears. Their upright bodies are outfitted with enema-like apparatuses that, when activated, squirt paint into urinals mounted on an imaginary white-tile wall, creating an ursine piss-soirée. While the conflation of bodily waste with painting is a clever nod to the perceived excesses of Abstract Expressionism, the puerile aspects of it undercut the appeal of the wordplay and the weight of the accumulated references.
Better examples of mechanical painting can be found in other parts of Jackson’s oeuvre where figures aren’t involved. I’m thinking, in particular, of Painting with Two Balls (1997) in which the artist attached a pair of paint-splattered canvas balls to the spinning wheels of a Ford Pinto with riotous results. (Jackson borrowed the idea from a 1960s Jasper Johns painting of the same name that he saw in New York that same year.) Had this or something similar been included here, Big Ideas would be a stronger, more persuasive exhibition. It would have also benefited by the exclusion of two fiberglass-and-metal figurative sculptures, whose slick, shiny surfaces and cartoon features call to mind the kitschier aspects of Jeff Koons.
Missteps aside, Big Ideas left me feeling both exhilarated and vexed. While Jackson seeks to create art that breaks free of history, his work clearly depends on it. So while he's taken painting to places it’s never been, his work is still, in the end, art about art: art that operates inside a universe of interlocking references that not even an artist of his caliber can surmount or pry apart.
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“Big Ideas: Richard Jackson’s Alleged Paintings” @ Crocker Art Museum through August 25, 2019.
About the author:
David M. Roth is the editor and publisher of Squarecylinder.