Matthew Day Jackson’s good taste

Pac Pobric on Matthew Day Jackson: Something Ancient, Something New, Something Stolen, Something Blue, Hauser & Wirth, New York (until 19 October)

Matthew Day Jackson, Looking into Yosemite Valley, 2013. Photo: Genevieve Hanson

Eclecticism is everywhere in contemporary art. Few artists today would say that they work exclusively in a single medium and much of the art being shown in New York’s contemporary galleries is “multimedia”: painting and sculpture and sound and video and everything else all mixed up together. Proponents say that this approach broadens horizons and allows for new ways of thinking, which is certainly true of the process. But what matters in the end are results. Ultimately, multimedia work has as much potential for success as does painting or sculpture and Matthew Day Jackson’s current solo show at Hauser & Wirth is a case study in its potential pitfalls.

The show is made of various bits and pieces but never fully comes together. At the front of the gallery, there is a custom-built race car titled Victa suspended about 10 feet high on steel beams. (Collectors, take note: “it looks like no other vehicle on the market,” according to the exhibition press release.) Beside it is a circular silkscreen print (House) resembling a moon. It is framed in intricately carved wood. Next door is a 3D-printed reproduction of the scholar stone outside the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, made of basaltic ash and steel. Behind that is a representation of the Yosemite Valley made of steel, sawdust, wood and twine. Both are appropriately titled: Scholar’s Stone and Looking into Yosemite Valley.

What these various things have to do with one another is anyone’s guess, nor does any of the work in the adjacent galleries offer any answers. Does Rodin’s Burghers of Calais—which Jackson has reinterpreted in bronze and retitled Magnificent Desolation—have anything to say to Study Collection X, a steel shelf displaying (fake) human bones and flesh with clothing and tree branches? Possibly, but Jackson does not offer an explanation. The same can be said of a series of carved paintings of topographic views of cities that surround a sculpted pietà which looks as if it has been covered in camouflage paint. Any relationship here is also highly tenuous.

That is not to say that Jackson is some charlatan putting us on, or that he is too stupid to see his own work. Artists work in mysterious ways, and it is probable that he has developed a convincing, but ultimately insular, understanding of how these pieces relate to one another. What Jackson needs is an editor—what every good dealer is—to point out that, outside of Jackson’s own mind, these works have absolutely nothing to do with one another. They are just things in a room.

But even that is a relatively minor problem. The real issue is that Jackson’s eclecticism masks his unwillingness to take any real risks. The work is too benign to ask any serious questions or to offer any meaningful proposals. Several works—Helmet #3 and Inside/Outside (Quartered), both pictures that depict anatomical cross-sections of human bodies—are charming, even beautiful. Others, like Study Collection X, seem like the beginning of a good idea that has yet to be fully worked out. But the art is afraid of looking ugly, and an impulse towards tastefulness pervades, even among the works that are ostensibly shocking. More than anything, Jackson needs to push himself into more uncertain territory if he wants his work to stand out among the white noise of contemporary art in Chelsea.

The issue comes down to a need for more focus. The current work is pulled in so many different directions that it is never quite sure of itself. It is certainly never restrained by any imposed rules, but that also means an overall lack of structure that makes it difficult to imagine what Jackson could possibly be saying. Even the title of the exhibition—“Something Ancient, Something New, Something Stolen, Something Blue”—points to a lack of certainty as to what the art is about. This is not to say that Jackson’s approach is necessarily doomed to fail—it is impossible to predict where good art can come from—but it does bring into sharp relief the problems that eclecticism can foster.

When artists and critics began consciously to reject medium-specific art, the argument was that it was leading to stilted, boring work. They pointed to Morris Louis or Kenneth Noland as artists whose work was about painting to a fault. They were right. But we seem to have come full circle. Multimedia art is now often too tasteful for its own good. This show is a case in point, and serves as a marker for how multimedia art is no longer automatically provocative. It can be just as mild and boring as a bad abstract painting hanging over a modernist couch, which is exactly what’s happening here.

Published Mon, 16 Sep 2013 15:05:00 GMT

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