BY Joseph Akel in Features | 21 NOV 13
Featured in
Issue 159

In Focus: Colter Jacobsen

Drawing from memory

BY Joseph Akel in Features | 21 NOV 13

Incorporating discarded objects (torn-out pages, LP sleeves, postcards) happened upon on during regular walks while working as a caregiver, Colter Jacobsen’s work reflects an artist at once in touch with his surroundings and yet acutely detached from them. Indeed, through a process of depictive doubling, relying on a technique Jacobsen refers to as ‘memory drawing’, the culturally occluded cast-off instead becomes, for the artist, a means to foreground intense personal reflection.

Amidst the cardboard signs, photographs and clocks that comprised Jacobsen’s installation for the 2005 group show ‘Open Walls’ at White Columns, curated by Matthew Higgs, several images were included from his series ‘Woods in the Watchers’ (2005). Incorporating his memory-drawing technique, they underscore Jacobsen’s continued interest in the affinities between material objects and private histories. Selecting several images of men wearing only watches (taken from pre-Internet ads of men looking for sex), Jacobsen first meticulously copied the anonymous photographs. Following that, he made a second copy of the same image – often reversing the composition in the process – this time from memory, and within the confines of a set 60-minute period. The resulting discrepancies between the two sets of pencil drawings lay bare the nuanced inflections that arise during the process of remembrance. These drawings, for Jacobsen, tally with ‘how the dream of memory gets watered down and changes’.

Untitled [Memory Drawing], 2006, pencil on paper, 46 × 41 cm. All images courtesy: the artist and Corvi-Mora, London

For his 2007 show, ‘Light Falls’, at Jack Hanley Gallery in San Francisco, Jacobsen once again looked to techniques of copying as a means to describe the selective mechanisms of memory. In the watercolour diptych 11 years! (a quight around the sun or new camo into adulthood) (2011), a young girl, sitting at the dinner table, smiles gleefully as she displays a new shirt. The left-hand composition is Jacobsen’s initial direct-copy, while the right is his subsequent reproduction based upon memory. Rather than the unified stereoscopic effect created at the join of mirror images, Jacobsen’s dual depiction gives minute discrepancies momentous effect: scrollwork on the girl’s chair loses its detail; the shape of her face morphs ever so roundly; patterns on her dress becomes less vivid. And yet, the faded accuracy from one copy to the next surprises – not because we can identify what has been diminished, but rather in observing what remains. Memory portrayed in this way become an abstractive process in which loss functions as a requisite for preservation.

That idea of loss, or perhaps more accurately obfuscation, was a significant theme in Jacobsen’s 2011 installation, Take a Deep Breath … Hold It … Hold It (The Vancouver Sun). Pasted onto the interior side of the street-facing window of Apartment gallery in Vancouver, Jacobsen selected a group of obituaries, arranging them in mosaic fashion. Given the diaphanous quality of the newsprint, when illuminated from behind, the obituaries became transparent, revealing advertisements and other graphics found on the versos of the pages. In one clipping, a stock image of a palm tree can be made out; in another, a Byzantine Virgin Mary and even an Archie comic strip are visible – all ghostly watermarks beneath headshots of the recently departed. Along with a pile of cut­tings and unused obituaries placed beneath the window, Jacobsen’s installation gestures towards the transient – and perhaps capricious – nature of institutional forms of remembrance. As with his ‘memory drawings’, what is most conspicuous about Take a Deep Breath ... is not what is lost, but what is uncovered in the process of dislocation.

[Missing Image]

It is this embrace of the fertile potential of dislocation, as an expansive force rather than a foreclosing one, that identifies Jacobsen’s works. For his collection of pencil drawings, titled Faceless Book (2010), Jacobsen once again returned to personal ads for inspiration (this time, Craigslist’s ‘Men Seeking Men’ profiles), selecting images from ads where the subject’s face was obscured, either by the camera’s flash or by the camera itself. As with the illustration C (2010), Jacobsen’s own hand is seen cradling an iPhone upon which the faceless bare-chested torso of a posted profile is being viewed. Staging a mise-en-abîme in which the desired object is twice removed, this work plays on Lacanian themes of sexual objectification, identifying the voyeur with the object of desire; in the heady yearning for gratification, our desires often precede our perception.

During a recent conversation at his San Francisco home, Jacobsen told me about a forthcoming project that will find him travelling along California’s historic Camino Real, a highway built by missionaries linking religious centres throughout the then-Spanish territory. If his earlier drawings and installations could be viewed as attempts to illus­trate the mechanisms of re­mem­brance, Jacobsen now looks to extend his reflections upon memory and copying with a greater degree of physical activity. Indeed, as with many religious rites in which performance and repetition help create a collective anamnesis, Jacobsen’s plan for the Camino Real seems fitting. After all, what are pilgrimages if not the retracing from memory of earlier paths taken on the road to greater understanding? The price of spiritual vision, it would seem, requires a little blind faith. 

Colter Jacobsen is an artist based in San Francisco, USA. Recent solo exhibitions include ‘(…ellipsis)’, Corvi-Mora, London, UK, and ‘Scanning the long sleeves of the shore,’ Gallery Paule Anglim, San Francisco (both 2013). Next year, he will have a solo show at the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego, La Jolla, USA.

Joseph Akel is a writer based in New York and San Francisco, USA. He is currently a PhD candidate in the Rhetoric Department of the University of California, Berkeley.