Cluttered with the broken debris of glamour, the universe of Jack Pierson is one in which personal and collective dreams are always incomplete. His recent exhibition was fitted out with such alluring fragments spanning more than a decade, from shattered text pieces to an installation of collected ephemera. Room keys hanging on the pegboard of a vacant motel, plastic letters on two oracular diner menus reading ‘Breakfast: Hope’ and ‘Dinner: Fear’ – through these fits and starts of evocation Pierson’s work describes big dreams underscored by even bigger disappointments. Although it traverses a shared set of American fantasies, its final emphasis rests on sentiments of loneliness and psychological isolation.
Pierson’s art is built on reference and counter-reference. The allusions forming his world are familiar enough: Diana Ross and the Yellow Brick Road, Vegas motels, empty corridors and Marilyn Monroe. The cultural and even emotional landscape suggested by his work is instantly recognizable as one of tawdry glitz and glamour, melancholy and nostalgia. There is an ethos of specificity involved here; every object, whether a book or a photograph or a single scrap of newspaper, carries with it a culturally conditioned sense of significance. In this aspect his work is deeply set into its chosen context and historical period. Nonetheless, individual pieces seem designed to function as a rebuttal of context. A single unidentified page from Joan Didion’s seminal collection of essays The White Album (1979) floats in a white frame; elsewhere a spread of pages clipped from a Diane Arbus monograph reads as blank space, with images removed and only captions remaining. In these works Pierson seems preoccupied with isolating iconic artefacts of culture and stripping back their acknowledged meaning.
The specific quality of Pierson’s work lies in the contradiction between these two impulses, between the overproduction of allusion on the one hand and its near obfuscation on the other. Deftly playing with notions of meaning and interpretation, it hinges on the simultaneous evocation and denial of context. The fragmentary elements that constitute his work are never restored, and their meaning never wholly fixed. In Pierson’s world dreams perennially elude their context and interpretation, and it is for this reason that they are so haunting.
That question of allusion and subversion of reference is closely linked to Pierson’s use of cliché. The sentiments aroused by his work arrive to us cloaked in trite and formulaic language. In many ways Pierson’s art draws its vibrancy from that vocabulary’s persuasive power – from its universality, its emotional efficacy and its sometimes over-determined naivety. At the same time he signals the fundamental paradox of cliché: for all its potential richness of signification it remains simultaneously hollow and unyielding. Certainly there is an element of insistent flatness in Pierson’s work. I (Cracked) (1990) features a gilded capital letter ‘I’, shattered but still intact; similarly the photographic work A Million Dollars (1992) simply features a literal representation of its title.
If Pierson is able to manipulate tired clichés with such skill, it may be because he manages to integrate an ironic self-referentiality into the very world he evokes; a distance that is itself a part of the language of camp. However, the most persuasive exhibits here were those that collapsed his cagily maintained distance, integrating expressions of pathos and, at times, something approaching despair. In the best cases, as in the ‘Yellow Brick Road’ pieces, Pierson even managed to revitalize the power of sentimentality. Goodbye Yellow Brick Road Part II (1990), a segment of ‘pavement’ composed of individually inscribed yellow soap bars, communicates a strong sense of loss even as it remains embedded within a particular set of camp references to Judy Garland, mus-icals, fantasy and the glamour of Hollywood. The brick-like soap bars engraved with the names of friends and strangers resolve into the familiar form of the magical yellow brick road from The Wizard of Oz (1939) and the later Diana Ross disco remake The Wiz (1978), but not without subverting their associations. Pierson’s road leads nowhere; it provides neither hope nor solace. It is in this multi-tiered fashion that his work exceeds the limitations of camp knowingness and referential smarminess, reaching a sustained pitch of emotional power. These may be fragments, but it is as bits and pieces that they achieve their total meaning – as the remains of times past.