BY Graham T. Beck in Features | 01 NOV 10
Featured in
Issue 135

Matthew Day Jackson

Fetish objects, totems and mementos; historical signs and the paranormal

BY Graham T. Beck in Features | 01 NOV 10

Matthew Day Jackson is a consummate fetishist. I don’t mean that he’s off in a honey-smothered studio somewhere, smelling shoes or tickling mayonnaise. No, the Brooklyn-based artist has a fetish for fetishes themselves, and not the sexual kind. His art obsesses over specific objects and moments made totemic by their part in a history (whether military, Utopian, counter-cultural, scientific, artistic or automotive) and translates those same objects and moments into exquisitely crafted sculptures and wall-based works that play their own role in a private and tangled narrative. Jackson’s most recent exhibition, a two-part affair at both of Peter Blum’s spaces in New York, reveals a storyteller’s attraction towards mementos which add as much to one world as they reveal about another. In hindsight, this may be the driving force behind his practice since his heralded New York debut five years ago.

In Search of (2010), the 30-minute colour video that gave its name to Jackson’s show at Blum’s Chelsea space, borrows its title, style and sensibility from a 1970s television series (hosted by Star Trek’s Leonard Nimoy) that examined mysterious and paranormal phenomena. In Jackson’s nearly pitch-perfect remake, the narrator investigates various forms of anthropomorphism: figures allegedly glimpsed in video footage of the Earth shot from outer space; faces gleaned in rock formations supposedly photographed by a disappeared artist named Matthew Day Jackson; and ‘Eidolon Objects’ uncovered in the American southwest which, according to the narrator, are either a collective hallucination made real, extraterrestrial in origin, or nothing more than the sum of their empirical parts.

Apollo Space Suit (after Beuys), 2008. Wood, felt, aluminium, steel and plastic. 200 x 50 x 50 cm. Courtesy: Hauser & Wirth, Zurich/ London.

It is in these complex pedigrees that one first sees Jackson’s fascination with the way things accrue meaning (whether factual or fictional) and transform themselves through narratives and associations – from mere things to artistic material to significant markers to fetish objects and back again. In Study Collection VI (2010), a handful of the video’s Eidolon Objects appear in a stainless steel bookshelf that stretches nearly six metres along the gallery wall. There are vases, x-rays, neon signs, a brass ring so big it could be worn as a necklace, an Eames leg brace (described by the video’s narrator as ‘an intricately worked mask’), and many other incredibly seductive objects displayed like precious artifacts. This is a cabinet of curiosities, where a single item can trigger a story that conflicts and cooperates and confounds itself and its neighbours.
Consider August 6, 1945 (2010): the title of this enormous wall-piece gives the date that the US dropped the ‘Little Boy’ atomic bomb on Hiroshima, but the image rendered in charred wood is a topographic view of Hamburg, which underwent a bombing campaign in 1943 that has been described as ‘the Hiroshima of Germany’. With a sleight of hand and a nudge from history, Jackson sacrifices time and space at the altar of signification. His loaded date, potent map and vivid detail spin their own story; one that supplements the past as it elides it, using the power of time, language and association to build a space that speaks of both bombings but exits somewhere else entirely.

Earlier works such as Sepulcher (2003–4), the viking burial ship made of abandoned art projects flying a Piet Mondrian-inspired sail fashioned from punk T-shirts that Jackson rode to notoriety for the 2005 ‘Greater New York’ show at P.S.1 Contemporary Art Center, employ a similar method of meaning-making, but in a nascent stage. There, Jackson’s coming-of-age experiences, captured by fetish objects conjuring modern art and punk and his previous creative efforts combine to make a hybrid ship that connects his past with other pasts, while making some new object in the present. In more recent works, he seems to realize that his personal experience isn’t the only place where potent symbols mix and mingle to make something new. Indeed, Jackson’s latest creations suggest that the world, the past, facts, lies, beliefs, and everything else are susceptible to – or shaped by – a similar process.

Unsurprisingly, considering his affinity for these impossibly conjured worlds, Jackson is a Jorge Luis Borges buff, who hasn’t backed away from nodding to the Modernist master of tricky realms and troublesome totems. In 2008, he mounted an exhibition at Nicole Klagsbrun in New York called ‘Drawings from Tlön’, an overt reference to the 1940 story ‘Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius’ (which is also mentioned by name in the video In Search of). In Borges’ story the narrator details his discovery of a group of intellectuals that hope to imagine a new world into being through fictions set adjacent to facts and sheer mental will. ‘The contact and the habit of Tlön have disintegrated this world,’ Borges writes. ‘Enchanted by its rigour, humanity forgets over and again that it is a rigour of chess masters, not of angels.’ I’m not sure if Jackson’s project is quite as ambitious, or devious, as that, but I’m certain his work is inspired by a similar belief in art’s power to build worlds that become realities complex enough to change the world they inhabit.

Graham T. Beck is a writer and critic based in New York, USA.