Richard Jackson’s preferred brand of paint is called BREAK-THROUGH. ‘A new paint chemistry,’ boasts the label, ‘The tradition continues!’ Half-empty tins of BREAK-THROUGH, in primary colours, lay around his cataclysmic installation The Little Girl’s Room (2011), his first solo show in Los Angeles for 20 years. The rest had been pumped through tubes threaded into the penis of an inverted, pink fibreglass unicorn, and exploded out of its anus. Red, yellow and blue paint is spattered all over the floor, the walls, the ceiling and the unicorn himself.
The intended targets seemed to be the carefully rendered rainbow designs painted across the walls – forms that recognizably ape Frank Stella’s series of ‘Protractor’ paintings (1967–71). When Stella first extended his arcs to create circular target shapes (partly in homage to Jasper Johns), it is unlikely that he ever considered that someone might one day take him at his word.
Jackson is, as he often makes known, a keen hunter. He is also a combative artist: he has said that ‘non-objective paintings are simply decorative’, and that Mark Rothko ‘made the same painting for 40 years’. Jackson is a maximalist who aims to synthesize radical figurative content with debates around formalist process. He sets the bar ambitiously high for himself – so high that, though he might not like to admit it, he is almost bound to fall short.
It is hard to know where to begin with The Little Girl’s Room, or where Jackson’s priorities lie. It is at once a vicious attack on a certain kind of high Modernist painting, and a nightmarish psychosexual tableau. A number of West Coast artists of his generation (most prominently Paul McCarthy and Mike Kelley) have also allowed the legacy of Abstract Expressionism to lead them, via performance and installation, into some choppy psychological waters. However, in Jackson’s case the correspondence seems increasingly contrived.
In The Little Girl’s Room, form and content are tightly compressed: its walls are outsized canvases, stretched in the traditional way. By allowing visitors to walk around behind them, Jackson demonstrates their thinness – the flimsiness of their fictive space. On the other side, above the quasi-Stella rainbows, are painted fluffy clouds and gold stars. The eponymous little girl, in glossy, cartoonish fibreglass, wears clogs, bunches and a tiny skirt revealing pink knickers. She revolves on a mirrored podium, grasping her stallion–unicorn around its flanks. Nearby, a grinning clown, collapsed into a cupboard, is triply disturbing when one notices the bottle beside him and the erection pressing through his smock.
That’s not all. A jack-in-the-box hangs by his neck over a truss in the ceiling; his upside-down head resembles that of the little girl – a vacant, yellow smiley logo – and from the tip of his hat, a lake of blue paint has leaked onto the floor. In another corner, a baby doll sits in a faecal black puddle. Around her are bottles of paint that she has been fed through a hole in her mouth, then excreted into disposable nappies, now scattered stickily around her.
There are two stages in the production of Jackson’s work: first, the priming of a sculptural ‘ground’; second, the deployment of paint through pumps, funnels and tubes. Although in this case the latter has taken place in private, it is distinctly performative. He may propose a hands-off approach to painting but Jackson is hands-on when it comes to the automata to which he devolves the job of painterly application. It’s a queasy business. In the gallery’s side room, the sculpture Glass Baby (Yellow) (2008) balances, upside down, on her head; a funnel has been pushed into her anus, and a hole in her bawling mouth is ready to disgorge the yellow paint that Jackson will, on installation of the work, pour through her. In the comparable Upside Down Girl with Unicorn Head (2011), the funnel is in the shape of a unicorn’s head, and the paint will spurt from the little girl’s ears.
What sense can we make of these scenes of children violated by Jackson and his tins of BREAK-THROUGH? Is this pain or pleasure? Are they metaphorical victims of art historical doctrine or sexual repression, or gleeful accomplices in his onslaught against good taste and political correctness? Much depends on the answer – not least our reading of the work’s violence. I have next to no idea what Jackson wants me to think or feel when I see a sculpture like Upside Down Girl with Unicorn Head. Its ambiguity is part of the work’s fascination, but also its abhorrence.
Finally, is this a sincere effort to expand the category of painting, or is it a sarcastic riposte to what Stella is thought, by Jackson at least, to represent? Most artists, these days, don’t feel so burdened by these formalist questions, or constrained by definitions or history. Despite all the piss and vinegar, Jackson forgets to persuade, and we are left wondering why we should share his vitriol.