The American artist gives a tour of his latest exhibition, ‘Core and Strip’, at Grimm Gallery.
200%: The scorched wood painting, ‘Destroyed by Fire’, reminds me of your powerful work ‘August 6, 1945’ a bird’s eye view of the aftermath of bombs dropped on the city of Dresden. Is this painting which features one of Van Gogh’s sunflowers paintings, a continuation of the August 6 painting?
Matthew Day Jackson: Yes, it was one of the prized possessions of a Japanese collector. It reminds me of the art objects that I have and that I love very much because of what they mean to me: how I became the owner of them and the person who made them – all this ties into who I am. This Van Gogh painting was destroyed in World War II on the same day as the Hiroshima atomic bombing: when the collector’s town, a province away from Hiroshima was decimated by aerial bombing. This work is a loose approximation of what it might have looked like, for a brief moment, as it was getting burned. Black is also a color associated with mourning.
200%: ‘Midlife Crisis with Family Inclusion’, is based on the film poster of ‘Jeremiah Johnson’. The original black and white poster shows the title character of the film played by Robert Redford, standing alone in an empty snowy landscape. Over the poster you have drawn yourself and your family standing on skis in skiing outfits surrounded by mountains. You kept the tagline of the film “some say he’s dead… some say he never will be.” The work is disarming, but also feels very intimate and exposed. Could you explain what the work is about?
MDJ: [Jackson takes off his shirt enthusiastically and shows me a tattoo in the form of a circle divided in three parts] I just got this tattoo done by Henk Schiffmacher. [Pointing to his left shoulder] This is a silhouette of the Grand Teton mountain range, this is skiing equipment and that’s a campfire, all of my favorite things together. The names of my family: Laura, Everett, Flynn and our dog Beasty.
We have been living in Wilson, Wyoming and from our backyard we can see Teton Mountains. The scene in the piece closely approximates our ‘backyard’. Being able to ski all the way from the mountain is like a dream. There is no resort, it is kind of wild although it is a very popular backcountry ski destination. I made a drawing of living in a dream which I’m currently trying to do – it’s ridiculous [laughs]. It’s an edited drawing of me as Robert Redford who at the point in which this film was made was totally beautiful. Not like Paul Newman in ‘Cool Hand Luke’, but close. Part of the midlife crisis is like thinking of oneself as maybe more beautiful like Bob or Paul. To have something that maybe one has lost from one’s past. A certain longing to be a person that you’re not or that you are trying to be. Recently, I was going through the list of symptoms of midlife crisis. There’s like forty of them. ‘Get a tattoo’ check, ‘Buy a motorcycle’ check. I have checked off all these things [laughs]. Even funnier is that likely I would have checked most of these things off every year I have been alive.Matthew Jackson: I’m making fun of, THE ‘midlife crisis’, which is a part of our development as we grow older.
What I’m making fun of, THE ‘midlife crisis’, is just a part of life, a part of our development as we grow older. [He removes the work from the wall and starts to read out loud the text on the frame that runs through on the side of the frame as well] “You can not stay on the summit forever, you have to come down again. So why bother in the first place just this? Just this; What is above knows what is below, but what is below does not know what is above. One climbs one sees. One descends, one sees no longer, but one has seen. There is an art of conducting oneself in the lower regions but the memory of what one saw higher up. What one can no longer see, one can at least still know”. It’s a quote by René Daumal, from his book ‘Mount Analogue’. It’s a fantastic read about a man who writes a fictional account of reaching the summit of a mountain that nobody has ever climbed.
The valleys where we live are very flat and the Teton Mountains just rise straight up out of the ground which makes it very excellent for skiing. In order to get to the very steep slopes you don’t have to go very far. One can just walk up to them and climb straight up. Of course it is way harder than this, and one needs the proper equipment and knowledge so that they don’t kill themselves.
The other beauty of these mountains is that they are seven to nine miles wide east to west. I like the idea that in the mountains, as the crow flies, you can go straight for a couple miles and essentially, be in a place that if you were left on your own, you would might never make it out alive. The peak obfuscates the backside. Thinking about this, metaphorically, to climb to the peak and to come back down, I look at it from the standpoint that to climb up is arduous and difficult but to ski back down as elegantly and as fast as my ability allows is like a celebration of life. It allows like to be fully in my body. It’s a direct and sincere work, and also very personal which makes it a bit uncomfortable for me [to talk about]. I also like that my ability is based upon my experience, rather than others who are likely better skiers than myself whom are also likely in better shape.
200%: It seems to me that the work in this show is somehow more autobiographical, more intimate and personal?
MDJ: Yes, there has always been autobiography [in my work] but never so overtly. ‘Midlife Crisis with Family Inclusion’ and ‘Solitude (Mobius Loop)’ are drawings of my likeness on the work and that’s a very uncomfortable place. I’m nearly forty-one and I’m reaching the middle point of my life. It’s totally human to consider where you are and what you’re doing, more than I would have done ten years ago. Some artists really talked about themselves and their struggles in their work so for me to make work, which is more autobiographical is legitimate. Martin Kippenberger and Mike Kelley are really inspirational to me, in terms of how they placed themselves in their work, which gave it potency but also at the same time, it was uncomfortable and quite dangerous. It left them naked at points, and vulnerable. Yes, it is just art, but there is something to lose that is tangible. So, the autobiographical element is probably more prominent in this body of work.
200%: As you get older, do you also dare to expose yourself more in the work?
MDJ: The way that I want artwork to function is layers of meanings and information that don’t ever direct you to just one place. More like a point of meditation, talking about a multitude of things albeit with a focus. Maybe instead of a meditation, what I am after is more like a trance. They’re not just anything. The art works comes with a series of information and it’s up to you and your knowledge base to bring it to the artwork to complement the conversation. As I get older and get closer to the things that I’m talking about, then I will probably appear more in the artwork.
The first part of the Matthew Day Jackson’s tour:
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Interview written and conducted by Thierry Somers
All photographs by Gert Jan van Rooij (except portrait of the artist and close-up of frame)
Courtesy of GRIMM Amsterdam