The American artist gives a tour of his exhibition, ‘Core and Strip’, at Grimm Gallery.
200%: You come from a family of makers. They use their hands in a certain way to manifest their dreams.
Is there a particular piece of work in this show which was really challenging to make?
Matthew Day Jackson: It is true that come from a long line of makers and doers. As far as this show is concerned it all is a challenge and really it is the fuel for continuing. I want it always to be a challenge. I was driving over the pass one day with a friend and we were talking about what we do. He intimated that he likes to solve problems, and my response to him was, “I like to make problems and then try to solve them.” Now as I think about it, I think I would need to add passion and its antecedent, or the eminent outcome of passion, which is shame.
This will sound like an overstatement, but sometimes there is a feeling of shame when you’re making things. Everybody has an experience where you find yourself doing something in a moment of passion, or like an excitement that you never would have done with a sober mind. The hangover of this is usually shame or something that closely approximates this feeling. Visually, I think that I make work that can be really challenging in the way that images or colours are used in a discursive or discordant manner like they don’t fit. In how they don’t fit, it becomes friction that creates the meaning in the work. In forcing these images or colours to come together, I’m not just trying to make the viewer uncomfortable but rather recognising that this point of discomfort is the point I don’t understand. It’s left me kind of out of it somehow and in putting them together is like trying to find the area where my ideas exist within them.Matthew Jackson: Images or colours in my work are used in a discursive or discordant manner like they don’t fit.
Can I say that any work is more uncomfortable than the other? No, I would say that most times everything is uncomfortable. Before I start to make a work of art, I generally know what I’m going to make. I have the image in my mind, what materials I am going to use and the process to be followed, but they haven’t come together yet. In coming together, more often than not, those are times that I make something that’s for all intents and purposes ugly. It’s like “uhh”. I have alienated myself, which I consider to be a good thing. I believe that then I’m truly making progress. Making work in a comfortable manner, where one exactly knows what one is going to make and just execute it, that doesn’t interest me. Comfort is proof that the devil exists.
200%: Can you point out a piece of work in this show where this friction manifests and you have this ‘uhhh’ feeling?
MDJ: This work is called ‘Portrait of an Artist’. I think that everybody would say that is the weirdest work in this show. It consists of an anatomical rendering of a wolverine. The wolverine is a peculiar animal. They eat field mice, ferrets, moles, beavers, wolves, raccoons, deer, elk and moose. They have been known to fight black bears. They attack any animal ranging from small to large in order to survive.
There are some similarities with the wolverine and the life of an artist. Wolverines live separately from one another and you hardly see them in nature. In essence, artists lead a solitary existence as well as most of them work privately in their studio. Also, you hardly see them in society. The only ‘traces’ of their existence is the work that they make. Being an artist is about being able to survive. The artist continuously has to fight for his or her vision that doesn’t really have a place in the world yet.Matthew Jackson: The artist continuously has to fight for his vision that doesn’t have a place in the world yet.
In this work, you see the fur of a wolverine and within it is the human anatomy, the back upper torso of a human being. The carpet has the same colours as the wolverine’s fur thereby camouflaging the wolverine. This refers to the idea that the visual artist is not visible in society, or at least American culture. With this work, I’m suggesting that the artist is maybe a little bit wild, an outsider, in the same way that we artists don’t entirely fit into the cultural spectrum. To a certain degree we are apart, willfully in most cases, to be separated. It’s a little bit beyond choice.
The work consists of a second part – a hair shirt, lovingly made to spec by my mother. It is poetic in the sense that my mother is one of the most ‘devout’ people I know without being directly associated with a particular religion. Her search for understanding her faith is akin to the best artist who spends their life chasing their vision. Anyway, when I went to the Venice Biennale in 2009, I visited the Serbian Pavilion which exhibited the work of the artist Zoran Todorovic. He had made felt blankets from human hair collected from barber shops. The blankets were for sale and I was so excited by the materials, I thought that I must have it. The material made me think of the hair shirts that Mormons wear. These are undergarments which are made of rough animal hair worn next to the skin. They are intended to constantly confront one with your corporeal self [as a penance].Matthew Jackson: To a certain degree artists are apart, to be separated. It’s a little bit beyond choice.
The hair shirt stands for the friction of living or the conundrum of existence. So, six years after finding this work in Venice, and preparing for this show I thought: that’s the partner to the wolverine. For all intents and purposes, this work is the toughest thing to look at. I recognise though, it’s kind of ridiculous to talk about myself as a wolverine or to be faithful like a priest [laughs]. I guess that is where the humour is a part of the work.
200%: You previously made works that are related to the ‘Wounded Knee Massacre’ – a bloodbath created by the American cavalry amongst Native Americans in 1890 – such as ‘Ain’t Dead Yet’, ‘Seated, Not Defeated’ and now in this show with ‘Odalisque’. Do you continue to make works that address the ‘Wounded Knee Massacre’ to keep people aware of how America has treated the Native Americans?
MDJ: It’s not treat-ed. It still exists. The average life expectancy of a man on the Pine Ridge reservation is way lower, by 30 years, than of somebody who lives in Teton county in Wyoming. In the culture where I live, the bombing of Hiroshima, or Wounded Knee Massacre, are often talked about that these events were sort of morally necessary, so the brutality, the violence and the murder is somehow excusable. You can’t cure killing by killing or murder by murder.
The place that I live [America] is an extraordinarily violent place. The brutality of American culture and policy was burned into the flesh of women’s backs in Hiroshima. It’s boiled civilians in bomb shelters in Dresden. It’s with children stripped of their clothing and burned by Napalm during the Vietnam war. The list goes on, and the examples are legion.
For me, ‘Odalisque’ is not in direct response to ‘Wounded Knee Massacre’ but it’s about a larger scope. With this work, I’m trying to understand my own relationship, my own experience in the culture that I live in and I’m trying to make sense of it – but it’s difficult. I live in a country that has the cheapest gas in the world. I buy Levi’s for 50 dollars. I get clean water and nutritious food – but at what cost? 50 cents on the dollar I buy with my tax dollar weapons and murder machines that are often sold to other countries so that they can do the same. That’s my economy. I guess the work is about all of those things. It’s really sad, not ‘sad’ as in being pathetic, but really truly sad. I think having children has deepened this feeling and disgust with the brutality in which I am complicit by participating as a citizen of the United States.
200%: The show also includes work from your on-going series of TIME Magazine covers. TIME’s ‘Cult of Death’ issue was published in December 1978, which was a story about the Jim Jones suicide cult. He founded a town for himself and his followers, but when the FBI wanted to break the cult down, Jones and his followers drank cyanide-laced Flower-Aid brewed in buckets. At the position of the bucket, you have placed Reagan’s mouth rendered in poured lead. It’s quite a disturbing and confrontational work to look at.
MDJ: Yes. These are the last ones in the series. I’m making a declaration: That’s the end of them because the subject is so profoundly depressing. It’s so dark. These are it. I’m not making anymore of these. It was an ongoing series but now it’s not anymore [laughs].
The work is called ‘Man with No Lips. Aside from being a total dick, Ronald Reagan is a Good ol’ Boy’. ‘Good ol’ Boy is a reiteration of being a total dick, so maybe that is redundant. Reagan is as alive as he ever was in the hero worship that he has received in the last decade. People are really using him as a framework to define their conservatism in the American political spectrum.Matthew Jackson: That’s the end of the ‘Cult of Death’ series because the subject is so profoundly depressing.
I think that my initial interest in the ‘Cult of Death’, Jim Jones and the Jonestown people stems from being solitary, from feeling excluded. I recognise that I see the world differently, a little bit strange, relative to how I was taught to see the world. I had moments of feelings of exclusion. Therefore I always wanted to be around people with whom I could have a sort of shorthand conversation. When I’m talking about, “Black like Ad Reinhardt” you understand what type of black I mean and how it is used. I will always understand why people went to Jonestown and it stems from a longing for community, a place of love and trust with my peers. It is also about manipulation, which I feel we have all been manipulated in relationship to the Military industrial complex as being a source of peace.
In confronting certain private aspects of myself in my private life, I’m at a point where this idea of longing for a community has come to an end because I already have that. I am not lonely. I have an awesome family that loves me and consider myself as an integral part of a community. The longing for this community is now melodramatic, it has already happened. So this is the last time that I make a ‘Cult of Death’ work. This is the last show that this topic fits.
In the upcoming second part of the interview Matthew Day Jackson will discuss his works ‘Destroyed by Fire’, a scorched wood painting of one of Van Gogh’s sunflower paintings; ‘Midlife Crisis with Family Inclusion’ (“What I’m making fun of, THE ‘midlife crisis’, is just a part of life, a part of our development as we grow older”), and why the autobiographical element is probably more prominent in this body of work. Don’t miss the second part of this interview and subscribe to our website: http://200-percent.com/subscribe/
Interview written and conducted by Thierry Somers
Courtesy of GRIMM Amsterdam
All photographs: Gert Jan van Rooij, except portrait of Matthew Day Jackson.