PRINT December 1991


THE ESTHETICS OF IMPOVERISHMENT may qualify as a predominant formal idiom of late post-Modernism, but the sprawl of seediness that currently blankets American art is far from homogeneous in its contents and subject matter. In fact, end-of-the-line kitsch has branched into a kind of self-contained pluralism that is anything but monolithic. Consider, for example, the art of Mike Kelley, Cady Noland, Jessica Stockholder, Karen Kilimnik, Jim Shaw, and Raymond Pettibon. What is cultural critique in Kelley is social fiction in Noland; what is strictly formal in Stockholder is idiosyncratic expression in Kilimnik, and so forth. Included in this visually cohesive but otherwise extremely diffused field is the work of Jack Pierson. The squalor of his installations, the crude quality of his text drawings, and the flaws that inflect his photography are familiar snubs to craftsmanship and commodification. Yet the naturalism of his materials, processes, and texts exudes a melancholy that, in turn, is explicitly keyed to autobiography.

“DESCRIBED AS A DRUG USER AND COLLECTOR OF PORNOGRAPHY SINCE THE AGE OF 13,” reads the roughly hand-printed text of one drawing. “WHAT IF THE WORST MOST HORRIBLE DRAWINGS WERE SECERTLY SECRETLY THE BEST?” another fantasizes. “ONE SIMPLE LIE. YOU DO IT TO EVERYONE ELSE. WHY NOT ME?” begs another in tortured lettering. Hard knocks are written all over this obsessively diaristic work, which tends to look as battered as the life it chronicles. Without reservation, Pierson spills his pain and doubt as though making art of his secrets constituted an exorcism from the despair that rims his existence. By self-proclamation and society’s standards, the portrait that emerges is of a born loser. Marginalized by his homosexuality, addiction, and rejection in love (not to mention his profession), he finds company with the vanished American cowboy and with rock stars who die young, with all the James Deans and Willy Lomans of the world, those revered misfits who share the distinction of being antiheroes. As a contemporary member of this dubious academy, Pierson’s persona—vulnerable, revealing, romantic, sympathetic, victimized, and intensely subjective—is in counterbalance to acceptable and stereotypical male behavior. Although the autobiographical impulse of his work claims affinity with the inspiration of much women’s art of the ’70s, and it could thus be said that he contributes to the reinvention of male language, there is an essential difference between his work and theirs. Pierson may pour his heart out in making art, but that doesn’t mean he pours his heart out in order to advance any cause. For all its intimacy and late-night confessional angst, his work has an “after the fact” quality that reverberates with indifference.

So what if he’s not the greatest artist in the world. So what if we don’t like him or his two bit friends, or, for that matter, if they haven’t liked him. So what if no horizon of redemption ever dawns. Pierson’s indifference is comprehensive enough to function as a psychological defense (will we, too, reject him as an artist?) and to allow him, at the same time, to transgress a few of those ever-remaining rules about the limits of art. Take, for example, his large-scale Cibachrome print photographs: under- or overexposed, sent to the worst labs in the city for processing, unceremoniously pushpinned to the wall rather than being archivally framed. Proper technical procedure is thrown out along with traditional distinctions that segregate conceptual, commercial, documentary, and snapshot photography.

Portraits of friends, some interesting as images and some not, landscapes and interiors beautiful enough for a vacation brochure, pictures of flowers, hunky boys lounging in bed or on the beach, and lots of self-portraits that unhesitatingly qualify as vanity shots evince no rigor, no shame, and no attempt to explain the necessity of their being. As installations, the photographs hold together as a narrative slice of an itinerant life punctuated here and there with memorable encounters. Individually, however, that narrow content quickly evaporates and an image such as Tory, Sunday Morning, 1990, a simple portrait of a young child patiently and somewhat apprehensively submitting to the camera’s click, takes its place with a million other commonplace photographs showcasing the lovable innocence of adorable children. Rather than introducing a new kind of kitschiness to an arena already crowded by genre scavenging from suburban art forms, Pierson indulges his sentimentality at the expense of what people will think. In Palm Springs, 1990, standing under the blazing sun in some lush backyard, a blond and buck-naked Pierson poses in the sort of stiff and infor- mational way that characterizes snapshot self-portraits sent to the “personals” sections of sex magazines. The directness of this image, not to mention its unabashed regression to beefcake photography, once one of the few available means of gay representation and a mode that many artists have recently sought to transcend, is typical of his utter disdain for prevailing taste and convention. Leaving himself wide open to criticism, Pierson blows off the audience’s response in advance.

Giving the audience more than they ask for—and before they ask for it—Pierson’s autobiographical indulgences may, indeed, put him one step ahead of the game he initiates. Blatant personal disclosure, although shunned in critical discourse and downplayed in this age of postauthorship, nevertheless has remained as a reservoir of meaning in art. After exhausting public and cultural levels of meaning, legions of historians, critics, and collectors prowl for clues to secret meanings in the details of the artist’s private life. As much as the art itself, the artist becomes the property of all who own his or her art. Such a preoccupation may be as symptomatic of the still-felt need to belong to an elite and privileged group as it is reflective of the sublimating of desire through the media. A constant and lifelong companion, a reliable placebo against all the lonely nights and empty moments of life, the media wholesales experience without the debilitating side effects that can be caused by real involvement. From its pantheon of heroes and heroines, living and dying in inexhaustible profusion, we create and recreate our autobiographies by remote control. We care less about the intimate details of the lives of individuals like Jack Pierson, whom we don’t know and, if he is to be believed, we might never want to know, than we do about the possibilities of slipping in and out of another’s persona. Silver Jackie with Blue Spotlight, 1991, a tawdry, tinseled, tiny stage backed into a corner, draped on two sides with silver Mylar, and illuminated with a blue light, welcomes us as players in a grand fest of incidental identity. Recalling Andy Warhol’s metallicized and variously hued Jackies and Marilyns and Lizes, Pierson’s Silver Jackie freeze-frames the 15-minute flash of fame (the contemporary version of redemption and immor-tality), rendering it continuously available and perpetually empty. No permanent residency can be established here; rather, the spotlight is reserved for the continuous parade of bodies, per-songs, and scenarios that capture our imagination and through which, however briefly, we may exercise and inhabit a kaleidoscopic range of selves.

Though stemming from his personal experience, it’s beside the point that we interpret the “been down so long it looks like up” spirit of Pierson’s work as specific to the artist. If autobiography feeds voyeurism, it must also accommodate—and perhaps more importantly so—narcissistic identification. With the appanage of humor (ample doses rescue his work from maudlin self-pity), indifference (the mask we all periodically and protectively don),and melancholy (that stresses the isolation of the individual in a hostile world), what matters is that whether we recognize his struggles as our own, or credit his art as an astute representation of the multiple little under-cover strategems we use to get through our lives, Pierson has the “come in/get out” ambivalence of human desire so right we can’t help but be seduced by its “truth.”

Jan Avgikos is an art historian and critic who lives in New York.