PRINT May 1998


A horse goes into a bar and sits down. The bartender asks, Why the long face?

That joke is beautiful and not merely dumb because, for an instant, it coerces you into picturing an insane simultaneity—a generic horse’s head merged with a sadsack human face to create something eerily incongruous. The punchline is contingent on that disorienting and ultimately futile mental task, and its pleasure lies in this futility. Jason Meadows’ sculptures inspire a similarly puzzling reverie, asking you to second-guess his odd decisions to wed efficient, Home Depot–esque lumber, particle board, and the occasional fluorescent light fixture to an entirely wacked notion of the hallucinatory, producing work that is at once elegant and user-friendly.

“The hallucination is a unique window, and then it’s also very slippery,” says Meadows, a tall, bespectacled twenty-five-year-old. “My work is something very simple disguised as something very complicated. Hopefully I can make complex gestures that have a time release. So you might look at the work and only see the way it’s held together on a formal level. But later you might only remember its presence, and what you were feeling when you were in the room with it.”

Meadows grew up in Chicago, the son of antique and curio enthusiasts. In high school, he began taking weekend art classes at the Art Institute of Chicago, and he later got his BFA there. He moved west to do graduate work at UCLA partly because he’d been galvanized by the catalogue for Paul Schimmel’s once-notorious “Helter Skelter” show at MOCA, which showcased so-called transgressive Los Angeles artists like Mike Kelley, Chris Burden, and Raymond Pettibon. In Meadows’ first year at UCLA, he made his breakthrough piece, Brown Canyon Module, 1996, a king-size, packing-box-like object containing crisscrossed wooden tiers casually lit by clip lamps, which so impressed the faculty and created such a buzz in the LA art scene that he became one of the city’s most talked about and showcased young artists—despite the fact that he won’t actually graduate until this spring.

Meadows’ sculptures are the product of intensive research into the ways in which principles of plane geometry are used in engineering and architecture, followed by, in his words, “really loose decision making.” This combination of elaborately justified, polished structure and aesthetic impulsiveness creates a kind of mild strobing effect, which is almost but not quite neutralized by the work’s tossed-off but finessed wit. The comical tone is both the first thing you notice about the work and the last thing you remember about any given piece. The cleverest example of Meadows’ ability to equalize the sublime and the goofball is Untitled, 1997, which looks for all the world like a tilted, upside-down picnic table perched atop a pair of intersecting cartoony-hill shapes. The longer you look at the piece, the more you find yourself thinking about the table’s not literally precarious yet entirely impractical angle—an angle that seems to result from an intuitive decision so lacking in sense, yet so sound, that it leaves you feeling both becalmed and lost.

“I’m very interested in the idea that something you know really well, something domestic, could suddenly flipflop and become something different and alien,” says Meadows. “There’s this Borges story I love where sort of out of the blue you get to the bottom of a staircase and you can see everything in the entire universe at once. I’d like to create a way of looking that can give you an infinite view or picture of something. I guess I’m talking about the paranormal, but on a less ridiculous level than UFOs and ghosts, although I love that stuff.”

Asked to mention like-minded artists, Meadows lists a weirdly disjointed array that includes Brancusi, Charles and Ray Eames, Liz Larner, and even M.C. Escher, whose oblique yet corny way of working he finds enthralling. Tony Smith, Charles Ray, B. Wurtz, and Richard Artschwager also spring to mind, as do a number of Meadows’ fellow UCLA grads (among them Liz Craft, Evan Holloway, and Brandon Lattu). But Meadows says it’s contemporary electronic music—particularly techno, breakbeat, and trip-hop—that truly inspires him. He describes his work as “a three dimensional representation of musical ideas. I always get a kind of psychosomatic reaction from music that has to do with the logic of the patterns and systems of rhythm, and I aim for that in my work.”

It’s popular for young artists to reference techno these days, but in Meadows’ case it seems a legitimate point of comparison. Thinking of his work as mixed visually along musical lines, rather than built in a traditionally sculptural way, helps explain its strange, carefully imbalanced combination of high-minded abstraction, furniture-derived imagery, druggy misshapenness, and school-yard sincerity. Take Untitled Collaboration Sculpture, 1998, a tall, lean tower that vaguely resembles a spinal column, which Meadows created with artist Jorge Pardo. Operative only when viewed as a kind of materialization of sound, or a visible pulse, it, like much of Meadows’ work, has more in common with recent recordings by misfit visionary techno artists like Aphex Twin and Luke Vibert than with anything you see around in galleries today.

Still, the most extraordinary thing about Meadows’ work is that—for all his spacey aspirations and well-honed intellectual self-justification—it’s an easy and pleasurable thing to be around. Imagine a playground designed by a particularly soulful particle physicist. It’s hard to picture, but there’s something about Meadows’ low-key yet forward-thinking sculptures that toys innocently with your mind while, at the same time, making you think unusually hard and well about the great unknown’s possible discrepancies.

Dennis Cooper’s most recent novel is Guide (Grove, 1997). He contributes frequently to Artforum.