PRINT January 2005

Matthew Day Jackson

What could a Viking burial ship, Piet Mondrian, and the punk bands Black Flag and Bad Brains possibly have in common? For Matthew Day Jackson they serve as points in a constellation, multiple references that can be overlaid to draw, in his words, “a cosmological chart.” The Viking ship in question is Jackson’s sculpture Sepulcher, 2003–2004, which the artist constructed from unused material in his studio, as well as from bits and pieces scavenged from previous work. This conscious process of recycling extends to the sail, which references a Mondrian abstraction but is entirely composed of Jackson’s old T-shirts. According to legend, a burial vessel should be sailed out to sea, set afire, and sunk. But here the course charted is decidedly forward. In effect, Sepulcher suggests that the preoccupations of Jackson’s youth—modern art, various bands and products—were cast aside to preserve his creative future. He explains, “Sepulcher is a monument to my own death at the age of thirty and is meant to act as a farewell to beleaguered ways of making art, tired thinking, and antiquated strategies for expressing myself.”

Jackson’s Burial Costume (Second Skin), 2004, was laid inside Sepulcher when it appeared in “Relentless Proselytizers,” a group show at Feigen Contemporary in New York last summer. Assembled from the artist’s discarded wardrobe, the piece comprises a jacket with studded epaulets and serpentine camouflage-pattern inserts, military cape, fencing chest guard, dashiki, and various patches—POW, Slayer, Deicide—stitched together to form clothing at once stunning, funky, and dandified. The work resembles a uniform sewn by some urban tribe, appearing as much a relic as an omen of a postapocalyptic near-future—equal parts American Revolution, black power, Road Warrior, and hippie/headbanger. Although conceptual and material elements have always been reciprocal for Jackson, and his subject matter has consistently been politically minded, his earlier work was more traditionally painting based. The artist had never previously incorporated personal items, let alone cannibalized his own work. As Sepulcher and Burial Costume remind us, the past is called the past for good reason.

Jackson’s recent work may be seen as part of a return by younger artists to the handmade, and his fine carving betrays his Pacific Northwest roots. But his craftsmanship and invention always serve a critical purpose. Influenced equally by current events and American history, his projects often address the country’s increasing militarism and idealization of its past, as well as an endangered global environment. Tomb of the Unknown, 2004–, takes its cue from an unlikely source in Eleanor Roosevelt: “What is to give light must endure the burning.” The sculpture, still in progress, resembles a World War II tank barrier and serves as a perch for a wood-burned raven and two carved vultures—birds venerated in Native American culture but otherwise generally despised. One vulture triumphantly spreads its wings as if it were our most idealized bird of prey, the bald eagle. Jackson plans to char the entire main structure, making it appear to have endured a forest fire or warfare, a natural or man-made disaster.

In Jackson’s Brooklyn studio, a number of new pieces are underway. One drawing is a study for a ceramic and stained-glass chandelier that will combine the facade of the Alamo and the form of the Pentagon—symbols, respectively, of America’s “heroic” sacrifice in its conquest of the Wild West and of contemporary Western power. The artist is also poised to transform another icon of the pioneer spirit, the covered wagon. He will build its body with the remnants of some of his old paintings, making its wheels, yoke, and other moving parts with carved and glued scrap wood: Material usually considered worthless will propel the wagon ho! Given the art world’s renewed interest in Americana, it might be easy to mistake Jackson’s project as somehow nostalgic. But he sees no particular valor in the naïveté and violence surrounding myths of the American frontier. Jackson’s image for the wagon’s canvas cover? Intertwined snakes abstracted from Benjamin Franklin’s “Join or Die” cartoon and the slogan/challenge of the Revolutionary War flag: “Don’t Tread on Me.” Could Jackson’s reappropriation be any more timely?

Bob Nickas has curated more than fifty shows of contemporary art in the United States and Europe over the past twenty years. He is curatorial advisor at P.S. 1 Contemporary Art Center in New York.