New York

Jack Pierson

American Fine Arts

Jack Pierson has collected an impressive assortment of brightly colored commercial letters. The plainer ones might have announced the brunch special and congratulated the team above a pancake house, or broadcast messages from a portable ball-hitch sign parked along the roadside in lesser suburbia. The more stylized might have spelled the name of a small-town grocery, or written the logo of a petroleum company towering above the interstate. Some of Pierson’s letters are wood, others plastic; still others are neon, the seedily spectacular medium of nightclubs and bars, casinos and porn theaters.

Pierson has mixed and matched these tokens of our cultural history to write an all-American tale, one whose lines are at once brash and sentimental, in-your-face and down-and-out. Jesus, 1998, has a turquoise neon U that plugs in below; other walls spell out Poor boy and Working class values, both 1998, and Fuck you, 1998. The combination of the homespun and the lurid evokes some kind of national archetype infused with the grim nostalgia we find in Edward Hopper.

The intense colors and clean shapes of the letters are fun to look at and allow Pierson’s work to operate quietly at multiple levels. Configurations resembling anagrams or acrostics tap the viewer’s associative urge. Was not, 1997, for example, spells the two words next to one another vertically, inviting one to pick out new words (“want to,” “so,” “saw”) like in Boggle. Dhope, 1998, keeps the nostalgic medium from overwhelming contemporary relevance. Seemingly borrowed from hip-hop slang, the term lightly makes a point lost to the drug-war discourse: dope is inextricably bound to hope, however low a grade. With the H set inside a big black O, it’s graphically suave enough to put on a T-shirt and market. Pierson balances irony and pathos to keep both viable. In Torment, 1997, the letters “m e n” stand apart from the others on the same scrap of plastic.

Still other works seem to comment more intimately on the exhibit’s Everyman themes; if we take the two quasi-palindromes Erosesor, 1997, and Justcefrep, 1998, as a pair, the latter might remark bitterly—“Just perfect”—on the frustrations of the desire announced in the former. The five drawings in ink on paper, unmediated by found materials, seem to be the most personal of the works. Cold, 1997, features a small c next to an “old” writ large. Help me please, 1998, is drawn as an acrostic with some of the letters elaborately doodled as though in some tedious classroom. Pierson captures the intensity of the work’s junior-high models, at once desperate to express deep feelings to an uncaring world and urgently disguising its messages as art. Pierson’s pop cabalism extracts intimate and powerful connotations from found bits of tackiness, transforming them into expressions of shrewdly observed, vivid feeling.

Tom Breidenbach