New York

Left: Jack Pierson, Silver Jackie, 1991, Mylar, painted wood, and Christmas lights. Installation view. Right: Jack Pierson, Untitled (male nude), 1993, color photograph, 40 x 30".

Left: Jack Pierson, Silver Jackie, 1991, Mylar, painted wood, and Christmas lights. Installation view. Right: Jack Pierson, Untitled (male nude), 1993, color photograph, 40 x 30".

“Jack Pierson, Regrets”

New Museum

“Jonathan Pierson may have been born in Plymouth, Massachusetts, in 1960, but Jack Pierson was invented in Miami Beach in 1983.” So begins curator Bonnie Clearwater’s pamphlet text for “Regrets,” the midcareer retrospective she organized at the Museum of Contemporary Art, North Miami. Not a bad entrée to the artist’s oeuvre, especially taken with the title. Legends, factually grounded or heavily airbrushed, figure prominently in chronicles of artistic self-invention or reinvention—Ed Ruscha in Los Angeles, Gauguin in Tahiti, Poussin in Rome, tout le monde à Paris. And personal legend vibrates throughout Pierson’s art. “My work demonstrates the disaster inherent in the search for glamour,” he has said. It’s tempting to emend this remark to read: “the disaster inherent in my search for glamour.”

Pierson first attracted attention in the early ’90s, the moment of “slacker” and “loser” art. Disparate practices seemed unified as a sort of acid-reflux response to the vanished go-go excesses of the ’80s art world. Rather than fashioning pristine, closed-circuit, autocritical artworks, Cady Noland, Karen Kilimnik, Cary S. Leibowitz/Candyass, Sean Landers, and others created pieces that indulged an apparent squalor, collecting the detritus of personal histories and popular culture and serving up “trash.” Pierson’s 1991 installation in the decrepit third-floor space of Pat Hearn’s Wooster Street gallery jibed perfectly with this ascendant depressive mood. Two works stood out: Diamond Life, 1990, an assemblage of desk, turntable, records, ashtray, etc., evocative of sensuous bohemian disarray; and Silver Jackie, 1991, a small platform with a silver Mylar curtain hung above it. One night, downtown fixture Sharon Niesp performed some songs on this shabby-glam stage.

“Regrets” included these and other examples of Pierson’s art that once made an indelible impression. Unfortunately, however, the overall selection and the installation did him no favors. Clearwater maintains that Pierson’s romantic sensibility unifies works in several media: “[He] approaches his work in various media from the perspective of a photographer or filmmaker capturing the life of his alter ego. . . . Viewed together, his photographs, word sculptures, paintings and drawings are the poetic redemption of his past. Each tells a story of love, desire, loss, hope, or loneliness.” Terms of endearment aside, “viewed together” these pieces transmitted a dispiriting randomness; an inchoate roundup of photographs, drawings, ink-jet paintings, collages, assemblages, and videos suggested that, possibly, the whole is less than the sum of its parts. It looked like a group show, but there was only one artist. This hodgepodge of so many different things denuded them of their quiddity, leaving them marooned in the galleries, bereft of aesthetic pixie dust. The fault doesn’t necessarily lie with the artist, and it was depressing to see works that had stirred a keen response reduced to absentminded shrugs—this and that, here and there, whatever. That “Regrets” featured many works of decidedly lesser quality didn’t help, either.

Even photography, Pierson’s métier, came off strangely. There was no shortage of lovely pictures, but individual works cannot convincingly sustain a retrospective, given a bizarrely biased selection. You’d be hard-pressed to demonstrate that Pierson’s photography consists primarily of images of flowers and gaudy flashing lights, but that’s the impression you get from this exhibition. Don’t pictures of comely, often scantily clad, even stark-naked young men form a large part of Pierson’s photographic corpus? True, there were cute, seductive, clothed guys in attendance. But what about the others, you know, the unclothed ones?

This show included one full-frontal nude, and the manner of its installation underscored at least one of the major problems with the exhibition as a whole. Untitled (male nude), 1993, was sequestered in a small dark room along with a few other pieces. A bare lightbulb hanging from a long cord endowed this room with a theatrical ambience vaguely reminiscent of Pierson’s Pat Hearn show, though there was no indication as to whether this was the artist’s or the curator’s conceit. In fact it was the artist’s, but the overriding message conveyed was one of censorship, not artful installation. The museum bookshop had several Pierson volumes for sale. They’re chock-full o’ naked guys, some in situations that skirt pornography. The contrast between what you could see in the books and what hung on the gallery walls was striking. One would think that the denizens of this infamous Sodom by the sea, a city rife with debauchees of all stripes, could, how shall we say, take it? But this is Florida: conservative, even reactionary in its politics and steeped in religious fundamentalism. Someone must have been leery of causing offense.

Midcareer retrospectives are tricky deals, and Pierson isn’t the first artist to find himself ill served. The art-historical references that Clearwater proffers in her brochure essay strain the curatorial argument: Yeah, Warhol; but likening Pierson to Smithson, Nauman, Beuys, Andre, de Kooning, Rauschenberg, Twombly, Sonnier—and Joseph Kosuth!—is, cumulatively, pretentious and phony. What about Kienholz, who looks very much like an antecedent for Pierson’s sculptural tableaux? Maybe he isn’t cool enough. But superobvious Ruscha sure is. What’s at stake here isn’t the strength and weakness of individual works, but rather the apparent falsification of an artist’s career. Jack, rather than Jonathan, Pierson may have been born in Miami. Too bad his natal soil has proved so barren where this reconsideration of his achievement is concerned. Regrets, indeed.

David Rimanelli is a contributing editor of Artforum.