New York

Jack Pierson

Cheim & Read

Jack Pierson’s latest exhibition comprised three installation spaces, each captioned with a new signage work. Mismatched gold letters (with a white neon T to start) spell out TO YOUTH (all works 2003), both homage and indicator of loss. This hung adjacent to A Vignette Contrived of Various Objects Depicting the Artist in His Fortieth Year, a tableau of an artful life that announces its affinity with window display. Within a sleek, freestanding metal frame, a selection of furnishings and curios—a David Hockney etching of young male lovers, a bust of Apollo (the original “Greek god”) garlanded with roped cowry beads, a headless body of a once fabulous wooden carousel horse cradled on a tattered loveseat—outline the dimensions of a virtual interior. At play in the vicissitudes of youth and decrepitude is the perpetual subject of Pierson’s work: belligerent or beleaguered, the glam queen, lover boy, outcast, or clown. Informed as much by doubt as by rapture, these persona fields employ self-portraiture as a means of departure toward worlds of social relations, homoerotic love among them . . . a theme that ripples here from the bejeweled Apollo to the Hockney to the L’Heure Bleu perfume box to the big Holy Bible to a copy of W. Somerset Maugham’s The Razor’s Edge, a novel about an idealistic youth whose search for meaning in life takes him ultimately to India and into the fold of an Indian mystic.

In the installations that shared the large main room of the gallery, Pierson revealed his personal avatar to be less enlightened guru than melancholy clown. In How It Feels, a scratchy-sounding “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” began to play as the visitor stepped onto a large, black-painted stage, putting us in touch with pleasures long past. By proxy, the music served as accompaniment to two other installations. In Ode to Limelight, a solitary dressing table stands with its mirror aglow, personal items strewn across its surface: a pack of Winstons, some theatrical face powder, a grease stick labeled “Clown White,” and a penny (for good luck?). As described on the opposite wall in A Rose, the performance must have been a huge success: A cascade of ten-foot-high long-stemmed thorny roses—two drawn in charcoal, three cut from gessoed wood—is caught in a state of suspended animation and delirium.

In the innermost space, Apollo returns in Fragment of a Faun on White and Fragment of a Faun on Black, two of a series of six small black-and-white paintings. These also include an untitled image of what could be Christ on the cross (this possibility is amplified by a large-lettered Christ hanging high nearby) as well as a portrait of a beautiful young man identified as “Justinstein”—who might be either deity’s profane counterpart. The theme of salvation versus no life at all echoes in a wall-size charcoal drawing that matches a modular wooden artist’s model with a few crudely scrawled words: down? TIRED? DEPRESSED? YOU MAY BE ELIGIBLE.

It’s just like Pierson to overdramatize turning forty. All the gods you’ve known have vanished and left you an old bag of bones. Life’s over; there are still lyric moments, but you’ve already begun to eroticize the end. Pierson’s bipolar Pierrot materializes at the margins as both deity and demon, with lovers fashioned from mythic beings, messiahs, and monsters alike, his melancholia studded with moments of reverie, his dirty mind intact. This Pierrot has invisibly inhabited Pierson’s art since the early ’90s and by now keeps company with lots of other clowns—Ugo Rondinone’s tired clown, Roni Horn’s hysterical clown, Bruce Nauman’s mean clown, Maurizio Cattelan’s prankster clown. Yet none are as tender as Pierson’s, who clings to ideals of beauty and love. We might think of him in relation to the beautiful dancer in a late performance work by Felix Gonzalez-Torres, in which an elusive young man appeared infrequently, unpredictably, in the gallery and danced himself to a disco sweat on an empty stage, whether anyone was watching or not.

Jan Avgikos